Krause’s soundscape

Bernie Krause, author of The Great Animal Orchestra, is an affable personality and elegant writer full of anecdotes to share with a sympathetic audience. Officially he is a musician transitioned to audio engineer. Sound, he says, is “my mentor.” Over the years he moved from creating Hollywood movie music to the search for natural soundscapes, and this fine book tells his story, though the title suggests it is only about animal sounds when it is really much more.

Three basic types of sound are geophony, biophony, and anthrophony. Geophony is sound generated by the earth: wind, water, thunder, earth movements, typically. Biophony is sound of animal life: buzzing, howling, roaring, chirping, singing. Anthrophony is sound generated by humans, “the cause of most noise” from the point of view of the planet.

In turn, anthrophony falls into four categories of sound: electromechanical, physiological, controlled, and incidental. Electromechanical sounds are generated by technology, from tools to transport to appliances, all representing byproducts of industrial and technological civilization, all relentlessly coming to dominate our daily environs. There are fewer and fewer places on the earth that are not within encroachment of electromechanical sound. The hallmark of civilization ought to be music, dramatic speech, poetry and song. But, alas, for modern times it is machines.

In contrast, our physiological sounds are modest: talking, sneezing, coughing, breathing. Similarly, our controlled sounds can largely be managed: music, performances, incidental sounds like our footsteps, door-knocking, our rustling clothes.

Anthrophony, writes Krause, is noise largely because it is an acoustic event that “clashes with expectation.” We will never really get used to the constant purr of a computer, the roar of a jet, the idling of a truck, the claxon or siren of an emergency vehicle. Our physiology certainly does not, even when we tell ourselves it is simply modern life. John Cage went so far as to call the urban cacophony of the city music, as much as any other contrivance of human beings. But Krause knows better, distinguishing control as that which is still within the purview of the individual.

But in nature, where places without anthrophony are fast disappearing, anthrophony changes environment as radically as the human presence of technology appears — from obscure humming radio frequencies with presumed but less documented effects on animals, to the wholesale disruption of habitats as precursors to human destruction through mining, burning, demolition, deforestation, and fishing.

Krause refers to R. Murray Schafer’s assessment that “humans like to make noise to remind themselves that they are not alone (and to remind others, with whom they may have only a passing relationship, that they exist).” Sometimes this noise we make is desirable and we call it acoustic “information.” Sometimes it is not and we call it “uncorrelated acoustic debris.” Increasing evidence shows that undesirable or irrelevant sound or noise interferes with cognition, learning, concentration, and ultimately, with behavior. Surely there is a correlation between the increase of industrial and technological noise and the feverish desire of modern society for more — not less — anthrophony. Not only in media but from restless individuals to proponents of social and virtual networks and ideologies of control and production, the louder the noise the greater the imagined power.

Krause ably documents the identification of sound and the loss of silence and stillness (50% of the sites he once recorded as free of anthrophony are now lost, left only in his archive). The essential shift of modern civilization away from the past, away from nature, can be documented via sounds. Noise is civilization, and the history of noise is the history of civilization.

Krause concludes with a moving passage from a Nez Perce elder, which ends:

I wander alone only in the higher mountains
And the heads of the streams all the way through.
I’m never down anywhere where it’s civilized country.
I’m way up in the wilderness.
Years to come people will lose their only child
And they’ll have the feeling just like I have: sad.
And that’s why these days we are that way.
Sadness comes to us.

Berry’s shortfall

The late Thomas Berry (1914-2009) tried desperately to bridge the scriptural religions of the West (specifically Christianity) with an ecological or environmental spirituality. He was at times eloquent in describing the origins and nature of the chasm, the identity of modern enlightenment views of nature with those of he scriptural religions, the character of the ecological crisis resulting from a rapacity and consumption that views nature as an object to exploit.

But Berry fell short of fully comprehending the late awakening of Western humanity to what it has done to the world of nature:

In traditional Christian thought, creation is generally presented as part of the teaching on “God in himself and in relation to his creation.” But this metaphysical, biblical, medieval, and theological context for understanding creation is not especially helpful in understanding the creation of the Earth and of the universe, as presented in scientific textbooks of Art or life sciences. …

While Berry here identifies the origins of Western thought (he elsewhere adds the Enlightenment), he only says that its categories of thinking are “not especially helpful.” He does not explain why it should have thrived and conquered and remained the vehicle for discussion, the lingua franca of Western thought even as it reshapes itself as critique. He does not explain what drove (and still drives) this mode of thinking, how it propels all of the values and institutions of modernism, how it overtakes the very structures of thought, let alone the technology and social discourse.

Not merely unhelpful, this mode is demonstrably inimical, but tightly-bound to culture so that no logical gaps occur and no ethical gaps are possible, although Berry and others wish it otherwise. So tightly does it bind thought that even the self-conscious Western thinker cannot escape the paradox of believing that new revisionist ways of thinking about the same things will promote a reform, a solution. Hence, Berry hoped that such new theorizing would perform a breakthrough:

This new narrative enables us to enter into the deep mystery of creation with a new depth of understanding. It is our human version of the story that is told by every leaf on every tree, by the wind that blows across the fields in the evening, by the butterfly in its journey south to its winter habitat, by the mountains and rivers of all the continents of the Earth.

A lyric passage, but it does not show exactly what the objects of nature will teach Western observers — or, rather, what Westerners will in fact learn, despite having had centuries to do so, and especially now that the time left is dwindling so quickly and the effects loom irreversibly.

Nature teaches indigenous peoples, but only because their consciousness never renounced organic embeddedness with their natural habitat. Nature teaches Eastern thinkers because they are rooted in philosophy that extends back to and originates in natural philosophy and expression versus dependence on human reason. (Even Easterners like Krishnamurti overemphasize reason and logic in attempting to “improve” Eastern modalities of thought.) But the building materials for a Westerner are already inadequate, broken, and inaccessible, and cannot use the same categories and structures that got us here in the first place.

Alternatives to a disciplined natural philosophy based on ethics but also emotion and taking into account what we know today of culture and technology have not fully matured in the West, or the East given the character of the problems. Alternatives may include nature philosophies of Jungian or Gnostic or phenomenological exploration. And there are the literal applications of living simply that have no particular philosophical apparatus attached to them, if that is possible. But any effort at this point is likely to be contrived, manufactured, thought-out, hampered by culture and its vocabulary, even a philosophy of solitude that would reunite the human being with its source, however we define it, or however we don’t define it.