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.