by Michael Buozis
I set up my laptop and place a Shure SM-57 microphone on the edge of one of the mesh seats of the aluminum chairs on the back deck of my house in Philadelphia. The neighborhood I live in with my family is densely populated, but suburban in its layout. Most streets are residential. There’s a strip of businesses struggling to stay open on the main thoroughfare – a hearing aid store, a shoe repair shop, a few dollar stores, an antique kitchen appliance seller, and too many pizzerias and Chinese take-out joints. These businesses are faring better than the many shuttered storefronts – the family grocer, the car dealership, the gas fireplace showroom, the embroidery shop. People drive through the neighborhood. Not many stop and get out for a stroll. We live a block off of the main street. Capturing the ambient sounds outside my new home, for the hour between 7:50 and 8:50 one early June evening might reveal things not so apparent when the dissonance of combined senses, the distracting sights and smells, reduce the noise to a mere accompaniment, meaningless and signifying nothing.
At 7:50:47 a baby cries a few dry duck-like quacks and then stops. I can tell, listening back, it is not my daughter. At 7:51:58 the siren of a fire engine whines, slowly rising and then disappearing in the distance. At 7:53:30 someone draws metal utensils over earthen dishes in their sink. My neighbors must have their windows open. At 7:54:00 the wind picks up and ruffles the leaves, sounding like a flash of water in a hot pan, sizzling violently for a moment and then quickly trailing off. At 7:55:51 a dog barks plaintively. The sound is in the high part of the midrange. He’s a small dog and he wants to go inside.
At 7:57:18 a small plane passes over. At first the engine moans, as if accomplishing an incredible task, but as it flies directly over it roars with undeniable power. At 7:58:40 a helicopter passes over. Initially, the whirring of its prop blends together in a faint and singular, rolling sound, but when it’s overhead, the spinning blades cut out distinct thumps in a deafening war-like crescendo. At 8:00:00 the bells of the Leverington Presbyterian Church ring out the hour as a big plane roars above. These two sounds silence any audible signs of wildlife.
As these distinct sounds occur throughout my recording, a base level of constant and repeating sounds persist from the very beginning to the very end. The engines of cars and trucks fluctuate like waves, travelling the whole spectrum of frequencies, from a low constant hum to a ceasing hiss. The chirps of crickets or some other insect persist in the most upper registers, an ever-present but slightly varying rhythm. Various species of birds tweet, trill, chirp, and scream. These are the clearest sounds I record. Buses and large trucks groan as their transmissions work. At least six window air conditioner units hum, occasionally jumping for a second as they spit trickles of water onto the sidewalks and into the grass.
At 8:00:27 a screen door opens, its hinge snapping emptily. Heavy feet fall on a wooden deck and glass bottles clatter into a plastic recycling bucket. At 8:01:56 a man finally yells at the little dog and the yapping stops. At 8:02:17 another plane flies overhead, larger but more distant than the earlier aircraft. At 8:03:27 a bus’s breaks squeal and air hisses out of its suspension. An automated voice announces a message to the passengers too muffled to decipher. At 8:06:16 another distant, large plane passes. At 8:08:00 a police siren appears in the distance, more compelling than the fire engine’s siren. It lasts much longer too, still audible on my recording well after two minutes of its initial appearance. At 8:12:40 the police siren faintly comes back into focus, right before an air compressor in my neighbor’s garage sputters and comes to life. This causes a larger dog to bark. The siren lasts another two minutes, switching at times to the aggressive garble impatient officers use to scare drivers into letting them pass. At 8:15:00 the birds start chirping more insistently and consistently, though they are still interrupted and silenced often by vehicular and air traffic. At 8:17:50 a few more bird species join the chorus. I count at least seven different types of voices, though I cannot identify the species by their songs.
This is the soundscape of Roxborough at dusk. While I listen to the playback, I can’t distinguish, at times, between the recording and the insistent snare beat of the music blaring from my neighbor’s garage. This is the same neighbor with the air compressor that boots up too often in the course of a day. He and his buddies kickstart their straight-pipe motorcycles and leave them running in the driveway along the side of my house, before roaring off, too fast, down the street. I don’t capture this sound in my recording, but I know it would have a similar effect to the helicopter passing over – a complete silencing of the little remnant of wildlife present in the soundscape. Still the wind hitting the diaphragm of my SM-57 is the only sound strong enough to register as a graphic blip on the spectrograph in my recording software. Though the biotic elements can be silenced, the abiotic forces of nature are immutable.
When I listen to Bernie Krause’s soundscapes, I can tell they are not recorded on an outdated laptop with free software and a unidirectional vocal mic ill-suited to pick up ambient sounds. Krause’s recordings capture a spectrum of frequencies in crystal clear resolution, most of which my backyard soundscape only hints at. But that’s all beside the point. The very soundscapes Krause seeks out are by their nature richer and more varied than Roxborough at dusk.
In the Brazilian rainforest, a puma’s purrs and growls rumble with such resonance as to fill every space among the branches of the trees. When the cat leaves, a vast array of insect calls are revealed as a large swath of sound with uncountable voices, punctuated by the croaking and hiccupping of birds. Each animal inhabits a specific place in the spectrum of frequencies, and though the puma’s purrs absorbed most of my attention, the birds and the insects are not silenced by this predator’s roars as they are by the helicopter or the straight-pipe motorcycles.
In Belize, rain provides a bed of white noise, punctuated by thunder. If you listen closely, you can hear birds playing in the undergrowth of the forest. They do not halt their activities even for the deafening thunder.
In Costa Rica, the rain sounds entirely different from the rain in Belize. It’s much more hollow, yet the way it hits the leaves is much more resonant. If rain can sound dry, the rain in Costa Rica sounds dry. A pig squeals, and the crenellation of its vocal cavity audibly scratches like a güiro or a straw pulled through a soft drink lid. Birds screech and sing, chasing a swarm of buzzing insects through the air. The small emptiness of a bird’s beak is captured in the recording.
Bernie Krause has been travelling the world for well over forty years, recording the soundscapes of the last truly wild places on earth. Urban parks, or even national parks or most wildlife refuges, fail to meet Krause’s criteria for wildness. His life’s passion has been to find those disappearing locations where no human sounds can be heard, where the primeval soundscape remains untouched, and to record those soundscapes with the best available audio equipment. In his new book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, Krause brings us on a sonic trip around the world, from the beaches of Big Sur, the Indian Ocean and the North Atlantic, to the glacial calving range of southeast Alaska and the mountain jungles of Rwanda.
It seems ironic, then, that Krause came to a love of the natural world and its wild soundscapes through a close study of the elementary aspects of sound in synthesizer music and effects for Hollywood science fiction movies in the 1960s. But when he began collecting sounds for a contracted album at the venerable record label Nonesuch, he realized the biophony, or soundscape of a biohabitat, is a useful and telling indicator, a piece of evidence essential in determining the natural health of a place. There is no doubt that Krause’s recordings of Brazil, Belize, and Costa Rica, in the examples above, show a much greater wealth of biodiversity and density than my backyard recording of Roxborough. But what about two less obviously contrasting habitats? Krause records soundscapes of forests and meadows before and after more subtle environmental degradation and compares the richness of each spectrograph, a graphic representation of the sounds he captures. Minimally invasive tree culling dramatically reduces the population of subtle wildlife indicators that are certainly not visible to the naked eye, such as insects and some perching birds.
Additionally, Krause’s spectrographs, which illustrate The Great Animal Orchestra, reveal another interesting idea – that each biotic element of a soundscape fits in a particular niche, almost like a line or space on the musical staff. Birds and insects populate the upper registers. Small mammals and abiotic elements, such as wind and water, fit in the middle sections. Large mammals and thunder provide the bass in this illustrative concept. But this is about as far as Krause goes in connecting the soundscapes of wild places with the organized music of early cultures.
Thankfully, though perhaps misleadingly, Krause’s book focuses much more on the ecological impact of human civilization, specifically in the realm of auditory infringement on the natural world. He acts as quite an iconoclast when he suggests that the pronouncement of man’s dominion over nature in Genesis is responsible for the desertification of Eden. Krause also reminds the oblivious weekend naturalist set, with their dog-eared Lonely Planet guides, that John Muir removed two Indian tribes from Yosemite so well-heeled white members of the Sierra Club could more peacefully enjoy the scenery. Which is to say, Bernie Krause is unafraid to buck the orthodoxy of ecological discourse. You’d have to be fearless to last nearly fifty years recording the soundscapes of the natural world, arguing to deaf academics that your product is key in determining the health of a biome. Many of the most disruptive forms of anthrophony, human noise, compromise the life cycles of sensitive wildlife species, even killing some through disorientation. Some generations of the U.S. Navy’s sonar systems can stun and beach whales hundreds of miles away from the source.
However, Krause is not only concerned with the natural world, separate from humans. The physiological effects of noise, not just on the biome, but on individual humans, as shown in The Great Animal Orchestra, is alarming, especially for someone living in an increasingly noisy part of the world. It turns out my neighbor’s straight-pipe motorcycles might give me a heart attack and give my daughter a learning disability. The white noise systems installed in many offices to block out distracting sounds and to provide a semblance of privacy in open cubicles, do not relieve stress, but instead produce more tension. Our manmade attempts at calm and contemplation are no substitute for the relaxing sounds of nature. Though, again, we’ve perverted ourselves so much so that most nature sounds worry us. If we can hear the crickets out our open windows, the ambience is a little too quiet for many. We’ve all become Woody Allen, reassured by the blaring of sirens on our city streets throughout the night. Maybe not.
The ray of hope Krause provides in The Great Animal Orchestra comes from an odd source, as it did in Alan Weisman’s 2007 book, The World Without Us. Chernobyl, an environmental catastrophe, in its exclusion of humans, stands as an ideal wild place with a rich diversity and density of wildlife, both flora and fauna, far surpassing managed wild places where human use is prevalent. The message is clear, if we want to preserve wild places, we need to stop futzing around in them so much. Recreation, if it means dirt bikes and snowmobiles and rifles and jet skis, does not equal preservation. Only a reduction of careless human use, along with other restoration measures, can restore any biome to the richness of a primeval wild place. Let’s hope we learn this lesson before all of the soundscapes Krause has recorded disappear forever.
Discussed in this essay:
The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, by Bernie Krause. Little, Brown and Company. 2012. 277 pages. $27.
Photo Credit: charlesveasey.net