Bernie Krause might be the Zelig of 20th-century electronic music. Run your finger down the back of LP jackets from the ’60s, squint hard, and you’re likely to find Krause’s name popping up in small print on all sorts of albums. If you were a musician who wanted a shot of techno-gimmickry from that decade’s newest toy — the Moog synthesizer — chances are, you’d have hired Krause. The Doors and the Byrds did. Or if you were a filmmaker who wanted a certain effect that only electronic gadgetry could summon, you might have put him on your payroll. Those slow-mo helicopter whumps in the opening scenes of “Apocalypse Now” were brought to you in part by Krause.
But Krause’s latest book, “The Great Animal Orchestra,” might come as a surprise. Since completing a doctorate in bio-acoustics more than three decades ago, Krause has become one of the world’s most outspoken — and unusual — environmentalists. Part anthropologist, part technician, part musician, he lugs his recording equipment around the globe, seeking to capture the vanishing soundscapes of our rapidly changing Earth. If you ever wanted to hear ants sing, beavers cry or corn grow, Krause’s your man. His book movingly conveys his anger at the unseen toll that human-generated noise has exacted on the natural world — and why this matters.
Western music, according to Krause, has divorced itself from its primary inspiration: the natural world. In clear-cutting forests and paving over meadows, we’ve managed to deprive ourselves of a decent tune to whistle past our graveyard.
He begins his story with a journey to Lake Wallowa in Oregon in 1971, where a Nez Perce elder offers him a music lesson. Crouching by a stream on an autumn morning, he is instructed to remain silent. As gusts of wind whip past, the air is filled with a mysterious “combination of tones, sighs and midrange groans . . . a cross between a church organ and a colossal pan flute.” To his surprise, he discovers it is the sound of wind blowing across the tops of a cluster of nearby reeds. “Now you know where we got our music,” concludes the elder triumphantly. “And that’s where you got yours, too.”
Krause lovingly invokes the sacred experience of the natural soundscape throughout his narrative. But he goes further, suggesting that the “geophony” of wind and rain and the “biophony” of the animal kingdom not only inspired the earliest human music, but might very well offer the finest artistic experience on its own terms. He extols the “wonders of the terrestrial orchestra” and draws repeated comparisons to the greatest works in the Western canon. For example, a dawn chorus of birds, baboons and insects is “so rich with counterpoint and fugal elements” that it reminds him of Bach.
The list goes on, all of which tends to undermine Krause’s point that “Western song hasn’t been inspired by the biophony for thousands of years.” If this were true, why would Krause hear in the surges of stridulating insects the same rhythms and structure of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? Did Western composers know something Krause doesn’t?
I suspect that Krause’s main objection to, say, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is that it explores the human response to nature rather than nature itself. Like many environmentalists, he has a misanthropic streak. He extols the “stunning sense of tranquility” after Sept. 11, 2001, and expresses wonder at Chernobyl’s “remarkably rich fusion of natural sound that is absent humans.” All of which is understandable to anyone familiar with the cacophony of urban life. An orchestra of birdsong in the stillness of the morning might not be Beethoven, but it’s still one of the greatest shows on Earth.
Mitchinson is a Toronto-based journalist.
THE GREAT ANIMAL ORCHESTRA
Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places
By Bernie Krause
Little, Brown. 278 pp. $26.99