Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Great Animal Orchestra

A very wet day and 760Mb data to use up before it renews on Tuesday is a fine recipe for sitting inside and blogging. Happy New Year to readers - may miracles happen this year for all things on this glorious planet.

My list of interesting books is growing weekly and I've had a fine time delving into unknown waters. The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause is a fascinating read, accompanied by examples of the book's soundscapes on his website at

Bernie Krause started with sound before he was 4 years old; first learning the violin in 1942 and then the guitar. He was an early adopter of the Moog synthesizer and Dolby A301 noise reduction and a pioneer in recording soundscapes (see the Wikiepedia definition here) and bioacoustics. Check out his website at for more information.

The book touches on the author's early history with sound but, for me, the spell he weaves is relating how sound affects the lives of living things. He splits sounds into three categories - geophony (sounds made by non-biological sources, eg thunder), biophony (sounds made by non-human, non-domestic biological sources, eg frogs) and anthropophony (sounds made by humans, eg jet ski). What sounds were made 16,000 years ago? How has it changed with man's spread around the globe? How and why do living things make sound?

The narrative is easy reading; the technical stuff a bit more challenging for me but well-explained. When I got double-glazing installed here, I really missed not being able to hear the night-sounds. I toyed with the concept of putting in hardware that could pick up sounds outside the house and play them to me inside. I read a bit on the internet but got bogged down with how to achieve it and put the idea in the too-hard basket. Krause has re-ignited this idea and I'm more aware now of what I will need. Splash Audio will be my next point of call once work quietens down. There are several websites with recommendations for hardware but not many recent ones - and of course technology that's 5 years old is no longer available to buy. Will keep you posted!

A few startling facts from Krause's book...
  • In 1968 there was 45% of old growth forests in the Lower 48th (USA) still standing; by 2011 there was less than 2%
  • 83% of land area in the Lower 48th is now within 2/3rd mile (1.07km) from a road
  • recording one anthrophony-noise-free hour of material takes more than 200 times longer than 40 years ago
  • In Krause's estimation, anthrophony can be heard in more than 80-90% of wild habitats much of the time
  • Sound levels in movie trailers with THX or Dolby Digital sound systems are now more than a factor of six greater than they were in the early 1990s
  • More than half of Krause's soundscapes (15,000 species, over 4,500 hours) can no longer be heard or are seriously compromised
How quiet is your place? How long can you sit outside and listen to biophony and geophony without hearing man-made sounds? I'm very lucky here but even so, there's regular flights overhead and a few vehicles every day. What effect does sound have on humans and other species? A low flying jet over a Swedish zoo in 1993 panicked animals into killing their offspring, 23 in total; Navy sonar testing in the Bahamas in March 2000 resulted in the stranding and deaths of Cuvier's beaked whales; vessel noise in Alaska was thought to be the reason that humpback whale numbers decreased.

The book also explores the origins of music based on the biophony/geophony of the environments the people lived in - waterfalls, rivers, the sea, birdsong. Krause calls it an "acoustic mirror - it reflects our culture and our surroundings at any point in time". There are many examples that are lightbulb moments for me - if I have piqued your interest put this book down on your 'to read list'.