Your imagination is doing the work to The large animal orchestra – you just sit in a dark room and listen.
Currently at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., until May 22, the exhibition immerses visitors in soundscapes of remote regions of the planet: seven of them, from the tropics to the tundra. No animal sequence accompanies this symphony of wild animals. It is first and foremost audio, in a visually stimulating world.
âThe basic message is that the soundscapes of the natural world are the voices we need to hear in order to moderate our behavior,â says series creator Bernie Krause. He has spent decades traveling the world and collecting thousands of hours of animal habitat recordings as a soundscape ecologist.
His 2012 book, The large animal orchestra, helped to germinate this traveling museum exhibition. Prior to this iteration of his career, Krause was a pioneering musician in several genres. Born in Detroit in 1938, he began playing the violin at the age of five. By the time he was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, he had previously performed professionally with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
âI was educated in school playing guitar as an auxiliary musician at Motown,â Krause told NPR. âAfter I graduated, I came to Boston and the weavers were playing and giving concerts in the Boston area. “
The founding folk group was looking for a replacement for Pete Seeger’s seat; Krause auditioned and got the job. He sang and played banjo and guitar with The Weavers until the band disbanded in 1964. Then, enchanted by the new frontiers of musical possibilities, he headed west.
At Mills College in Oakland, California, Krause studied with acclaimed avant-garde composers Pauline Oliveros and Karlheinz Stockhausen and became a force in the burgeoning field of electronic music. Together with musician Paul Beaver, he helped introduce Moog synthesizers to popular music and cinema.
âWe worked a lot with big bands – with The Doors, the Byrds, the Monkees. We worked with George Harrison, Frank Zappa,â Krause recalls. Krause’s cinematic work includes classics such as Rosemary baby and Apocalypse now. He programmed much of the latter’s score and worked on his memorable “Ride of the Valkyries” scene. âShirley Walker played the keyboard. I’m not a great keyboardist,â he says.
Before Paul Beaver died in 1975 of a cerebral hemorrhage while giving a concert in Los Angeles, he worked with Krause on a pioneering album titled In a wild sanctuary, one of the first examples of ambient music.
âPaul refused to come out to record, which left me with that task,â Krause says. “And I was scared of animals. I grew up in a Midwestern home that forbade dogs, cats, or goldfish. It was dangerous for my mom. Germs and stuff. I wanted to get over that fear. “
So one fall afternoon, Krause took a brand new portable analog recorder to a heavily wooded public park north of San Francisco. His life was forever changed when he put on his headphones, inspired and focused on the sounds of nature. âIt wasn’t noise,â he explains. “It was a collection of sounds that felt so good that I immediately relaxed.”
“This is the accord of the great animal orchestra, a revelation of the acoustic harmony of nature, the planet’s deeply connected expression of natural sounds and rhythm.”
Krause felt asserted, reassured, awakened. In the late 1970s, he obtained a doctorate. in marine bioacoustics at the Union Institute and Experimental University in Cincinnati, Ohio and began recording what he calls biophonies – the collective sounds of organisms living in their biomes – in places as far away ranging from boreal forests to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada to the savannas and shrubs of Zimbabwe Gonarezhou National Park.
“It’s really cool because you’re going to hear baboons barking against an echoing granite wall,” whispers Jane Winchell, in the shaded room of The large animal orchestra at Peabody Essex. Winchell, who runs the museum’s Art & Nature Center, brought the show here after seeing it in 2017 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris where, she says, it fascinated audiences.
âIt’s just this miraculous composition. It’s really like a piece of music with different movements,â she enthuses.
Bernie Krause calls these soundscapes âyoga for the earsâ. Listening to animals, he says, connects us to something ancient and vital about human beings.
âThese sounds are part of our DNA,â he explains. âWhat we hear resonates with that atavistic moment in our lives when our ancestors heard these sounds and lived through them. In that way, it reconnects us to the natural, to the living world around us. But let me tell you, the further we move away from this source of our lives, the more pathological we become as a culture. Don’t you believe it? Look at the news. “
Or listen to it, he said. Never before have we been so connected to constant sound – in our cars, our headphones, our phones. âAnd disconnected at the same time,â Krause says. âBasically we have to learn to be quiet.
So if you can’t go to Salem, Mass., And experience The large animal orchestra yourself, try something now. Take off your helmet. Turn off your radio or streaming device. Go out there and listen.
Even if you are in the middle of a city, you can hear it. It might be far, but the Great Animal Orchestra is there.