Great Animal Orchestra Makes Lots of Noise

The sounds of nature can be almost musical. The wonders of nature can be almost poetic. But just how often do we really view nature as a source of acoustic wonderment? The Great Animal Orchestra, through a fusion of natural sounds and poetry, endeavors to get people to truly listen to the world around them and to appreciate the beauty that biophony (the sounds of animals) and geophony (the sounds of the earth) have to offer. On Thursday, September 27, Bernie Krause and Jonathan Skinner brought their work to the Fong Auditorium in order to share this message with Harvard students. Krause, co-creator of The Great Animal Orchestra and author of a book by the same name, has recorded countless animal sounds for The Orchestra. The performance compiles years of recording and research. “It’s really summarizing a life’s work in music and natural sounds,” said Krause.

The other creator, Jonathan Skinner, is a poet who has written and compiled poems about animals and nature to intermittently accompany Bernie’s recordings and add a different level of reflection to the sounds. “Sound is invading poetry, and poetry is colonizing sound,” said Skinner. The result of this unprecedented collaboration of natural soundscapes and poetry was something truly unique: The Great Animal Orchestra.

So what would one see wupon entering a showing of The Great Animal Orchestra? The truth is, not much at all: Krause and Skinner were seated in the front of the performance area, each with a laptop, some papers, and a sound board in front of him. But seeing is not the point of this performance. The goal, rather, is to orient the audience aurally to the beauty of natural sound. After briefly introducing themselves, the creators took the audience on a journey from the mountains to the tundra with biophony and nature-themed poetry as the only guide. The musical imagery brought the biospheres to life and highlighted the natural harmony between the different creatures.

Interestingly enough, animals tend to stay out of each other’s way when it comes to making sounds; the sounds have a rhythm of their own. Many of the soundscapes that Krause played featured multiple animals who would take turns calling out, mirrored by Skinner’s and Krause’s acoustic choice of reading part of a poem and then playing part of a recording. Anthrophony, or human sound, is much more random. Krause, through his research and recordings has discovered that our random jumble of sounds disrupts the environment’s natural rhythm. “Human sound is random. It has lots of noise, [which] causes us lots of stress. But also if human noise finds its way into the biophony it causes stress with the animals,” he said. This represents one of the production’s main themes.

Thus, in addition to showing audiences the beauty of nature, The Great Animal Orchestra also warns people of the dangers of interfering with it. Most prominent among these hazards is the current extinction crisis, a problem Krause believes is caused by humans’ negligence for the environment. Furthermore, they see this presentation as a way to give people tangible evidence—in the form of soundscapes—of what human interaction has damaged and exactly why people should care about nature. “Bernie and I both feel that we want our work to have some kind of meaning…. We want to show people that our place on the Earth is not as masters but dwellers, not landlords but neighbors, and how we can become better neighbors. And for us, listening is where all that begins,” Skinner said.

As for the show itself, both Krause and Skinner believe that they accomplished their goal of showing the audience how musical nature could be and were quite pleased with how the performance turned out. Christina Davis, curator if the Woodberry Poetry Room and the driving force behind bringing Krause and Skinner together for this presentation, was also impressed with how innovative the show was. “It was very brave of them to bring together their collective knowns to create something unknown,” she said. This kind of innovative performance brings together different themes in a way that is new for the audience.

So what did Krause want the audience to take away from the performance? “Just shut the hell up and listen,” he answered. And that’s really all that needs to be said.