Animal Composer - Photo by Richard Levine (CCBY)
It’s been a while since I posted on Bernie Krause but I just received his autobiography from Amazon and its sparked new interest in his work. A quick perusal of the net lead me to this video I watched a few months ago and which is definitely worth a look for anybody interested in acoustic ecology (soundscape ecology as Krause calls it) and the environment in general.
Krause has a book coming out with the same title. Stay tuned for an update on that.
Like many dissatisfied scientists before him, Bernie Krause devised his most important theory after becoming frustrated with the research modus operandi in his field. Before he arrived on the scene, field work as a “bio-acoustician” usually involved honing in on and studying very particular sounds. Scientists were concerned with Individuals species and did their utmost to isolate vocalisations from the sum total of sound around them. This tendency can be attributed to the greater ease with which it is possible to grasp and measure individual, isolated recordings within rigid academic convention, which values measurable results and concrete conclusions, usually for a very good reason. But such methods yield questionable efficacy when it comes to studying making sense of natural soundscapes . As Krause notes:
“Abstracting the voice of a single creature from a habitat and trying to understand it out of context is a little like trying to play Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” absent a violin section as part of the orchestra”
Without its accompaniments, the individual part is virtually devoid of meaning. Krause suggests that the great composers know this. I would add that audio engineers, always seeking to find the ideal balance of a many-layered mix, and indeed any great artist must also know this.
Considered from the principles of its conception, Krause’s Niche Hypothesis can serve as a guide and inspiration for those frustrated by short sightedness and singular goals mired in specific, immutable presumptions. This is not to advocate some spacey new age approach to everything and specialised research plays a hugely important role in scientific development. But you and I and the scientific establishment might just occasionally benefit from venturing outside established norms and taking a holistic approach, as Krause has done. In this way, we may just see the forest for the trees.
I was doing some research into the work of Bernie Krause when I stumbled across this intriguing wee clip taken from a lecture given by the man himself. Krause explains how after using a hydrophone with the ability to detect frequencies higher than we are able to hear to record from the inside of a tree trunk, he pitched the recording down seven octaves to reveal the bizarre rhythmic pulse.
It really makes one wonder what else out there is making interesting sounds that are beyond our hearing range and and on a similar note, when do we get implants that allow us to hear them? Imagine a 100,000Hz soundwalk.
Also, check out this man-made singing tree.
Some reading I’ve been doing recently has me thinking hard about the direction I want to take my research (and the blog) this year. I was recently introduced by a friend (whose work on wilding the city stresses the importance of green spaces in urban environments) to Bernard Krause, a pioneer of electronic synthesis turned acoustic ecologist who proposes an interesting addition to the canon of evolutionary outcomes.
Krause’s Niche Hypothesis suggests that species develop vocal characteristics that occupy bandwidths in specific regions of the frequency spectrum. This reduces the chance that their mating and warning calls will clash with those of other species, thereby increasing their chances of finding a mate and succesfully communicating coming dangers. In noisy environments animals find it harder to distinguish the noises of their own kind from those made by other species. In the worst case scenario, a species will become extinct due to an inability to successfully communicate with each other.
Many ecosystems have achieved a natural equilibrium from centuries of acoustic evolution. Krause has observed a balance range of animal frequencies in what we might consider some of the most cacophonous environments on the planet. After some eye-opening work in the Venezuelan rainforest, he sought to test his theory. By characterising and tracking individual species’ mating calls in similarly dense acoustic surroundings, he has graphed the way which this natural give and take works. A variety of unique sonic footprints can be seen working around each other in such a way that no one part of the frequency spectrum is ever too over-populated.
While his theory is still contested in scientific circles, it is gaining serious traction and Krause provides some compelling evidence to back it up. In subsequent posts I’ll explore in more detail his ideas as well as those of his detractors.