Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

A real-life carnival of the animals

A real-life carnival of the animals

Bernie Krause has been making recordings in the natural world for 45 years. At an installation in Paris, they are an aural memorial to what we’re losing

Bernie Krause has been making recordings in the natural world for 45 years. At an installation in Paris, they are an aural memorial to what we’re losing

Philip Hoare | July 11th 2016

Paris, in July. I arrive on the Boulevard Raspail, and enter the glass-and-steel façade of the Fondation Cartier, designed by Jean Nouvel. It is surrounded by, and encloses, its own forest, a miniature park growing within the Fondation’s compound. Inside, the human cacophony of a summertime city is replaced by a simulacrum of the natural world. In the building’s blacked-out basement, you are plunged into an intoxicating experience. Here Bernie Krause, a musician, bioacoustician, veteran of the 1960s and pioneer of electronic music, has created a sound installation for the 21st century, an aural memorial to what we have lost, but also a celebration of what we still possess.

For over an hour, we are taken into seven environments around the world, from the Pacific Ocean to the Amazonas, from Zimbabwe to California. Visitors sit on cubes facing a darkened screen, at the foot of which runs a long shallow pool of still black water. The wall flickers into life as a floor-to-ceiling graph is projected along two sides of the vast room. To the left, vibrating lines indicate the sounds we are hearing; as they pass, they are translated into spectrograms, visual echoes of sonic evocations. The result is immersive, and salutary.

Filmed by Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougaret and designed by Universal Visual Artists, a British art practice, “The Great Animal Orchestra” aims to present Krause’s work – a tiny selection from the 15,000 species he has recorded – with minimal intervention. “It’s an abstract expression of sound,” the curator Thomas Delamarre tells me. “When we’d finished the work, which was incredibly complicated, we stood back and wondered at the simplicity of what we had created.”

A caption indicates two recordings on a coral reef in Fiji, one from a living section, and the affected by the bleaching which, as Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her recent book, “The Sixth Extinction”, threatens one-third of the world’s reefs as a result of our warming climate. The first recording is full of sound, that crackling you hear when snorkelling over the corals and the fish foraging on them. In the second, the sound has been blanked out, redacted. The ghostly graph goes blank, like a lie detector in reverse.

It is a vivid silence set next to the following sequence, recorded in the Amazon rain forest. A jaguar snarls into the microphone. Toucans and frogs, musician wrens, black faced ant thrushes, yellow crowned parrots sing out. It’s as if you can see their colours in the sound bar, a baroque orchestration of other species.

“Jay, Nagano (Japan)”, by the wildlife photographer Manabu Miyazaki

Krause “knew nothing about animals” when he began to record natural sounds in the late 1960s. “Our family never had animals when I was a boy”, he says. Born in Detroit in 1938, Krause worked as sound engineer and, with Paul Beaver, introduced the Moog synthesiser to pop music and film, working with George Harrison and The Doors, Brian Eno and David Byrne, and on movies such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Performance”. He was utterly unprepared for what he heard when he went into the wild.

Suddenly new sounds filled a space in his head. He realised that animal calls occupy their own bandwidths, exploiting their own niche, so as not to drown out each other’s voices. It is an evolution of communal sound. It is this personal epiphany that underscores Krause’s “Great Animal Orchestra”: a symphony whose arrangements stand beyond our culture, and whose sounds he has been collecting for the past 45 years. 

The dark pool becomes a river as it ripples, stimulated by trumpeting elephants. It’s a cinematic effect, and a reminder of Krause’s earlier work, creating the soundscape for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, set on another dark river. Indeed Krause sees himself as an archivist against a new disaster – the effects of the Anthropocene, a period in which, since 1950, the Earth has witnessed the Great Acceleration, an exponential increase in the extinction of its species. “It is worth mentioning that over 50% of my archive, collected since 1968, comes from sites that are now completely silent or so radically altered that the biophonies and geophonies can no longer be heard in any of their original form,” says Krause. “Mostly as a result of human endeavour.”

The installation speaks to the imagination, circumventing visual images for those conjured up by sound and the way we filter it in our heads. Children come in and sit around me. Teenagers sprawl, belly down on the floor cushions. The room fills up, organically. It is open to the forest and the ocean, here in the centre of the city. Diving into the Pacific we hear Californian sea lions, killdeer and mew gulls, the surface sounds of what Herman Melville called “the ocean’s skin”.

Suddenly humpback whales enter stage left, with their squeaks and farts, their burbles like a finger held over a bicycle pump. I last heard these animals off Mexico, where their songs vibrated through my body as I shared the water with them. Their complex mating calls may be the ultimate expression of a culture other than ours: Krause’s album “In a Wild Sanctuary”, recorded in 1968-9, joined Roger Payne’s equally ground-breaking “Songs of the Humpback Whales” (1970) as an advance warning for the environmental movement. These “alien” voices spoke out for a “dumb” nature unable to protest its abuse. Like the Amazonas, the ocean seems a virgin territory, but it too is now saturated with our sound: diesel engines, military sonar and seismic surveys for oil, drowning out clicks and squeaks. When the shipping lanes between United States and Europe were closed in the days after 9/11, scientists studying whales off Cape Cod were stunned: in that brief interregnum, the animals stopped shouting.

Vanadis polychaete annelid, a kind of plankton, photographed in bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, by Christian Sardet

That silence is reflected in an adjoining room where the spectral shapes of phyto- and zooplankton, photographed by the marine biologist Christian Sardet, drift across screens inserted into the floor, to an electronic wash of sound created by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It is another dreamscape, much as a massive mural in the room overhead. Made out of exploded gunpowder traces by the Chinese artist and pyrotechnician, Cai Guo-Qiang, it shows a forlorn gathering at a watering hole, “the last heritage left for animals”, as the artist says.

Back down below, Krause has arrived in Algonquin Park in Ontario, to find himself surrounded by two packs of Eastern wolves, with ravens – themselves known as “wolf birds” – as their outriders. The room is suddenly filled with the haunting sound of the northern forest, the eerie clonks of the corvids and the mournful howls of the wolves. Their voices gather in the darkness, a threnody for themselves. Of course, that’s not what these sounds mean to them. To them they mean sex and hunger and territory. It is what they mean to us that matters here; that’s where our culture steps in. Inevitably, art anthropomorphises. But that’s the way we encompass the natural world. It is the only language we have, beyond the bare and sometimes scary facts of science.

Perhaps most evocative of all Krause’s sequence was recorded in Dzanga-Sangha National Park, in the Central African Republic. It has a truly visceral intensity; another green world, an Eno ambient track gone into overdrive. We hear southern tree hyrax, red-chested cuckoos, greater spot-nosed monkeys, western mountain gorillas, African forest elephants. Pachyderms “hear” sound through their feet; we feel it in our bodies. In a Parisian basement, we sense these echoing traces: what the past knew of us, before we began to shout.

The Great Animal Orchestra, Fondation Cartier, Paris, until January 8th 2017. We Account The Whale Immortal, Philip Hoare’s film with Jessica Sarah Rinland, is showing at Utopia 2016 at Somerset House, London, until October 2nd, with a live performance on July 14th. http://utopia2016.com/event/paths-to-utopia-we-account-the-whale-immortal/

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.