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Counterpoint

Wild thing: The Animal Orchestra Symphony

About the author

Clemency Burton-Hill is a presenter of the BBC’s Culture Show, Review Show, and Radio 3 Weekend Breakfast. A published novelist, she writes for the FT Weekend, The Economist’s Intelligent Life and the Guardian.

A new work by the composer Richard Blackford reveals the hidden music in nature's sounds. Clemency Burton-Hill reports.

“Do animals have music?” the ethnomusicologist George Herzog asked in 1941. Classical composers, it seems, have always instinctively thought so. From Jean-Philippe Rameau in the 1700s to the 20th Century avant-gardist Olivier Messiaen, the alluring and exotic sounds of the animal kingdom have long gripped the imaginations of the classical world. Rameau’s The Hen (1728) paved the way for a zoomusicological tradition that includes Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals (1886), Ottorino Respighi’s The Birds (1928) and Messiaen’s Catalogue of the Birds (1956-58); with more recent examples including George Crumb’s 1971 Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) and the 1999 musical Invention, written by Gabriel Pareyon over the song of an endangered Mexican bird, the vireo atricapillus.

Now the British composer Richard Blackford has produced a symphony that provides an enthralling answer to Herzog’s question, and throws up some compelling and pertinent questions of its own about the relationship between animals, humans and music. Blackford’s The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony, which has recently been recorded by conductor Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, integrates wild natural soundscapes into the orchestral textures of a full symphony orchestra for the very first time. The result is sonically spectacular.

Blackford, who has worked as a film composer for over 30 years – and who says he “reveres” the music of Olivier Messiaen– was initially inspired by a 2012 radio serialisation of Bernie Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. Krause, who holds a PhD in bioacoustics, is a former member of the group The Weavers and a legendary figure in the recorded music industry, having played guitar on dozens of Motown records as well as for the likes of The Monkees, The Byrds, The Doors, Stevie Wonder, George Harrison, and Van Morrison, as well as pioneering the use of sythesisers in music. He was also a founding member of the group Beaver & Krause, and it was while recording the latter’s 1969 album In a Wild Sanctuary that, he told me recently, he underwent his epiphany about natural soundscapes. “When I switched on that stereo recorder and heard that numinous acoustic space of the habitat open up in my headphones,” he said in an interview from his home in northern California, “I decided then and there that that was what I wanted to explore for the rest of my life.”

Talk to the animals

Since that revelation, Krause has spent the past 45 years recording natural soundscapes from the Amazon to Zimbabwe, amassing a staggering 4,500 hours of recordings in the process. From rainforests to marine environments, Krause has captured the glorious soundtracks created by animals across much of the globe. In the process, he coined the term ‘biophony’ to describe a soundscape created by the natural world. (This is distinct from ‘geophony’, which is the soundscape created by natural elements such as wind, rain, thunder and waves, and ‘anthropophony’, which is the soundscape created by humans.)

Enchanted by what he heard on the radio, Blackford contacted Krause. And when he went to visit him in California, it was not just Krause’s biophonic recordings that amazed him, but the ‘spectograms’ Krause had made of the soundscapes in question. These graphic illustrations create a visual impression of the animal sounds, from the extreme highest (the noises made by bats, which are beyond our range of hearing yet visible on the spectogram) to the lowest, namely the growls of African elephants. “Spectograms illustrate the varied shapes of animal vocalisations,” Blackford explains: “a swooping glissando, a hard, percussive pattern, a complex, skipping or melodious birdsong.” To his musical eye, they seemed “remarkably similar to the notation and design of a musical score” and the idea was born to “create a musical structure that could actually incorporate Bernie’s recordings within a symphony orchestra”.

The concept of a Great Animal Orchestra Symphony might seem like a gimmick, perhaps something for kids to enjoy rather than to excite serious music fans. But the novel kick of hearing, say, a beautiful duet of gibbons amid classical instruments such as violins and oboes is underpinned by a complex compositional rigour. “I wanted the five movements to have a satisfying symphonic unity, with its contrasts of slow and fast movements and the symphonic development of the material,” Blackford told me. “Rather than just spotlighting certain ‘trophy’ sounds I worked hard to try to create music that genuinely came out of the natural soundscapes.’ He spent two years working on the symphony to create what he describes as “the musical texture created by the layered songs and noises of many creatures in a rich natural environment, such as a rainforest… Animals may be at play for purposes of mating, communication or just high spirits, and so my musical riffs tried to capture some of that exuberance. In the fourth movement, for example, I liked the idea of the massive but mostly gentle power of the African elephant herd. So I asked the whole orchestra to play a sustained passage pianissimo, rather like driving a Ferrari at 20 mph, a thing of enormous potential power but just ticking over.”

Born to be wild

The symphony also reflects an anthropological reality – one that we forget at our peril. For as Krause points out, our impulse to language, to make music, to dance and to sing, derives directly from the animal habitats we once were part of too. “The idea that animals taught humans to dance and sing is not a philosophical question, nor is it new,” insists Krause. “For it is from the collective and structured animal voices that came from habitats we once lived in, that we picked out and imitated the rhythms, melodies, textures, and organisation of sound. That’s because we’re mimics. Therefore, when we lived more closely connected to the natural world, we integrated these natural gifts into our musical expression which, in turn, evolved into language.”

For Krause, there is much at stake. “I’ve been recording for nearly five decades, now,” he points out. “What’s so shocking to me is that fully 50% of my archive – and it’s a large one – comes from habitats so transformed by human endeavour, that they’re either altogether depleted of wildlife sound, or the soundscape is so radically altered that the biophonies can no longer be heard in any of their original form.” When I ask him what he hopes audiences will take away from the experience of The Great Animal Orchestra, he adds, “I just hope that folks, young and old, will realise what a great and inspirational gift we’ve all be given with these wild soundscapes. And I hope that it will inspire others to reconnect with the natural world….”

The ultimate message of the The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony – which really has to be heard to be believed – is loud and clear. “Within a changing world,” says Krause, “what we listen to matters.”

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