Connected \\ January 14, 2022
PEMcast Episode 25: Embracing The Great Animal Orchestra and tidying our sonic realm
This episode of the PEMcast begins with an attempt to be like Bernie Krause. To go find nature and bring back the benefits of birdsong to enjoy on cold winter nights. With my iPhone audio recording app, I discovered busy birds inside a bush of red leaves in waning fall sunlight. I marveled at geese heading south overhead, fumbling my phone in a failed attempt to catch their primal honking. At the same time, I captured noise — sirens, leaf blowers, arriving trains, overhead planes, endless historic neighborhood house repairs and the mechanical and maniacal laughter of plastic Halloween ghouls left a little too late into November.
On November 20, PEM opened The Great Animal Orchestra, which features the much more professional recordings from Bernie Krause, who has captured more than 5,000 hours of natural environments. The lure of mammals and marine life has taken Krause around the world. A visual manifestation of his life’s work is on view at PEM through July 10, 2022 — an immersion into soundscapes and spectrograms — thanks to the exhibition commissioned by Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.
The Great Animal Orchestra gallery experience. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
We chatted with Krause while he was here for the exhibition opening, as well as Matt Clark of United Visual Artists, the genius behind the stunning visuals in this immersive experience. In this episode, we also examine PEM’s attempt to curb sensory overload at the museum. Through a collaboration with KultureCity, our staff has been learning ways to be more sensitive to the one in six people who have a sensory processing need. We speak with PEM’s Neuroscience Researcher Tedi Asher about a recent study and the ways PEM seeks to address this invisible disability to make the museum a more inclusive experience.
Bernie Krause has often spoken about how his ADHD can be soothed in nature like nowhere else. “The only thing that keeps me sane, centered and unstressed is actually going on into the natural world,” he says, “or walking around the city early in the morning in the springtime and listening to natural soundscapes.”
Ducks in Salem Harbor. Bernie Krause previously worked for Rykodisc, the record industry’s first CD-only label, in nearby Pickering Wharf. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.
Clark agrees that he enjoys getting up with the birds in London, where he lives. “I'm an urban lad. I've lived in cities all my life,” he says. “I do try to go for a walk every day. I particularly like getting up really early. The morning call with the birds, it just takes you somewhere else before the hustle and bustle of city life starts.”
In gallery interview with Matt Clark and Bernie Krause. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Bernie Krause’s work, says Clark, just like being in nature itself, transports us. “Also, to contemplate on the things that we take for granted, what we're doing to nature, how precious it is, how potentially in the future, this might be all we have left of the natural world, these recordings.”
In September, Krause published a book The Power of Tranquility in a Very Noisy World. This is where he addresses the effect of everyday noise on our health and well-being. Loud cars and motorcycles, heavy machinery — these are “signatures of our presence,” says Krause, “Because we have so much of a void inside of us, a spiritual and emotional void, that we have to claim our presence through noise. Look at us. Look at me.”
The early days of the pandemic offered us a breather from noise. Birds replaced airplanes and our sonic experience eased. Krause says we should carry that trend forward and find peace through our ears. Or as the musician Peter Gabriel said of Krause’s book: "Big ears — in oriental Buddhism, they indicate wisdom. They, or the people they are attached to, learn from listening. For a long time, Bernie Krause has been teaching us how to listen to the world to better understand what’s going on and what we are doing to it. In this book, his ‘yoga for the ears’ gives us a fresh way of understanding how deeply sound affects us and the importance of finding tranquility — that less gives more.”
Cairn Beach on Peak’s Island, Maine. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.
The Great Animal Orchestra, a collaboration between Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, was commissioned in 2016 by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, and is now part of its permanent collection. The exhibition is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. It is on view until July 10, 2022.
Tune into PEM Reads, featuring Bernie Krause, HERE.
This episode was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.
Bernie: My name is Bernie Krause and I’m a soundscape ecologist.
Bernie: You know, 50 percent of what I have in my archive comes from habitats that no longer exist. We’re talking about habitats here. We’re not talking about single individual creatures. Whole habits are gone. That’s in 50 years.
Dinah: When Bernie Krause started going out into the wilds of nature to record the sounds of animals, the professional musician thought he had stumbled upon the life affirming voices of the divine.
Bernie: My world has always been informed by what I hear. I don't see very well. So, I've always been either dyslexic or distracted by what I see. What I hear has been very important to me.
Bernie: Consequently, everything that I've done has been involved in sound.
Dinah: Now, 50 years later, he knows that he was actually documenting sonic narratives, the stories of dwindling habitats and snuffed out vitality.
Bernie: The voice of the natural world gives us a sense of place, if we’re listening carefully, it also tells us how healthy a habitat is. For instance, when we have a cold, it shows in our voice. If we're sick, it shows in our voice. It's the same thing with the natural habitat. In the natural world, when a habitat is under stress, the first place it shows is in its voice.
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. I’m your host, Dinah Cardin. You can experience the sounds of birds, mammals and marine life from around the world at PEM now through May 2, 2022 in the Great Animal Orchestra. This commission by Cartier’s contemporary art foundation in Paris takes scientific data and makes it into a sonic art piece -- combining the work of Krause and London-based United Visual Artists. Their extraordinarily detailed and immersive visuals add a whole new layer to the listening experience. Bernie says he hopes people who visit this exhibition come away with a greater wonder for the natural world. He’s teaching us how to listen. This Emily Dickinson quote has never been more apt. “Hope is a thing with feathers.”
Dinah: Bernie has made more than 5,000 recordings that teach us about the sound universe of animals, otherwise known as biophony.
Bernie: Healthy ecosystems sound organized. Stressed systems that are noisy sound chaotic and incoherent. The sounds don't match. But when you have a healthy habitat, it's like a musical score. The low frequency sounds are at the bottom of the score, in the bottom line with the basses. The high frequencies are in the higher range.
Dinah: Each species finds its own bandwidth and stays out of the others’ way, says Bernie.
Bernie: But in a habitat that's stressed, where you're doing selective logging or clearcutting, something like that, it completely changes the ways in which the animals express themselves. They’re looking for acoustic territory. This is the first formal expression of how that all works together and how we're all part of that same system.
Dinah: In this episode, we also explore a new diversity and inclusion initiative at PEM that looks to curb sensory overload. This includes what we take in with our ears. Finally, we’ll learn some tips from Bernie on how to tidy our personal sonic realm, from his new book The Power of Tranquility in a Noisy World. But first, we learn how Bernie Krause became a pioneer in his field.
Bernie: I'm one of the first people to do this kind of work. When I got my PhD in 1981, when I completed it, there were probably six people doing this. Now there are thousands. I mean, it's blowing up exponentially.
Dinah: Before becoming this documentarian of the natural world, Bernie was a musician, who started as a boy on the violin. Later, he attended Berkeley College of Music right here in Boston and got into the local folk scene of the 60s. He went on to introduce the Moog synthesizer to pop music and film, collaborating with The Doors and Van Morrison and worked as a sound designer for the film Apocalypse Now. So in the forest, on a project that led him to individually recording animals, he began to hear something more collective, more synthesized...well, more orchestral.
Bernie: One night while I was in Kenya in a camp....I had been working for many hours, and I was very tired. I was lying on my bunk with my headphones on, just listening to the night ambience. I’d just switched on my recorder and in my mind that was half present, I heard the sounds as orchestral. I heard these sounds arranged in kind of a very strange way that I'd never really heard before. When I got back to the studio in San Francisco, I raked it up on the playback machine. I ran it through a spectrogram and sure enough that was arranged and I was hearing it. I thought to myself, I think there's something here. I've got to go listen to more of those tapes and begin to think in ways of communicating this information, this data that we've got, to a wider audience.
Dinah: This passion has taken him to North America, Latin America, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe, as well as the depths of the world’s oceans. In this exhibition, you travel to seven wild locations. But what can we humans on this planet actually do about the rapid silencing of the great animal orchestra?
Bernie: I'm not so much interested in hope. I'm interested in action. It's not what we do that's important. It's probably more important to consider what we don't do.
Trains and platform sounds
Dinah: When they were here for the opening of the exhibition, we interviewed Bernie and Matt Clark of United Visual Artists, who says he has been truly inspired by working on this project.
Matt: I'm much more aware. I live in London. I'm an urban lad. I've lived in cities all my life. I do try to go for a walk everyday. I particularly like getting up really early. The morning call with the birds, it just takes you somewhere else before the hustle and bustle of city life starts. Bernie, he has so many words of wisdom about how we perceive the sonic world. One of my most memorable revelations that Bernie talked about was how you can learn so much more about the natural world by what you hear compared to what you see. We live in such a visual culture. We all see these pictures of rainforests and polar bears, but in fact, the sonic world tells you way more than what the visual does. That was like, "Wow." That's actually fascinating, and that's why Bernie's work is so important. Firstly, just a great experience, to be transported to somewhere else momentarily. But also to contemplate on the things that we take for granted, what we're doing to nature, how precious it is, you know potentially in the future, this might be all we have left of the natural world, these recordings.
Dinah: Bernie also says we must pay careful attention to the noise pollution around us. Starting in this country with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve sheltered ourselves in a bubble of technology, he says, where we’re drawn to destructive signals and dismiss those that could be more restorative.
Bernie: The effects of humans on the environment, driving straight, piping motorcycles, loud cars. Things that are signatures of our presence, because we have so much of a void inside of us, a spiritual and emotional void, that we have to claim our presence through noise. Look at us. Look at me.
LOUD NOISES // Door creaking and lawn moor
Dinah: A recent article in Boston Magazine called Hey Boston, Shut Up Already, reported that noise complaints are on the rise. According to the article, unfamiliar or unexpected noises are the most offensive and detrimental to our well-being. What Bernie calls incoherent dissonance.
Bernie: Last night, we went to a restaurant in downtown Boston and we walked out because the noise was impossible. The interesting thing about these restaurants is that the restaurant owners create these spaces with hard surfaces, hard surface walls, windows, ceilings, no tablecloths to absorb the sound. I mean there was a DJ. They were cranking this stuff through it. People are screaming over the noise of the music to be heard. We just walked out and went to another restaurant.
Dinah: Bernie says he wrote The Power of Tranquility in a Noisy World because he wanted people to know about the history of noise in the United States.
Bernie: For example, there was a fellow who was head of the Interior Department during Ronald Reagan's first years in 1982, James Watt, he was Secretary of the Interior. One of the first acts that he did was to defund the Office of Noise Abatement which was set up to help quiet down our neighborhoods and again, bring in wildlife, wildlife sounds that you could hear.
Dinah: And soon noise became synonymous with power, says Bernie, with war. The opposite of these noises, a kind of woodland therapy, has been written about by people like Henry David Thoreau and Mary Oliver.
Bernie: I suffer from a terrible case of ADHD. I have since I was a kid. I still do as an adult. The only thing that keeps me sane, centered, and unstressed is actually going on into the natural world or walking around a city early in the morning in the springtime and listening to natural soundscapes. The most soothing sounds I've heard are sounds of a summer's evening with frogs, crickets and stuff like that. I love that sound. It's very soothing to me. I love listening to ocean waves, water coursing through a stream in a riparian habitat. All of those things are very relaxing.
Matt: I've got a thing about wind and trees. That's probably my favorite sound.
Bernie: Particularly when it's voiced in [makes wind sound] , when it's really gentle. It's quite nice.
Dinah: But here in the city of Salem, where noise bounces from our narrow streets off of historic buildings, we’re realizing that loud noises don’t necessarily need to be part of the museum experience.
Dinah: (tape) OK, we’re just walking through the door here.
Staff person: Hi. How’s it going? Busy busy.
Dinah: (Tape) Can you describe where we are?
Tedi: Yes. We are inside of the second set of doors off of Essex Street in Salem. We're facing the pathway that leads into the atrium. It's about 11:00 in the morning and the sunlight is streaming in through the windows over top, so that's in our eyes a little bit. And we see the admissions desks, so we kind of have a target to get to.
Dinah: This is Doctor Tedi Asher, PEM’s neuroscience researcher. She’s working with our Education department to find ways to make a visit to PEM less overwhelming for some.
Tedi: Right now it's pretty quiet because the museum's closed. But when there are people here, you can imagine that there’s this kind of the hum and the sounds of people's conversations that peak above the rest of the noise. And we'd have to process the sound of the space, the echo, right, it’s a very high ceiling, lots of reverberations. We’d have to navigate our place in line. Which side of the station are we supposed to be on? Where are we supposed to go?
Dinah: Our staff has taken an introductory training in sensory processing with Kulture City, an organization creating sensory accessibility and inclusion for those with invisible disabilities. Kulture City reports that 1 in 6 individuals in the US has a sensory processing need. They work with organizations, cultural venues, restaurants and museums.
Dinah: (Tape) Right, so it's a little bit of a sensory overload right when you walk in the door.
Tedi: There are multiple pieces of sensory information coming at you as there usually are in life. And it could be an overload if you put all the different things that you hit with when you come in, in the context of ‘Well, what am I supposed to do right now in terms of trying to orient and act?’
Dinah: According to Kulture City, a sensory processing issue means finding noises, smells, lights and even crowds not only overwhelming from the sensory perspective but also sometimes physically painful. This can cause a feeling of isolation.
Tedi: We're pursuing many areas, many ways to try and enhance the way that we are inclusive and consider different aspects of different people's experiences. The Neuroscience Initiative has partnered with the Education Department to think through and design a study that we’re proposing and exploring to, in part, better understand our museum spaces and what kind of sensory experiences those spaces hold. So, regardless of how someone would experience it, what are the sound levels? How many different types of sounds are in those spaces?
Dinah: After going through the museum, visitors will be asked to share their personal sensory experience.
Tedi: And that can then inform how we set up a space, how we might modify the environment that visitors are in, the way that we engage with visitors. The same for light. What are the levels? What are the different frequencies of the lighting, What is the character? Soft, harsh. How many people are in that space at any given time? To really describe almost in data, what those spaces look, sound, and feel like.
Dinah: Then, volunteers will be asked to go one step further.
Tedi: By perhaps wearing some glasses and a wristband that would allow us to observe where they go, what they look at, and how their body is responding on a physiological level to the experiences that they have there.
Dinah: So, how would any of this change things?
Tedi: For example, would we want to put some signal or sign in or proceeding galleries that do tend to be louder. "Heads up, this is a louder space," and maybe what kind of loudness, in what form? Different icons throughout that indicate, "This is a good space for families, kids." "This is a great space for quiet reflection." It's not telling you "Do or don't talk in here, do or don't be loud in here." It's just saying, "This is typically a quieter, less active space. If that's the atmosphere that you're seeking, this might be a good spot for you." It's that kind of signal. The idea of having a space almost like a palate cleanser, like, "Wow, I just went through a three-gallery experience. I just need to sit and process that or clear my mind for a moment." Whether it's in a meditative space or one that's not giving you much input at all.
Dinah: (Tape) This is also why we're encouraging people to go out to our beautiful garden, right?
Tedi: Yes. Absolutely. There's a lot of evidence pointing to the impact that green, nature-based spaces have on our mentalities, on our emotions, on literally the physiological way our body operates. By that, I'm referring in part to the degree to which we are engaged in our fight-or-flight mode of operation, which is very alert, vigilant, ready-to-act versus the more relaxed state in which that system is much more downplayed. We can process things a bit more slowly but more thoughtfully, perhaps, with a bit more tolerance or endurance.
Dinah: During the early days of the pandemic, we had a breather. A respite from road and building construction and leaf blowers. Airplanes seemed replaced by birds. Bernie Krause has compared this comeback for the birds to a holy resurrection. He wrote in his book: “The sermon comes to you directly from the heart and soul of the universe. It’s as organic, potent and spiritual as it gets.”
Tedi: I consider myself fortunate to have spent the pandemic in a residential neighborhood outside of Boston. We had our own yard. It is a rather quiet neighborhood. I could hear the birds a lot more than I used to hear the hustle and bustle of the city when I lived there. While personally, I did experience some indulgence and the respite of just slowing things down and spending more time on my porch, writing and hearing the birds, it was hard not to have that social chatter around me every day and not to be able to rely on bits and bobs of daily life as it used to be that I really depended on to pick me up and get me through different parts of the day. In terms of the story behind The Great Animal Orchestra installation, the messaging that is being communicated. It is good for us as a sensory species to take that information and to understand those stories in multiple sensory ways. You hear the changes in the sounds that are so dramatic. That reflects such important and concerning changes in those natural environments.
Dinah: (Tape) Sort of kind of like learning through our ears?
Tedi: Learning through our ears and I think also building connection. Something I've been thinking about a lot recently are the ways that our holistic sense of, do we feel connected? That sense of connectedness is really cultivated through the different ways that we can access those spaces and people and stories. Sound is a very powerful way to do that.
Dinah: (Tape) What kind of sounds are your least favorite?
Tedi: Yeah, I find myself needing to reference sounds that I like in order to think of the ones that I don't, which is strange. I find that I'm really reactive to music. I like it, whether that's a sad reaction, a melancholy reaction, or a really excited, jazzy reaction.
Tedi: I get really reactive when I'm trying to focus on something someone's saying, and there's another sound that I cannot filter out. When two people are talking at me, which happens a lot in my family, or if someone is talking, but they're looking away and their sound is muffled and not directed to me and I can't hear, I get really frustrated. "I'm trying so hard. I really want to hear it. Why can't you make it easier for me to hear you? That's where I get really irked by acoustic jumble.
Dinah: Bernie would agree with Tedi. He says that music is the opposite of an acoustic jumble, but that it also depends on the ear. The enjoyment of a certain kind of music comes with a cultural bias. Not everyone can appreciate experimental or punk. Or the sounds of the Chinese erhu (AAR-HOO) or bluegrass banjo. But all of us, everywhere, can appreciate the sounds of the animal orchestra.
Bernie: Music has a whole vocabulary that you can say, "Yeah, I like it. I don't like it. These are the reasons why." Not so with soundscapes because they're part of our DNA. Because they're so much a part of us, we respond to it on a visceral level. That is why these soundscapes are so important. They engage anybody. We've had such great success in Europe with these presentations in Paris, London, and Milan, but also in Asia, in Shanghai and Seoul, South Korea. What’s interesting about this piece is there’s very little narrative. Everybody gets it whether you're 5 or 6 years old, or 80 years old.
Dinah: Just as some influencers inspire us to tidy up household clutter, The Power of Tranquility takes personal organization a step further – into the sonic realm. Bernie writes that in order to preserve our sanity, we must come to terms with how human generated noises are affecting our health.
Bernie: The Japanese learned some important lessons about preserving natural sound and natural areas. In the late '80s, there was a fellow in Japan who started a thing called "shinrin yoku" or forest bathing. The idea was when you're feeling stressed, go off into the forest somewhere where it's quiet and you hear natural soundscapes. Whether it's water in the stream or the wind blowing through the canopy of the trees, it's important to make that connection. Again, the closer we are to the natural world, the better we feel.
Dinah: In his book are tips to identify and reduce these damaging aural assaults.
Bernie: If you want to heal, put your cell phone away, your smartphone away, put your computers away, get outside, and listen to the natural sounds. Try to make a distinction when you do that. Go for the sound walks. As you're walking along, make a note of what the sources of sound are, a plane flying overhead, or a helicopter, or a truck driving by, or a motorcycle coming by, or a bird in a tree. Try to make a mental note of those sources of sound that you're hearing. Which sounds make you feel good? Which sounds make you feel nervous, or stressed, or distracted? What do you want to feel like? You'll gravitate towards the things that make you feel good.
Dinah: Bernie Krause is in his 80s and said that he will devote his “remaining energy” to getting this word out. He joined us for a session of PEM Reads, the museum’s book club. He reminded us that not everyone can go to the most remote parts of the planet. But that we too can seek solace in nature and reach out to something larger and greater than our day to day world.
Bernie (Reads): What remains to be heard? The wolf’s howl? The blissful voice of ten thousand birds singing up the sun? And where are the frogs and insects that signify a mid summer’s night? A whalesong in an open ocean? The anxious declaration of an ant? A virus liberating itself from a tiny cell. No. It isn’t music, the self referential echo of our limitations that resorts us. It’s a long cricket waiting in answer and a readiness to hear the implications. Even with eyes wide open, what is essential must first be heard.
Bernie (Reads): Go now, the future is waiting. I think you are ready.
Dinah: The Great Animal Orchestra: Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists opened in November and is on view at PEM until July 10, 2022. Museum goers can also watch a new documentary directed by French filmmaker Vincent Tricon and produced by Fondation Cartier, entitled Bernie Krause, A Life with the Great Animal Orchestra. Composed of unpublished archival footage and interviews filmed in California in 2021, the film follows Krause through Sonoma County, where he lives with his wife Katherine. This film reminds us that we almost missed hearing Bernie’s massive archive. Just six months after sending a copy to the Fondation in Paris, the home Bernie shared with his wife Katherine, all of his equipment and recordings, were destroyed by wildfires. But, for now, life goes on.
Dinah: This episode of the PEMcast was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. Music by Mr Ruiz. See behind the scenes photos for this episode on our blog Connected at pem.org. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.