Friday, August 21, 2020

On Listening


The only cricket I've heard this August was just inside the Grasslands' Walmart doors to their garden center.  That may be because my ears struggle to hear signal apart from ambient noise--part of being seventy.  It may also be because it hasn't been a good year for crickets, or because the crickets' habitat has moved for any number of reasons.  But I've missed the sound.  I have always loved the sound of crickets.  They signal the arrival of August and the new year that will soon begin when I--we--you--go back to school.  Another is that they recall sleepless nights when I was a child and perhaps managed to create a meditative state by listening closely to crickets.  It seems there was always a chorus of crickets that kept up a subtle rhythm while one single cricket sang a long endless song over the top of their accompaniment.  Imagine my surprise when, in my late teens, I heard my first Shostakovich symphony and heard the same sound pattern in his quiet movements.

That's the conclusion Bernie Krause comes to in his book The Great Animal Orchestra:  Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places.  Krause thinks the biophone humans live in structures and inspires music.  Krause began his musical life with piano and violin lessons, dismaying his proper middle-class family when he instead took up the guitar and became a member of the Weavers, backing up Pete Seeger in his 1963 Carnegie Hall reunion concert.  In the mid-sixties, he moved to California, drawn by experimental music for synthesizers, becoming friends with Paul Beaver, a LA musician who composed the music for such feature films as Creature from the Black Lagoon, and War of the Worlds.  In 1968, Beaver and Krause were commissioned by Warner Brothers to do a series of albums using long segments of natural sounds.  Beaver, who affected a three-piece suit, was not about to head for the woods and record natural sound, so Krause did it alone.  How different the sounds of nature were when you used mics and picked it up on your headphones:  much more intense, focused, and purposeful.

One of the things these experiences with microphones, earphones, and nature showed Krause was that he used his ears primarily as filters which told him what not to listen to.  (I've done that.  I wrote my Ph.D. thesis with a child at home..  When she had a friend over for a play date, I listened only for conflict or frustration in their voices, and managed to get quite a lot done between 3:30 and 5 before we walked her friends home.)  As well, he realized that his experience taught him what to listen to, not what to listen for.  When Beaver collapsed suddenly and died of a brain aneurysm, Krause enrolled in a creative arts program, studying marine bioacoustics.  Water, he tells us, is one of the hardest things to record because your ears mix the far-off sounds of breakers with the close sounds of water and wind on sand; mics can't do this.  But he has ventured far beyond the California coast, recording the biophone among Dian Fossey's great apes, recording the sound of corn growing, and analyzing the complex biophonies of rain forests.  What he has learned is that an ecosystem's sounds are a lot more like music than we might think.  Each species, in order to communicate clearly with far-flung individuals of its "tribe," maybe about mating, maybe about danger, develops its own niche in the biophone.  It's that signal to noise thing I'm so bad at these days.  They find a space to establish their signal among the voices, with insects setting the stage, which may be the other reason I am missing the sound of crickets.  Perhaps, through evolution, they've experimented with their relationship to the biophone, pitching their signals high to avoid the deep rumbling, well below human hearing, of giraffes.  Insects and frogs might work out a harmony, one higher, one lower, one sound sustained, one pulsing, to keep out of one another's acoustic way.

Karuse spent hundreds of hours among the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, listening to them sing, noting the soft grunts that were a welcoming, all-is-well  "Hi!"  And the females hum to one another while they are grooming.  Some scholars are arguing that humans sang before they talked.  Think about how music is--for me at least--like a main line into feeling.  If at first all we need to convey is that we belong together and that we are safe, music will do the job.

Sadly, Krause has also learned the biophones are under erasure as more human sounds disrupt the music of the creatures and as we destroy their habitats.  (I'll have more to say about this in my next post about audio ecologist Gordon Hempton, who argues that "Silence is the think tank of the soul," and who notes that we are destroying it in natural places.  Silence for Hempton is not the absence of sound, but the absence of human noise.)  It seems we need snowmobiles in national parks and military jet paths close to earth near vulnerable ecosystems or more and more cruise ships and tankers in our oceans.  This causes creatures to give up, to move house, to become prey, to fail to thrive, even to die of the noise. 

Is it possible that we, too, are dying of the noise?  It's not hard to argue that much of Donald Trump's reaction to COVID 19 has been noise and bluster and lies, and that all too many people have listened to that noise rather than looking to other channels for information about how to keep themselves safe.  There's altogether too much bullying, too much selfish shouting, too much faultfinding regarding everything the "other" party is doing, for us to have a civil dialogue and solve the problems that face us and that need complex perspective to anticipate a solution.  As well, think of Bonnie Henry, whose voice is so measured, empathetic and informative at exactly the same time.  We trust her voice.

Indeed, we have a crisis of listening.  If  you think back to your most recent meeting, you'll doubtless recall at least one moment when one of your colleagues wasn't listening but was preparing a rebuttal without all the relevant information.  I love--and deeply miss--the conversations in coffee shops, but all too often when I'm there to read or think, I hear a conversation where one individual is holding court.  It reminds me of Atwood's wonderful line in Cat's Eye, delivered ironically by the problematic Cordelia:  "But enough about me.  What do you think about me?"  

Psychologists have coined the phrase "perspective taking" for those moments when our view of the world suddenly comes through someone else's eyes or experience or story. Most often, art affords us opportunities for perspective taking--the novel, the movie, the painting, the symphony or song that delivers us to another viewpoint.  Maybe that's one of the reasons beauty in nature and in art is so important:  it grasps our attention and shifts us into another realm, another perspective.  Perspective taking is crucial to empathy and compassion, but it also allows us to solve problems more successfully, because we've suddenly got a cluster of viewpoints and ideas.  Like the creatures Krause records, we need to find the music that comes out of a variety of voices, to find a niche in the environment for each of them.


  1. Hear hear! And thank you for the laugh this afternoon, when I'd read the quotation from Cat's Eye. Apologies for the gap: I've re-discovered your blog just today, and am happy I did so. Still so much to learn from you!

  2. Sean, I've been very isolated in too many ways, and haven't looked to see whether I ever get any comments. Thank you for reading. I'm assuming you are still in Japan. How are you doing?