Wild Sounds

Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune.  ~Thomas Fuller (17th Century English clergyman)

As autumn deepens with shorter days and cooler nights, the creature chorus in the woods around my house begins a long diminuendo. After a warm rainy day, the frog chorus returned but not with the lusty enthusiasm of July and August; on a cool night, they barely make a peep. The cicadas continue their cheerful instrumental bowing but in pianissimo – softly, softly. It is the gradual fading away of the wild sounds of summer that brings on a faint regret. Even as the woodland shifts into high gear for a spectacular visual feast of foliage color, the orchestral concert of sound through my window fades into the quiet of autumn, with the silence of winter not far behind.

In the midst of this, I am preparing to embark on a year long project of recording the sights and sounds of nature in western Pennsylvania, an area rich in woodlands, meadows and watersheds, and using them as core elements in a set of musical pieces “A Year in Penn’s Woods.”  The idea of bringing nature into music is not a new one – the great French composer Oliver Messiaen transcribed the songs of birds and used them in his compositions. Other composers ranging from Alan Hovhaness in “And God Created Great Whales” to Paul Winter in his Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) have incorporated recordings of wild creatures, from whales to wolves, in their works.

Although always inspired by nature, moving into our present home intensified the influence of flora and fauna on my music making. Surrounded by the remnant of a eastern hardwood forest and gardening in a way that supported wildlife of all kinds, the sense of living in the middle of a grand ecology began to emerge in lyric and note as well as inspiring photographs and videos.

Influenced for years by the writings of author and bioacoustician Bernie Krause, I began to use the example of orchestration in the wild while teaching orchestration in music to my students. (Read about his newest publication The Great Animal Orchestra)  Each creature has a niche of sound, a bandwidth if you will, that gives them aural space to communicate with their kind, what Krause terms biophony. This concept has long been an internalized model for me when I begin composing and orchestrating my own pieces, so that each voice has its own niche and is audible even as it contributes to the many layers of instruments.  Here’s a video of Krause speaking at Cal Academy – once there, click on “The Role of Biophony in Sound” to see and hear his findings.

This past July, Krause wrote an opinion piece, The Sound of a Damaged Habitat, for the New York Times on the effect of habitat destruction on sound ecology. (A special thanks to my friend Margie for alerting me to this article) Even as I move deeper into the sounds of nature around me, I am also aware of voices that are starting to disappear.  The recording of frogs and cicadas made on our property a few years ago was far richer, deeper and more varied than the ones I recorded this summer, which worries me. I feel an urgency to move ahead on my project, recording the sights and sounds of our local habitat while sharing it in a musical context.

Here is a video of Krause talking about his discovery of a “singing cottonwood tree” while recording the sounds of brown bats.

When next you walk in nature, I hope you hear the wild sounds, the orchestra of the earth all around you. Perhaps it will inspire you to sing and dance along.

Here’s an older post with a similar idea – Trees that Sing

50 thoughts on “Wild Sounds

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    • Simon, I have really been enjoying reading your blog, your extraordinary poetic voice. Thank you for visiting and commenting. And yes, I am completely thrilled about the opportunities this coming year brings – I like nothing better than to be out in nature yet doing things that bring it inside for everyone else.

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  6. Way back in his career, natural sound legend Bernie Krause was all about electronic music and human performers: The Doors, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger. Then Bernie Krause went over to the wild side. To nature’s own symphony.

  7. Astonishing project! Thank you for sharing. When we moved into our house almost 30 years ago there the sound of red wing blackbirds welcomed us. Since then they have moved away to the parking lots of big box stores not to far away. I miss their chatter. I never thought of recording it. You make me think of so many stories about sound. Hmmm!

  8. In the city we have the urban equivalent—people talking under the window, garbage trucks, car alarms (now mercifully pretty rare), different kinds of traffic on the road… It’s amazing how the ear becomes attuned to all these different sounds and classifies them accurately. Same phenomenon, just in a different environment…

    • Interesting that you should mention that, Vlad – it is what Krause calls anthrophony, or human induced sound. While in the wild, it is considered a pollutant, John Cage celebrated it as part of the soundscape of the city, New York in particular. In fact, Ear to the Earth has a year long celebration of “found sound” soundscapes to celebrate Cage’s 100th birthday.

  9. I love the whole idea of this project you’re embarking on, and look forward to how you distill it into music.
    I’ve noticed a change in the sounds around me, too. For the past two years, I’ve heard more green frogs and fewer bullfrogs, but suddenly this summer the bullfrogs came back. Birdsong is different, too, although I can’t pinpoint it just yet.

    • Thanks, Robin. It is going to be an adventure for me, as I have a general idea of how I want to proceed but some of it will be a new approach for me. Interesting about your frogs; your pond must be a wonderful haven for them.

  10. Nature’s music – what a wonderful thought. I was just thinking today about how silent our forest is becoming now that so many birds have headed south and so many insects have finished their life cycle.

  11. I’m a visual artist, but this has always been very interesting to me – sound ecology, deep listening, pushing the boundaries of music, etc. I like the quote very much. I look forward to seeing – oops! hearing about this as it progresses.

    • bluebrightly, thank you for commenting and following – deeply appreciated! The quote was a great find – it inspired the title of the post and said so much in so few words. I’m excited about the project – a bigger and deeper exploration of themes that I have been working with for a while and a chance to spend even more time out of doors. BTW, I loved the photo of the butterfly on your hand – magical!

  12. Fascinating stuff, Lynn–the concept of what I will (inadequately) describe as “natural music.”

    Best of luck with the project; I very much look forward to experiencing the fruits of it down the road.

  13. Such a wonderful project ahead of you! – good luck and thanks for the leads to Bernie Krause work.
    Every day a small piece of the wild habitats it’s lost and with it a ‘piece’ of us too…

  14. I love the opening quote that you chose for this blog post, Lynn. I should slow down on my bike when I ride around to listen to the wild music in the parks areas where I roam.

    • Hi Jean, and thanks for stopping by. I love that quote, it seems so modern but is from the 17th century. I always loved the quiet of biking through the landscape – sounds like a great opportunity for you!

  15. This made me smile, as I had thoughts along this line in the opener for a recent post. This really interesting, am following the links now.

    The sounds around us affect us, whether we’re aware of it or not. One of my favourite sounds happens in winter while walking on moonless nights, it is the sound of snow falling in the woods. Those heavy big wet flakes, usually early winter or early March. Orchestral wild or wild sounds.

    • Glad you got a smile out of it, Hudson – I hope you enjoyed the links. I know what you mean about the sound of the snowfall – the falling snow muffles the other sounds and the soft hiss of the flakes landing is magical.

  16. Ah, I was listening to Hovahness today and writing in a similar vain about light. I agree that nature’s music is a language that tell us not only about its well-being, but by scared connection, our own. I’m so excited about your work, Lynn; it speaks to my heart so profoundly, and your amazing creativity will, I know, bring such depth to these ideas: I can’t wait for your updates and progress notes!

    Gentle peace,

      • Yeah, those classes with you and Bill left a lasting impression, especially learning about electronic music, synthesis, and musique concrete.

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