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