When musician and ecologist Bernie Krause visited the Lincoln Meadow, high in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, in June of 1988, it was blaring with finches, warblers, tanagers, sparrows, and quite a few frogs. When he returned the following June, the only bird singing was the sapsucker. Although the landscape looked unchanged, selective logging had impacted the site’s biology, and over 15 visits since, Krause found it never revived to its earlier state.
Listening to nature to better understand its ecology, and the human impact on it, is central to the California-based Krause’s audio career, going back to his first recordings in the late 1960s. In 2015, Krause’s book Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes highlighted the connection between environmental changes and sound. Currently, his acoustic work is the focus of The Great Animal Orchestra at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris. While the exhibition closes January 8, an online interactive is available in English, French, and Portuguese, and examines five habitats where Krause has recorded.
Sounds from Lincoln Meadow are included, along with those from daybreak in 1996 on the Zimbabwe savannah, featuring barking baboons and honking Egyptian geese. There’s a duet of two wolfpacks in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park from 2007; birds from as far as Africa and New Zealand meeting in the Yukon Delta Refuge of Alaska in 1993; and a collage of sound from the Pacific Rim oceans, punctuated by whales, gulls, and coral reef fish.
Each is narrated (in the English option) by Krause, who points out different levels in the cacophony. There is the “biophony” with biological sounds (animals), the “geophony” with the non-biological (like weather and waves), and the “anthrophony” with human-made interventions (airplanes, highways, etc.). Users can isolate specific frequencies, and then hear how the shrill insects or low calls of humpback whales fit into the diverse drone.
Krause told the New York Times last summer, of his more than 5,000 hours of nature recordings, an estimated 50% represent habitats that have ceased to exist. His work is aligned with projects like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, which represents birds such as Wyoming’s greater sage-grouse under threat by energy development, and the pollution-susceptible common loon. When we listen closely to the natural world, we can often perceive ecological changes that cannot be seen.