Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Great Animal Orchestra

I like diversity in music and I also enjoy writing about it when I can take one or two completely diverse musical experiences or ideas and then attempt to weld them into something interesting and coherent. This blog's content is inspired by 1. A hobo wandering around the USA in the 1930s  2. A sound recordist of environmental sounds around the world and 3. A rock guitarist's collaboration with a contemporary composer. What brought these themes together was a walk in the spring of the North Yorkshire moors. I took an unscheduled break in early April and visited my sister and her husband who live in Middlesbrough, my home town. When young, I couldn't wait to get away from the place, now I enjoy all of my return visits. My brother-in-law is a keen walker and we always take time out for exploring. When I walk I can chatter, listen to the sounds around me and allow my thoughts to sort themselves out.

The said hobo is - or was - Harry Partch, a renegade musician who sought inspiration for his music from everything he heard around him. What he heard and wanted to reproduce couldn't be done on classical orchestral instruments so he set himself the task of inventing and building the instruments on which to play his music. I received for review a CD set called Bitter Music (Bridge) and expected this to be a recording of some of Partch's music. However, it turned out not to be this but was a spoken recording of his diaries as he bummed his way round America, hitching lifts and dossing with the other vagrants. The composer's narrative was illustrated with musical incidents and brief slices of incidental music scored to quotes from fellow travellers.


The sound recordist is Bernie Krause and I can thoroughly recommend his new book, The Great Animal Orchestra (Profile Books), which tells of the many years he has spent travelling the world and recording natural sounds, up mountains, under seas, in rainforests and deserts, even on icebergs. Until his influence, natural sound recordings were made by separating out particular sounds for archiving and study, for example, the individual songs of birds, or the cries of wild animals. Krause's discovery was that natural soundscapes which contain a wide variety of different creature noises reveal a remarkable characteristic. The recording of individual voices misses completely Krause's discovery that an animal, bird or insect voice has developed like an orchestral section so that it has its own acoustic frequency and dynamic range, set within a whole. In this way, in a great mass of apparent cacophony, such as in an equatorial rainforest, each can be heard and does not compete with any other. Every natural acoustic environment has its own unique soundscape, sound pattern or recognisable signature. Also of great interest was the fact that when a particular environment is stressed or damaged, for example by climate change or human intervention, the sound signature with its clearly independent but cohesive "parts" becomes a chaotic blur.

The third item on my agenda is a collaborative project between rock group Radiohead's guitarist, Jonny Greenwood and contemporary Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, who is today the world's must commonly performed living composer. Their works on a recently published CD (Nonesuch Records) express in music what Krause and Partch were finding in the environment by creating their own unique soundscapes. (There is that word again, one which crops up time and again in the context of new music. It was first defined by R. Murray Schafer at the end of the last century. He studied the sounds of various habitats and the word soundscape came to refer to all of the sound that reaches our ears in a given moment.) On first hearing much contemporary music, a high level of organisation may not be immediately apparent, but with careful listening, that organisation magically reveals itself, just as it does with careful listening to the collaborative natural sounds we hear around us.

What I now appreciate is how rewarding it is to listen not only to music but to all the sounds that we hear. Religion is not simply practised between the walls of a particular church or temple only on a particular day of the week and likewise having an appreciation for music is not just practised in the concert hall, or at home, or even only at the times of rehearsing and playing music. Music is happening all around us all the time. Listen and you will hear it.

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