The place of sound: listening to nature and networks

On Thursday night, a small audience gathered in Boylston Hall to take in an unusual call-and-response performance: legendary musician and field recordist Bernie Krause joined poet and ecocritic Jonathan Skinner in a kind of motet of verse and natural sounds. The event was produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and Film Study Center in conjunction with the Woodberry Poetry Room and its adventuresome curator, poet Christina Davis, whose curatorship has framed a rich exploration of poetry’s sonic entanglements.

Seated at a small table with a vase of lilies and a pair of MacBook Pros, Skinner and Krause alternated readings from ecologically-themed poetry with treasures from a vast collection of recorded environmental soundscapes. Alternating a dozen or so lines of verse with one or two minutes’ audio, Skinner sought to frame the upwelling sounds of nature: the forest’s night chorus, the pounding of waves, the clamor of a band of gorillas crashing through undergrowth. The tentative and gestural nature of the collaboration was evident; although Krause and Skinner exhibited great warmth and camaraderie, and despite Skinner’s deep responsiveness to natural sounds in his poetry, the particular fit between soundscape and spoken word—between chorus and verse, as it were—was not especially tight. Perhaps it’s a cognitive effect, or perhaps it’s a question of prosody, or amplification, or editorial shaping and control; it’s fair to say that the performance seemed like a gesture towards a deeper and riskier engagement rather than a finished work.

It was an inspiring and provocative experience nonetheless; Krause’s entr’acte discussion of the ecological dimensions of sound was especially thought-provoking. In his recent book The Great Animal Orchestra, Krause argues for the importance of the “biophony“—a neologism of his coinage to name the domain of sound produced by animals, whose evolved orchestrations can furnish useful data on the health of ecosystems. In Krause’s paradigm, biophony is framed by two additional acoustic regimes: geophony, the sound the earth makes as bodied forth in wind, waves, thunder, river, and the like; and anthrophony, the sonic intrusions of man, typified, in Krause’s typology, by the drone of the internal combustion engine.

There are questions worth pondering in reference to this taxonomy: for instance, what to make of the absence of a sonic kingdom for plants? Perhaps photosynthesizers should be counted among the biophones—and yet the palette of sounds actually made by plants is tiny compared to that made by motile life—small, and almost entirely epiphenomenal, rather than behavioral. (If I were to propose a term for this domain, I’d nominate “phytophony,” which is nearly lovely enough to forgive the plants their sessile, silent habits and grant them full sonic sovereignty.) Sound plays little role in the natural history of plants—a fact which would seem to set a limit on the evolutionary importance of acoustic phenomena. (As Krause’s account of tree cavitation in the video below demonstrates, sonic behavior in plants is perhaps not entirely without evolutionary import.)

If the absence of plants from nature’s sonic parliament is merely incidental, the alienation of humankind is perhaps more troubling and compelling. Why shouldn’t Krause consider our sounds part of the biophony? Do only our vocalizations, up to and including language, count as biophonic, while our machines live in a sonic domain of their own? Might language, too, be counted out of the animal orchestra? If language is biophony, Jonathan Skinner’s versified vocalizations aren’t separate and antiphonal from the natural, but are properly part of the same great evolutionarily-tempered arrangement. Just as naturally, one wants to say, we frame the biophony with electronics, transpose its rhythms and modes through networks, and derive our own acoustic inventions from inspiring encounters with nature’s sonic pressures. These framing, mimetic propensities charm and enliven our long encounter with the world; they bring their forces to bear on us across media—from jawbone and inner ear to condenser microphone and lossy file-compression algorithm; from the veils of morning to the strangest sea. Here’s the question I’m left to ponder: can our networks of mediated sound provoke us to act in ways that thwart the implacable, unsustainable enormity of the systems that drive and enable those networks?