We talk a lot about preserving the beauty of our natural landscapes. But what about preserving the sounds that come with it? Of course, in order to save something, we first have to be aware of its existence. One project that serves up a slice of that much-needed awareness is The Great Animal Orchestra, an interactive, online collection of wild sounds and "acoustic landscapes" recorded in a variety of locations by American musician, ecologist and "bioacoustician" Bernie Krause, in collaboration with Fondation Cartier. It's a remarkable exploration into the sublime sounds that make up these acoustic environments and the stark contrast of silence when bio-habitats are destroyed.
Listeners can explore the different layers of sounds that make up the biological cacophonies ("biophanies") of various regions. Krause, who also narrates the stories behind the collected audio samples, gives a tour of sounds in five locations: the Yukon Delta Refuge in Alaska; Ontario, Canada's Algonquin Park; California's Lincoln Meadow; the marine depths of the Pacific Rim and the rugged, pristine wilderness of Gonarezhou, Zimbabwe.
In each zone, we are called to close our eyes and to listen closely. We are given the option to filter out individual layers of sound by rolling our mouse over a semi-circular graphic, which categorizes the acoustic layers at different frequencies, from low to high. Each soundscape has extra information that can be accessed by a mouse click, revealing the date, exact location and species featured in each recording. There are even little interactive quizzes that you can try to help sharpen your ear in distinguishing the specifics behind the sound, such as species or season.
It's fascinating how Krause defines what makes up a soundscape, or an "acoustic environment" made up of three different sources: the geophony, the biophony and the anthropophony. These definitions compel us to think a little deeper about not only our impact on the physical environment, but also the acoustic environment in terms of noise pollution that might cause songbirds to cheat on each other or harm whales:
Geophony: the first component of the soundscape and the original source of sound on earth, corresponding to non-biological natural sounds, such as the sound of water in marine environments, the wind in the trees, thunder, rain, earthquakes, avalanches, etc.
Biophony: the second component of the soundscape, denoting the collective sounds produced by a whole group of living organisms in a given ecosystem.
Anthropophony: the third component of the soundscape that includes two subclasses of human-generated sound: "controlled" sound made intentionally by humans, including music, theater and language; and incoherent or chaotic sound, often referred to as "noise".
Numbers and statistics about deforestation, habitat degradation and wildlife decimation are dry, boring and abstract things that speak only to our intellects. Sounds of the wild, or lack of it, however, helps to expand our awareness, and gets us to understand at a visceral level of what is at stake, what we've already lost, and what remains and must be protected. More over at The Great Animal Orchestra (available in English, French and Portuguese).