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The 'Great Animal Orchestra' brings the wild rumpus of nature to art museums

Audiences at <em>The Great Animal Orchestra </em>at the current exhibit in Salem, Mass.
Kathy Tarantola
© 2021 Peabody Essex Museum
Audiences at The Great Animal Orchestra at the current exhibit in Salem, Mass.

Your imagination does the work at The Great Animal Orchestra – you just sit in a dark room and listen.

Currently at the Peabody Essex museum in Salem, Mass., through May 22, the exhibition immerses visitors into soundscapes from remote parts of the planet: seven of them, from the tropics to the tundra. No wildlife footage accompanies this symphony of wild animals. It's audio first, in a visually overstimulating world.

"The basic message is that the soundscapes of the natural world are the voices that we need to hear in order to moderate our behavior," says the show's creator, Bernie Krause. He's spent decades traversing the globe and collecting thousands of hours of animal habitat recordings as a soundscape ecologist.

His 2012 book, The Great Animal Orchestra, helped germinate this traveling museum show. Before this iteration of his career, Krause was a pioneering musician in multiple genres. Born in Detroit in 1938, he started playing the violin at age five. By the time he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he had already performed professionally with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

"I worked my way through school playing guitar as a backup musician at Motown," Krause tells NPR. "After I graduated, I came out to Boston and The Weaverswere performing and giving concerts around the Boston area."

The seminal folk group was looking for a replacement for the seat of Pete Seeger; Krause auditioned and got the job. He sang and played banjo and guitar with The Weavers until the group disbanded in 1964. Then, enchanted by new frontiers of musical possibility, he headed west.

At Mills College in Oakland, Calif., Krause studied with the acclaimed avant-garde composers Pauline Oliveros and Karlheinz Stockhausen and became a force in the burgeoning field of electronic music. With musician Paul Beaver, he helped introduce Moog synthesizers to popular music and film.

"We did a lot of work with major groups — with The Doors, the Byrds, The Monkees. We did work with George Harrison, Frank Zappa," Krause recalls. Krause's film work includes classics such as Rosemary's Baby and Apocalypse Now. He programmed much of the latter's score and worked on its memorable "Ride of the Valkyries" scene. "Shirley Walker actually played the keyboard. I'm not a great keyboardist," he says.

Before Paul Beaver died in 1975 of a brain hemorrhages while giving a concert in Los Angeles, he worked with Krause on a pioneering album called In A Wild Sanctuary, an early example of ambient music.

"Paul refused to go outside to record, which left that task to me," Krause says. "And I was terrified of animals. I grew up in a home in the Midwest that didn't allow dogs or cats or a goldfish. That was dangerous to my mom. Germs and all of that. I wanted to get over that fear."

So one autumn afternoon, Krause toted a still-new portable analog recorders to a heavily wooded public park north of San Francisco. His life was forever altered when he slipped on his headphones, took a breath and focused on the sounds of nature. "It wasn't noise," he explains. "It was a collection of sounds that felt so good that I just relaxed immediately."

"This is the tuning of the great animal orchestra, a revelation of the acoustic harmony of the wild, the planet's deeply connected expression of natural sounds and rhythm."

Krause felt affirmed, soothed, awakened. In the late 1970s, he earned a Ph.D. in marine bioacoustics at the experimental Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, Ohio and started recording what he calls biophonies – the collective sounds of living organisms in their biomes - in such far flung locales ranging from the boreal forests of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada to the savannas and shrublands of Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou National Park.

"This is really cool because you're gonna hear the baboons barking at a granite wall that creates an echo," whispers Jane Winchell, in the shadowed room of The Great Animal Orchestra at the Peabody Essex. Winchell, who directs the museum's Art & Nature Center, brought the show here after seeing it in 2017 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris where, she says, it transfixed audiences.

"It's just this miraculous composition. It really is like a piece of music with different movements," she enthuses.

Bernie Krause calls these soundscapes "yoga for the ears." Listening to animals he says, connects us to something ancient and vital about being human.

"These sounds are part of our DNA," he explains. "What we are hearing resonates with that atavistic moment in our lives when our ancestors heard these sounds and lived by them. In that way, it reconnects us to the natural, to the living world around us. But let me tell you, the further we draw away from that source of our lives, the more pathological we become as a culture. You don't believe that? Watch the news."

Or listen to it, he says. Never before have we been more connected to constant sound – in our cars, our earbuds, our phones. "And disconnected at the same time," Krause says. "Basically, we have to learn to be quiet."

So, if you cannot go to Salem, Mass., and experience The Great Animal Orchestra yourself, try something right now. Take off your headset. Turn off your radio or streaming device. Go outside, and listen.

Even if you're in the middle of a city, you can hear it. It may be far away, but the Great Animal Orchestra is there.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Parisian audiences relaxing into <em>The Great Animal Orchestra </em>during a 2016 exhibition in France.
Luc Boegly / Bernie Krause © United Visual Artists
Bernie Krause © United Visual Artists
Parisian audiences relaxing into The Great Animal Orchestra during a 2016 exhibition in France.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.