Sounds Natural

A Consumer Guide to Music From the Earth

Though the haunting and soaring sounds of the deep sea now echo in our consciousness, before the late 1960s human beings knew nothing of this hidden sonic world. It was an underwater microphone that first allowed Roger Payne and Scott McVay to hear the astonishing sounds of humpback whales. When their hydrophones slipped into the water, they entered a state of awe. “I heard the size of the ocean that night,” writes Payne. “It was as if I had walked into a dark cave to hear wave after wave of echoes cascading back from the darkness beyond. The cave spoke to me. That’s what whales do, give the ocean its voice.”

Payne is convinced that these vocalizations are songs. The repeating motifs, often ending in recognizable, even rhyming, patterns, exhibit many of the qualities of human music. They are repeated en masse by pods of whales, the same choruses over and over again—staggered, but the same tune. Then the next season, a different tune, but the whole group, again, singing it in unison.

So this is more like music than it is like language. And whether between cultures or species, music communicates more easily and more quickly across boundaries. We can understand something of songs from foreign countries when we don’t know the words, and we can get the gist of animal songs even if we don’t quite know what they’re all about. Music reaches out across the chasms of nature, where words don’t exist and science knows nearly nothing.

Realizing this, Payne released his recordings of whales as an LP called Songs of the Humpback Whale and it sold well. The whales were a “hit,” even backing Judy Collins on a memorable version of the old ballad “Farewell to Tarwaithe.” Since Payne’s landmark album, recordings of natural sounds, some mixed with music and some not, have become ubiquitous, and the marketing of them has blossomed into a small cottage industry.

Aural Art

If you think nature sounds CDs are merely soft, relaxing waterfalls and bird cheeps to calm you down after a long hard day, listen again. This genre is evolving into a genuine art form, with sound artists composing aural masterpieces out of all kinds of field recordings. Here are some of the best nature sound works of recent years:

Francisco Lopez is an artist of sound collages as well as a professor of ecology in Madrid, Spain. He performs his sonic surround-works at noise music and ambient techno clubs all over the world. On his many recordings you will hear natural soundscapes that are anything but quiet; instead, vibrant, intense and loud. On La Selva (V_2 Archief) he presents the sounds of a Costa Rican rainforest as a continuous, booming, buzzing composition of reverberant living elements. Lopez urges the listener to hone in on the sound itself, without regard for where it comes from or what it is supposed to represent. Thus nature is recreated right inside you.

David Dunn takes a similar approach on Angels and Insects (OO Discs), including a piece called “Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond.” A single gentle tapping sound expands to reveal an incredible cacophony of wings, jaws and feet, the sonic traffic of the previously unheard world of underwater insects. Like the best of such recordings, this is no simple turn-on-the-microphone-and-see-what-happens account, but a carefully layered composition of noises from a world that would be just beyond human reach if it weren’t for the expansive potential of our latest auditory technologies.

Composer Richard Lerman proves you don’t necessarily need expensive high-tech gadgets to get the best result. He is famous for building amazingly effective microphones out of piezoelectric disks bought for a few bucks at Radio Shack. Lerman sets them out in the desert, where ants crawl all over them, or places them between two tiny blades of grass somewhere at the edge of the ocean. The sounds are immediate, raw and tremendous, and he selects from among them to create amazing close-range auditory portraits from all over the world on Within Earreach (Artifact).

Not Easy Listening

The best soundscape recordings are not gentle, easy-listening ambiences but revelations of our environment of sudden intensity. On Outside the Circle of Fire (Touch), British avant-rocker Chris Watson has trained his keen ear on the most surprising sounds around him, from purring cheetahs and hippos emerging from the water at dusk to vultures pecking out the eyes of a zebra and beetles nibbling at his home cottage.

Though the sounds of nature can certainly stand on their own, they’ve also been blended with music, from the traditional to the avant-garde. You may have heard the exotic overtone chords of throat singers of Tuva, that tiny republic just north of Mongolia. But you haven’t really heard the music in its natural context until you listen to Tuva Among the Spirits (Smithsonian Folkways), Ted Levin’s recording of the songs of Tuvan and Siberian herdsmen merged with the audio environments of their home places. Here is a world music that really fits into its world, with songs imitating streams, animals and huge echoes off the edges of cliffs.

In modern classical music, one of the most striking uses of nature is John Luther Adams’ Earth and the Great Weather: A Sonic Geography of the Arctic, an hour-long work for re-tuned string quartet, percussion and spoken word. Beating drums, pounding thunder, rushing water and an intense squeeze of strings create its many layers. Spoken words in the native Alaskan languages I?upiat and Gwichi’in complement the mix.

Paul Winter is probably the most well-known musician to integrate the sounds of whales into his gentle, moving ballads and improvisations. On Whales Alive, (Living Music) he blends his pure soprano sax tones with the bellows of the great pipe organ of the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, as played by Paul Halley. The songs of the humpback are woven in and out of the spacious melodies, punctuated with great human words about the magnificence of whales, from Moby Dick to poet Gary Snyder. If this won’t convince you, perhaps nothing will.

What good do these recordings do for the Earth? Make us listen, wake us up, teach us to appreciate what we hear in nature as an ongoing, pure art form, an ecological symphony. Like all real art, these works teach us to experience the world anew even after they have stopped playing. Like the best nature photography, nature phonography can be sensitive, inspiring, deep and perceptive, and get beyond the easy sense of voyeurism. These are some of the best and most surprising examples of the genre, and are all well worth a listen.

DAVID ROTHENBERG is an environmental writer, clarinetist and composer whose latest CD, which blends natural sounds with human improvising musicians, is called Before the War.