This new book/CD set, a joint release from Strange Attractor and Gruenrekorder, will have a treasured place on my shelf aside Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra, David Rothenberg’s Thousand Mile Song and Cathy Lane & Angus Carlyle’s In the Field: The Art of Field Recording, among others. It’s a solid addition to a small yet growing canon of literature that opens our ears to the intricacies of our sonic environments.
Last year, a main character in Jenny Offill’s fine novel Dept. of Speculation was identified as a field recordist. Even though the character turned out to be a cad, the inclusion of his profession (which itself was not demeaned) demonstrates the way in which the subject has begun to poke its head into into popular culture. Field recordists typically call attention to sounds that are heard, yet not noticed; ironically the same is true of field recordists themselves.
Animal Music aims to change all that, and is an excellent primer for aficionados and newcomers alike. Editors Tobias Fischer and Lara Cory are extremely humble, relegating credit for different chapters to the small print of the opening index. Kate Carr contributes two chapters, and the book ends with an extended interview with Slavek Kwi, but without the names front and center, the book flows smoothly as a whole. Site favorites are numerous: Yannick Dauby, Jana Winderen, David Velez, Chis Watson and many more. This may be the first prose collection that pays as much attention to recorded works as it does to the concepts behind the recording and the science behind the sounds. As such, it serves as a recommendation engine as well, although some of the works referenced (specifically, Dauby’s Songs of the Frogs of Taiwan vol. 1) have sold out. This may be a good time to jump on some of the rest.
The 77-minute companion CD, compiled by Lasse-Marc Riek, is a treasure unto itself, and makes a fine listening aid to the book, although the track order might have been shuffled a bit to match the reading order. The opening track (Andreas Bick’s “Tikal Dawn”), immerses the listener in the sounds of the Guatemalan jungle, a companion to the Costa Rican experiences of Rodolphe Alexis in the opening chapter. Alexis will appear two tracks later with “Amazons & Parrots”, but it would have been nice to launch with this track, as it would have been fitting to close with Slavek Kwi’s river dolphin recordings (Track 6 on the CD). Still, few are the readers who are able to time the speed of their reading to match the length of different tracks, and as the book/disc progresses, a tapestry of international natural sound is woven strand by strand until it is hard to separate the experience of the eyes and ears.
With 17 tracks, there’s something for everybody, although the full album comes across as unified as well. Most of the tracks are new, although a few are not; it’s great to see new attention given to Daniel Blinkhorn’s terra subfonica, one of our favorite collections of recent years; and an extract from Tom Lawrence’s Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen reminds us of how much the recording artist is missed. Marc Namblard’s wild boars are a treat, as are Francisco López’ shearwaters (long-winged seabirds that sound like cats) and Jez Riley French’s wood ants (that sound like vinyl static). As one can tell from such lists, the definition of “animal” is fluid.
Cory defines animal music as “the sounds that animals make that go beyond basic communication.” From grooming gorilla to purring feline, species have been known to utter sounds for other reasons. Animals like to play with sounds, quotes Cory, and we can’t help but admire them for this. The peak capacity, as Fischer writes later, may be the utterances of certain birds, “capable of singing without interruption for 95 seconds, producing 1,500 different elements over that period.” Try it yourself – I did. It’s impossible for a human to match.
Winderen insists on leaving the animal sounds untouched in her recordings, while others admit the impossibility of pristine capture. Krause famously observed that the sonic realm is less a collection of individual sounds than a symphony, while Watson worries about “cutting up” an animal song. (For all we know, a seemingly pristine, start-to-finish animal song enjoyed by humans may seem to the animal like the yanking of a needle from a record mid-track.) Researchers at the Macauley Library in Ithaca, New York are building a vast collection of natural sound in an attempt to understand it: not only the meaning of sound environments, but the preservation of species sounds. By comparing older and newer recordings, they are often able to identify changes in a sonic habitat.
But not everyone cares, of course, which is why sonic environments are disappearing. The level of empathy ranges from nil (those who want frog ponds filled with concrete) to overboard (Yang Yi-Ru giving CPR to a frog). Geoff Sample may worry about the rush of humans celebrating International Dawn Chorus Day, but a lack of participation would be worse; at least those tromping out to enjoy an environment are paying some sort of attention. Fisher & Cory begin their project by trying to explain animal music, but end with a strong case for preservation. (Richard Allen)