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Music: Nature Abstracted and Extracted

by René van Peer

From the liner notes of the CD: La Selva. Sound environments from a
Neotropical rain forest (released by V2, The Netherlands).

From time to time a dispute arises around the question whether sounds from nature can be considered musical. Differences of opinion often focus on the topic of whether animals experience their own vocalisations in a way that can be compared to how humans experience music. Do they derive pleasure from their own efforts, regardless of whether they achieve the pragmatic aim of producing these sounds; are they capable of behaviour that is exclusively aesthetic; do they subscribe to the human concept of "art for art's sake?" That notion, apparently the pinnacle of human artistic achievement, seems to be the bottom line. One assumption then can be that we humans are more sophisticated. Another can be that we have no way to know what goes on inside an animal, provided it has processes of consciousness comparable to humans. In short, another proof of the zealously guarded canon of human supremacy.

Apart from the fact that, for example, the European Blackbird Thrush (Turdus merula) is known to sing softly to itself, one may wonder whether this question isn't totally beside the point.

To begin with, nature as a concept is already a figment of human fantasy. It is a model humans have created for their convenience, to impose order on what surrounds them, to reduce what they preceive to what they can categorize. This is not an act to be slighted per se. In fact it is what lies at the basis of science as well as art. But it is an artefact all the same, not to be confused with the infinite complexity of reality.

The moment a human consciously listens to sounds around him, he will relate them to his own position. How are they spaced in the four dimensions? Do they interreact? Do they move towards him, away from him? What size of animal do they suggest? He tries to interpret them in regard to his own being there, and its continuation.

Relating them to his own position may also mean relating them to what he knows, trying to make them conform to patterns he uses for categorization. The sounds have pitch, and variations in pitch. They have duration. They may occur in intervals, which can be more or less regular. In other words they can be described in musical terms.

Music is a system that imposes order on sounds by way of pitch, melody, duration and rhythm. It developed as a set of rules in some classical traditions (such as those in Western Europe, the Islamic continuum, India, East Asia). So, when anthropologists started visiting and studying tribal cultures around the world they almost invariably ran across the situation that these peoples displayed musical behaviour, but had no generic term for it. They could have words that identified such musical activities with specific functions, but music as a category did not exist for them. This did not deter the scientists, who called these activities 'music' all the same.

Quite clearly it is not necessarily the producers of sounds who decide whether their output is music – ultimately it is the receiver and interpreter who is the judge of that, according to personal taste, whim and openness or closedness of mind. Consequently, what one individual is fully prepared to call music, another will reject out of hand.

The real bottom line is that consciously listening to sounds (be they atmospheric, geological, organic or mechanical) a human makes them suit his own purposes, thereby turning them into artefacts – phenomena of his own invention. Perceiving and interpreting his surroundings, however pristinely natural they may be, a human transforms them into a thing of culture. It should be emphasized though, that this only happens within his fancy. The next moment a large hungry feline may at one stroke make an end to these delusional musings of mastery. Business as usual.

Albums inspired by sounds from natural environments are being produced ever more frequently. They exist in any conceivable form. There are demonstration records that focus on extraordinary aspects of sounds occurring in nature. There are audio field guides to help outgoing nature enthusiasts identify the species they come across by ear. For clarity's sake these will, as a rule, attempt to present sounds in isolation, divorced from the context they occur in.

Others will try to try to give an idea of the sounds in an environment, as parts that make up a variable sonic entity. Soundscape, the word that people from the Acoustic Ecology movement (based on the ideas of R. Murray Schafer) use, is a wonderfully applicable term for it. These are sonic landscape likenesses – perhaps the most accurate analogy would be with photography. Through technical procedures, which may vary in sophistication and complexity, an image of a certain area is constructed.

Some put their recordings on CD without much more ado than selecting the pieces they want from longer sequences and cross-fading from one track to the next. Others spend significant time on piecing the image together in the studio, in order to recreate as faithful a sonic semblance as possible – to make it sound more natural than a straight recording would. Such processing may also be used to achieve aesthetic aims. Bernie Krause, for instance, does regard his soundscape albums as compositions that he very carefully puts together; the British/Australian sound recordist and composer David Lumsdaine uses some very slight edits, sometimes whilst recording. Both see the result as musical.

Gordon Hempton uses a binaural microphone to get recordings that ideally match the way a human would receive the sound, and then doesn't further process what he captures. Even though he doesn't seem to have any musical aspirations, some of his pieces can only be denoted as such. Especially a track that has frogs singing eerily protracted notes of varying pitch above the majestic rustle and boom of the wind blowing through the branches of an oak tree.

Another approach is to draw nature sounds into the domain of music. The list of examples is as varied as it is long. It ranges from people plunking the needles of cacti, to those who use the structure and occurrence of environmental sounds to shape their music, to those who just put one and one together and hope they reach infinity through that means – I am referring here to the exploits of people who would have you believe for your ease of mind that some symphony orchestra have put it into their head to perform Mozart's umpteenth KV in the rolling surf.

One would expect that the notion to treat environmental recordings as musique concrète would be straightforward. In fact it is so rare that to my knowledge La Selva is the only one to do so in a consistent way. The recordings were made in a limited area and in a restricted period (the rainy seasons of two consecutive years), they have been arranged on CD to follow one diurnal cycle. Francisco López is particularly meticulous in identifying and listing the species that you can hear on this album.

And yet the effect is not that of a landscape painted in sound. On the contrary, even though all sounds are immediately recognizable as organic and atmospheric, the overall impression is musical. This is especially evident in transitions from one movement to the next. As a listener you get the feeling that each has a character of its own. There are repetitions of themes. There is rhythm. There is polyphony and hocketing. There are rumbling pedal tones. And, full of buzz, there are flies, too.The image presented, although composed of concrete sounds, is highly abstract.

On another note, La Selva is quite unique among the albums that Francisco López has produced until now. These are typically based on environmental sounds he recorded, both urban and natural. For their sonic qualities and their usefulness in his work, he doesn't prefer one over the other. But in most of his other albums he processed these sounds beyond recognition to broad band noise, resulting in hiss and pulsations, in drones that bulge on the horizon of one's hearing – minute, but menacing. When sounds on earlier albums are recognizable, they are mechanical in origin, or they are produced by waterfalls or thunderstorms; in other words, broad band sounds. It seems as if on La Selva these have condensed and crystallized – into pitch, melody, duration and rhythm.

López has always worked in an area where sound and music merge. Through careful and sensitive manipulation he has created pieces that might be interpreted as registrations of geological activity or as vastly amplified processes within the human body; but these pieces sound entirely deliberate as well. They are obviously the result of aesthetic decisions. In short: they are music.

On La Selva he has approached this from a very different angle. The sounds have not been altered from how they occurred. The only intervention that López has allowed himself is, within the restriction of following the chronology of night turning into day turning into night, to group sequences according to sonic themes. By doing so he also transforms these sounds, that nobody will interpret otherwise than being those of a wildlife environment, into music.

© René van Peer, April ’98

Environmental Sound Matter - Additional thoughts on this from Francisco Lopez, as also included in the liner notes to La Selva. [WEBPAGE]

The Big Picture - Peruse more writings on soundscapes. [WEBPAGE]

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