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). [WEBPAGE]
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
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
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
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,
© 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]