The Noises of Nature
By JEFF HULL, New York Times
Published: February 18, 2007
.…Bernie Krause.…worldwide, nearly 40-year quest to record the earth’s rapidly disappearing “biophony” — a term he coined to describe that portion of the soundscape contributed by nonhuman creatures. Biophony, Krause has theorized, is unique to each place; nowhere in nature sounds exactly like anywhere else. This idea has led him toward a controversial way of thinking that would broaden the scope of today’s evolutionary biology. Many animals, he argues, have evolved to squeeze their vocalizations into available niches of the soundscape in order to be heard by others of their kind. Evolution isn’t just about the competition for space or food but also for bandwidth. If a species cannot find a sonic niche of its own, it will not survive.
Krause’s “niche hypothesis” may seem more plausible after you’ve listened to his recordings of dense tropical jungles, polyphonous soundscapes packed with whistles and whinnies, whoops, hoots and howls, deep bass throbbings and shrieking buzzes. Krause employs supersensitive recording equipment and computer programs to create spectrograms of these group vocalizations, visual printouts indicating the stratified sounds according to time and frequency — not unlike a symphonic score. Using his trained eye, Krause is then able to locate the sonic signature of each animal. “What you’re listening to is an animal orchestra, very finely tuned and constructed and conducted — there’s no accident here,” Krause says. “They all coalesce in a way that’s not planned but cooperative or competitive, one creature in relation to another.”
.…Even our most pervasive form of mass aural communication, the television, is accompanied by visual images, and natural sound infrequently permeates our built environment. The literature on these transformations is meager. Krause found his early inspiration in the writing of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” in the 1960s and explored the impact of changes in the soundscape — like urbanization and industrialization — on our perception of our environment.
.…Some evolutionary biologists find troublesome ambiguities in Krause’s hypothesis. Michael Greenfield, who specializes in animal communication and sensory evolution at University of Kansas, says: “I don’t know of any cases where you have a variety of species that basically have decided: ‘Let’s all get along. You can have this bandwidth, and I’ll have this, and that guy over there can have his piece.’ There’s little evidence that animals are solving this problem in a cooperative and amicable fashion.”…