Bernie Krause | The Great Animal Orchestra

The sounds of the wild

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Liam Kozak

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Courtesy of Exploratorium.

The Great Animal Orchestra, a collaborative work between soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, presented by the Exploratorium and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Paris), is coming to San Francisco. Krause, over the course of over fifty years, has collected more than 5,000 hours of natural environment recordings – including at least 15,000 identified terrestrial and marine species across the world. The exhibit opens June 10th and will run through October 15th at Pier 15, inviting visitors of all ages to step into the immersive audio-visual art experience in celebration of the world’s rich sonic biodiversity while raising awareness of its alarming decline.  

Before developing his fascination with documenting wild soundscapes, Krause was a musician and sound designer in the ‘60s and ‘70s with a resume boasting collaboration with the likes of Van Morrison and The Doors. In 1963, he joined the Weavers. He, along with his musical partner Paul Beaver, helped introduce the Moog synthesizer to pop music and film as sales representatives for the product, and their influence can be heard in over 135 movies and 250 songs. Krause’s current research offers sensory immersion into the acoustic world of animals, a field of study known as “soundscape ecology.” His contemplation of the natural world is poetic, he listens to animal noises with the ear of a musician and studies his field recordings with the ardor of a scientist. He masterfully seeks to unveil the beauty, diversity and complexity in the natural world’s amphitheater while highlighting the extent in which it’s being silenced by the intrusion of humanity. 

Krause’s work began in the 1970s, recording soundscapes across North America, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa, along with a myriad of soundscapes from the world’s oceans. In recent years, he’s returned to many of these sites to find more than 50% of the recorded biodiversity gone. And so, the unique installation is more than an exhibition of art. It’s a plea, through the mouths of the organisms themselves, to preserve the diversity of the animal kingdom. Krause implores the audience to listen to the narratives told by the natural world, before it’s ceaselessly smothered by civilization. 

The exhibition, which has been in the making for over fifty years, began “when Bernie [Krause] first met Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer while recording soundscapes in San Francisco,” according to Lindsay Bierman, Executive Director of the Exploratorium. Krause, Bierman continues, “recognized that these recordings were capturing a unique, non-human experience that could not be experienced in any other way, and they were accessible to anyone willing to take the time to listen.” 

“Imagine that the Exploratorium has been given Earth’s ear for the next few months,” Krause further states, “It’s a receptor that detects only the life-affirming sounds of the natural world, even in urban San Francisco. This ear only responds to the divine sounds of the natural world and knows that they alone can repair our aching souls if we just let them in. What will we allow this wondrous ear to detect in the next several months? Will we sanction wisdom, conciliation, kindness, kindness, love, wonder, balance, beneficence, and restoration to be heard? People often ask: ‘If I want to hear these beautiful animal orchestras, what can I do?’ It’s not what we must do to hear them. It’s what we choose not to do. To paraphrase a line by David Bowie: The future belongs to those who can hear it coming. Question: What do you hear?”

The Great Animal Orchestra, commissioned by the Fondation Cartier for exhibition in 2016, is now part of its permanent collection. Hervé Chandès, Artistic General Director of the Fondation Cartier, read Krause’s book of the same name and later visited his home in Sonoma County, prompting the idea for an immersive audio-visual realization of Krause’s archived recordings. The Fondation Cartier introduced Krause to UVA, the visual arts practice based out of London and led by Matt Clark, whose work seeks to integrate new technologies with traditional media. Chandés remarks, “The polyphony of the great animal orchestra is rapidly being lost, and we must band together to protect these indispensable resources and environments.” 

In producing The Great Animal Orchestra, Krause developed a composite of seven different marine and terrestrial habitats from across the globe while UVA created a computer software capable of generating detailed, immersive spectrograms produced by the soundscapes. These create real-time visual interpretations of the various locations and times when and where Krause’s original recordings were made. In its newest iteration, at the Exploratorium, the exhibition is to be presented in a sound-proof, standalone gallery with enhanced LED components. 

French filmmaker Vincent Tricon’s documentary, Bernie Krause: A Life with the Great Animal Orchestra, produced by the Fondation Cartier will be screened alongside the exhibition. The film won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles CineFest this January. Composed of archival, intimate footage and interviews, the documentary follows Krause through Sonoma County where he lives with his wife Katherine. 

The Great Animal Orchestra has been presented at prestigious institutions around the world, including Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Paris); Seoul Museum of Art; The Power Station of Art (Shanghai); Triennale de Milano; 180 The Strand (London); Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA); the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, during which time the spectrograms were also projected as part of a site-specific presentation on the sails of the Sydney Opera House; and Lille3000 (Lille, France). The Fondation Cartier’s The Great Animal Orchestra website was conceived in 2016 upon the exhibition’s debut and is dedicated to the work of Bernie Krause, allowing visitors to become their own conductor of nature’s vast musical ensemble.   

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Bernie Krause, San Francisco, Cartier, Art, The Great Animal Orchestra