radio program features interviews about the program links
web stream
Listen to the complete one-hour radio special.

Audio Listen to the program

Music and Nature: A Natural History of Listening
By Philip Blackburn, April 2005

One evening I found myself in the jungles of Samoa. It was dark, so I had to rely on my ears for direction and signs of danger.

The native Samoans were practicing on their log drums in the house while I was outdoors, surrounded by a chorus of cicadas. The two sounds seemed related, even harmonious. The musicians inside were communicating within their species, as were the insects outside, but the two worlds seemed to share a symbiotic relationship, like they had evolved in the same climate, and music and nature were in tune with one another. Kind of a macrobiotic music: of place, not merely about place. Was it just me with my overworked imagination, or was there a deeper connection here?

Call me aurally fixated, but that jungle moment got me thinking about the acoustic web we live in, and what it tells us about our attitudes to the environment. Listening inclusively like this has been a survival mechanism since primeval times, but it seems we've lost the habit since industrialization. Today, though, artists and scientists are beginning to pay attention to the sound world again, and to investigate ecosystems and the sounds they make. Are we coming full circle?

Because our ears don't have lids, we get plenty of practice at filtering out noise—the traffic, the neighbor's dog, or the radio—and hardly notice the encroaching noise pollution. Our ability to shut out our surroundings is measured in iPod units, and the number is increasing by the day.

Composer and teacher Pauline Oliveros has made a lifetime practice of sound meditation and deep listening by bringing attention to the whole process of social and musical transactions. She points out that listening, too, is a performance that takes practice:

"Deep listening is a process, listening to everything all the time and reminding yourself when you are not listening; there is a difference between hearing and listening; listening is the basis for creativity and culture. How you are listening is how you develop a culture and how a community of people listens is what creates their culture."

Can we trace changes in cultural understanding of the environment by looking to music for forensic evidence? Can we construct a natural history of listening? As our awareness of the global environment develops, what can we learn about living responsibly on the planet, leaving only footprints, taking only recordings?

There may be more than our musical tastes at stake. Hundreds of whales would agree; a deaf culture means death. They should know, because the Navy is causing their ears and brains to explode every time it tests its Low Frequency Active Sonar technology in the world's oceans.

A History of Listening
We are how we listen, just as much as the sounds we make. As Dutch music critic Rene van Peer says:

"You have to follow the cycles of nature, you have to watch, you have to listen, to be aware of what is happening around you to survive."

The more we ignore the workings of the environment, not just global warming but global loudening, the deeper the consequences will be.

Dutch composer Paul Panhuysen puts it this way:

"I believe that possibly in the past people have been much more aware of the other species that are also taking part in the world we are living in. That is something very, very vital: if you want to survive, you must use your ears, you must use your eyes, you must use your brains to order things and otherwise you get into problems."

The eyes, however, have taken a dominant role in our culture, much to the ears' disappointment and TV's delight. What would life be like if we diminished the privileged role of vision? And when we go about ordering things, what sort of structures would we come up with? From Plato to John Cage, people have thought that art should imitate nature "in her manner of operation." But our understanding of that manner evolves over time and across cultures. In western culture at least, this parallels the development of mathematical, religious, and scientific models. Bioacoustician David Dunn summarizes the development of aural awareness:

"We start with the notion of environmental hearing; that for survival adaptation, because of the extraordinary capacity of the human larynx to imitate the sounds of nature for hunting purposes and to manipulate the environment, we were very aurally attuned. What we heard in the environment had specific meaning. Over time we have evolved away from that into an abstraction of that capacity and gone through various stages.

"We move from this environmental hearing to 'arithmetic' hearing (through Pythagorean mysticism and early Greek number theory, tuning theory, harmonic science…), a way of postulating patterning in nature based upon arithmetic relationships.

"Then we move to 'spectral' hearing by the time of Rameau, and that directly informed science through the physics of Fourier. By the late 19th century we have the influence of Helmholtz where instrumentation and timbre take on a larger role in what might be called 'technological' hearing. This has wider implications, as Walter Benjamin pointed out about the status of the artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction.

"I think we have come back in the late 20th century, particularly through the aesthetic innovations of John Cage, but also where science now resides, to a new level of environmental hearing. We have the capacity for scientific sonification [and] bioacoustic studies through technology. We now again hear the soundscape as meaningful.

"What we have defined music as in the last 200 years has been so ego-based: the idea of individual creativity; the genius model; and the idea of self-expression. While these may be beautiful in their way, they are also part of an evolutionary endpoint: what use is it to us as a species or the earth at large? So these other investigations, as part of a pull-back to regroup, are happening and we need them to be happening."

Any difference between music and nature is rarely black or white. I can imagine a continuum with formalized, conventional music on one end (songs and sonatas) and chaotic, dynamic, messy nature on the other (frog choruses or lapping waves). Our focus here is on different points along that line: on acoustic activities that acknowledge the natural world, and on natural phenomena that have musical characteristics.

For the last half-millennium or so in the West whenever nature references appeared in music it was only through a kind of filter. You could quote birdsong for instance, but the fixed rules of musical structure—the rhythm and harmony—changed little to accommodate it.

Around 1500 French composer Clement Janequin wrote onomatopoeic chansons that musicalize birdsong without actually sounding like a dawn chorus. Nature had a moral function and, as soprano Emma Kirkby notes, well-regulated music could ennoble the listener with its improving qualities.

I've got the impression that for people during the Renaissance, nature was a source of lessons; they would look at nature and use it for their betterment. They saw themselves as halfway between the beasts and the angels: make sure you look up to heaven and not get sucked into beastly behavior. Janequin's Song of the Birds would delight you, but you are meant to feel grateful for it, rather than just entertained and ready to move on to the next thing.

Mozart's Starling
The next thing in terms of getting closer to nature "in her manner of operation" was the other Mozart Requiem; the one he wrote for his pet bird. People often say the Musical Joke represents Mozart having a bad week (although he did actually manage to crank out Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; not a bad piece at all), but in fact it may be the culmination of three years of avian research. Meredith West, a comparative psychologist from Bloomington, Indiana was the first to point out this connection.

The story starts in 1784 when Mozart went into a music shop that had birds that had been trained to sing. He bought a bird that was whistling a phrase from one of his piano concertos. Three years later he had an elaborate funeral for the starling where everyone dressed up and they read a poem that talked about the bird as being a clown, a fool, "full of brag."

If you listen to the way starlings mimic—off key, repetition, retaking of phrases—this is what Mozart must have heard and captured in his musical tribute to the bird, The Musical Joke, written in the week following its death.

Mozart was a noisy person, always whistling, humming, and thumping. In the same way starlings devour sound like food, digesting and producing more sound. They feed off rearranging music. Starlings are a successful species: 200 were brought to the United States and they now number 200 million. They establish social relationships and culturally transmit sound, using mimicry as vocal geography.

Mozart detected the compositional style of the bird, not through mimicry of specific sounds as composers had done hitherto, but through syntax, the way it is arranged.

Mozart's Musical Joke may have been an exception, but in traditional Afghan music playing with songbirds is the norm. The singing of birds is considered another musical culture, almost a religion, especially in Sufism, or mystical Islam, because every tweet and twitter is sounding one of Allah's secret names.

Birdsong in Afghan Music
John Baily, ethnomusicologist at Goldsmith's College, London, has made studies of the role of nature sounds in traditional Afghan society. The musicians of Herat like to take birds in cages to musical performances; from their point of view, to hear music with birdsong mixed in is the acme of enjoyment. The song of birds is also understood to repeat God's 99 esoteric names.

Baily ran a test of sound perception to determine if certain sounds were good or bad sounds for the listener to hear. There were some unexpected results; cockerels are considered a nuisance in the United Kingdom, but in Afghanistan they are welcome because in that culture a giant cockerel in heaven gives the call to prayer and wakes up the earthly cockerels.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra
Q: What do you get when you combine trees, horses' hooves, elephant tusk, pig's bladder, feathers, sheep's intestine, cowhide, sap, and grass?
A: The instruments of an orchestra.

And what if, say, Dr. Doolittle had been a New York Downtown composer and taken, say, a trip to Thailand? Dave Soldier has done the next best thing by starting the Thai Elephant Orchestra. It began in 2000 because elephants were in trouble: the roads got paved, and there was no more logging. Three thousand elephants were put out of work and so the Thai Elephant Conservation Center was started. They do shows for tourists, paint pictures, play football, and now Soldier has helped make musical instruments for them to play. They have even collaborated with the local high school band on a version of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony; it made a marvelous cacophony.

What we call cacophony can also contain the information we need for our global survival, and some scientific data is best processed by our ears rather than visually. Biomusic and bioacoustics are also becoming important tools for diagnosing the condition of the environment.

The Wood Bark Beetle Orchestra
David Dunn has been building a large catalog of the sound behaviors of bark beetles, Ips Confusus, that have been wiping out the pinon woodland of the Southwest.

"I had this hunch," Dunn says, "that sound plays a larger role than we've given it credit for—the range of complexity is greater; also to reveal how extraordinary the interior structures of trees are as an acoustic medium. I'm not sure if what I'm doing is an art work or science, and at this point I don't care except that it is revealing a certain body of knowledge that otherwise isn't possible to reveal.

"Sort of the initial impetus was posing the question to myself: these things live in that environment, I wonder what that sounds like? What do I need to do that? My approach has been to think it through: what is cheap that will benefit my work, but that children, too, could make? Simple piezo transducers coupled to physical devices planted within the tree: a meat thermometer and a musical greeting card. I have a family of four of these: underwater, insertion into anthills, ultrasonic, and trees; all four of them cost less than $100 to build."

The Music of Starvation
Cheap technology may be the key to expanding the reach of our listening and help us diagnose our ailing planet, but what if plant life itself evolved to depend on sound, specifically birdsong? Reduce the bird habitats, and you reduce the ability of plants to grow. Result: hunger.

Wisconsin Agro Sonic researcher Dan Carlson, inventor of Sonic Bloom technology, witnessed starvation and some very drastic events as a very young man in Korea. There and then he decided to dedicate his life to solving the problems of world hunger:

"One day I came across a frequency of sound that said it would make plants breathe better… I also used an organic foliar nutrient. Within four months my purple passion plant became 1350 feet instead of 18 inches and is in the Guinness Book of Records. It originated in Java. Their need there: they import 40 percent of their food; in 2018 years they will have to import 150 percent and will financially melt. My mission statement says that anyone who grows up malnourished will not be as smart as his or her parents. We grew plants in the Sudan and have proven anywhere Sonic Bloom is used, plants grow bigger; everywhere it was used we had bountiful crops; everywhere it wasn't used it dried in the drought."

Songbirds have aided in the absorption of dew since time immemorial. Carlson is saying there is a symbiotic relationship between birds and plants. He is using that mechanism to get plants to absorb 700 percent more organic trace elements than they ever have before.

But does Sonic Bloom effectively recreate the conditions of the planet before we screwed it up?

When DDT was widely used, Rachel Carlson wrote the book Silent Spring that warned that songbirds had thinner eggshells, and 40 percent of the songbirds are gone. Their job in aiding the absorption of dew is impossible.

Carlson says, "I don't have the ability to bring back a bird. I wish I did. Before the Great Sin mist rose from the ground and there was truly a Garden of Eden. We are using this mechanism to allow plants to actuate their genetic potential. It is truly trace elements that are the key to my health, your health, soil's health and the plants' health. What we see now is if we play sound to seeds, they germinate much faster, have a more complex root system, and they create a far better plant, but when birds nest and mate that frequency goes up, and I think God gave us these mobile sound oscillators. When they feel comfortable that it is time to mate and nest, I think their resonant frequency breaks dormancies in seeds, trees, and plant life. The sound of songbirds does tremendous things we weren't aware of, and we are now using these mechanisms to do many things.

Carlson has big dreams for the future applications of Sonic Bloom technology.

What might a large-scale application of Sonic Bloom look like in the future?

"Let's take St. Petersburg, Russia. Much of the East doesn't have enough food. Now I raise 20-pound cabbage instead of three-pound cabbage; I raise 20-pound beets instead of four-pound beets…. let's take borscht. We've proved a five-month shelf life; we grew the world's largest pumpkin this year… Let's say Sonic Bloom sound can be played on the radio, and these people put the radio out in the garden, and the helicopters swoop down, and we provide open-pollinated seeds which will increase every year, but if they were able to spray that, then the Russian problems have been getting the crops to the city; it is truly that simple to solve the problems of world hunger."

Sonic Bloom has been slow to take root in the United States partly because increasing yields and pushing prices down is not in the best economic interests of the large companies. It's the number one agricultural project for the government in Indonesia, though, and once again God comes into the picture:

"My Indonesian distributor is Harry Harienthal. A very famous mullah came to him with three pages written on all the relationships of a period of time with a man coming with a sound and a mist that plants will grow to great abundance. I am going to a country that is 95 percent Muslim and they have a total acceptance of me because of these 17 relationships in the Quran to a period of time and a process that is exactly like mine."

So one man's crackpot is another one's messiah. It's a tough pill to swallow that sound can stimulate plants.

Carlson admits, "I'm a man ahead of my time, but in huge areas of the world where people are starving I'm on time."

And maybe the planet is running out of time: the cicadas from my Samoan jungle experience may one day be replaced by mobile sound oscillators to keep the vegetation growing; the sounds of helicopters will be mixed with the Giant Heavenly Cockerel's call to prayer; an elephant will be whistling Dixie, and a French composer will be transcribing it all for piano. Sounds are more powerful than we give them credit for. Perhaps the next weapons of mass instruction are to be found on either side of our heads: our ears.

Home : Radio Program : Features : Interviews : About the Program : Links : Contact Us : Audio Help
©2005 Minnesota Public Radio : Terms of Use : Privacy Policy