listen to africa

an audio adventure through africa

Geotag Icon About the sound recordings part II: natural soundscapes (biophonies)

Blog posted by on Nov 13th, 2009
Lagoon in Senegal

Lagoon in Senegal. © Listen to Africa

Part I of our “about the sound recordings” series looked at wildlife sounds. In this second part, we look at natural soundscapes of living things (“biophonies”). We’ll write about soundscapes from non-living sources (like weather) and from human environments (eg villages, towns and cities) later in this series.

When we first had the idea for this journey, Huw and I were expecting to mostly record wildlife (single species) and people (interviews, oral histories etc). While the latter has turned out to be trickier to organise and more time-consuming to edit than we expected, the former has sparked a new interest in both of us: expanding our wildlife recordings to encompass a wider exploration of the natural world. As naturalist and sound recordist Bernie Krause says:

“We are beginning to learn that the isolated voice of a song bird cannot give us very much useful information. It is the acoustical fabric into which that song is woven that offers up an elixir of formidable intelligence that enlightens us about ourselves, our past, and the very creatures we have longed to know so well.”

This “acoustical fabric” or “sonic environment” (R Murray Schafer) is the soundscape.

Soundscapes, we feel, can give a more immersive sense of place than either words or photography. They can stimulate or relax the mind. They can allow the imagination free reign. And they can occasionally put a smile on someone’s face.

If any of our soundscapes do any of these things for anyone listening, we are utterly delighted. But beyond that, through the soundscapes, we’re also hoping to make a tiny contribution to the body of work that phonographers around the world are building, sonically documenting parts of our natural world through field recordings.

They’re documenting a world that’s changing – degrading, disappearing – terrifyingly fast. Species are becoming extinct faster than at any time since 65 million years ago. Countless habitats are being degraded through pollution, human population pressure and the rape of the planet’s resources for human consumption – ie through humans acting as arrogant exploiters instead of as modest partakers. And all of this is smallfry compared to the changes we’ll see (or won’t see…) if we allow human-created climate change to continue unchecked.

If you’re from a visually-oriented culture like I am, you probably conceive of these losses visually: you’ll see an endangered species, or you’ll picture a degraded habitat. But the world is also losing a wealth of its sounds. As well as the direct loss through biodiversity reduction and species extinction, there’s also the drowning out of natural sounds through ever louder human noise (noise being sound in which information has become meaningless). When was the last time you heard a soundscape that had no mechanised or industrialised interference? No traffic, no planes, no TVs or radios, no humming fridge, no running taps, no mobile phones…

(I’m writing this – with pen and paper – five kilometres away from the nearest village on a tiny, remote and sparsely populated Atlantic island, two days’ travel by boat from mainland Guinea-Bissau. Even here, between the lapping waves and the birdsong, I can hear: the crackling of a two way radio; a diesel fishing boat chugging in the distance; the splashing of a fisherman’s net in the sea; the clunking of a wheelbarrow on a bumpy path…)

The impact of this noise on human beings and the ways in which we relate to our environments was explored by R Murray Schafer in The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977):

“The soundscape of the world is changing. Modern man is beginning to inhabit a world with an acoustic environment radically different from any he has hitherto known. These new sounds, which differ in quality and intensity from those of the past, have alerted many researchers to the dangers of an indiscriminate and imperialistic spread of more and larger sounds into every corner of man’s life.”

The noise also profoundly affects other living things – in ways that we hardly understand yet. Many nature recordists report that they perceive natural soundscapes as orchestral symphonies, as music in its purest and most complex form. Bernie Krause has suggested and continues to research the idea that the natural soundscape of living things is an intricately orchestrated “biophony” of individuals and species occupying distinct acoustic niches in the audio spectrum. The disruption of these biophonies and masking of individuals’ vocalisations by mechanical and industrial sounds may have implications for other animals – in terms of predation and mating, for example – that we don’t yet really understand.

If the erosion of natural soundscapes is a symptom of environmental destruction, soundscapes also offer us a way forward towards environmental protection. Because they carry vast amount of information, they can give us clues about an area’s biodiversity, an ecosystem’s age, or the stress felt by individual species: natural soundscapes can help to measure the health of ecosystems. Bernie Krause again (pdf):

Through my field work, I discovered that in undisturbed natural environments, creatures vocalize in relationship to one another very much like instruments in an orchestra… For instance, in healthy habitats, certain insects occupy one sonic zone of the creature bandwidth, while birds, mammals, and amphibians occupy others not yet taken and where there is no competition. This system has evolved in a manner so that each voice can be heard distinctly and each creature can thrive as much through its iteration as any other aspect of its being… This biophony, or creature choir, serves as a vital gauge of a habitat’s health. But it also conveys data about its age, its level of stress, and can provide us with an abundance of other valuable new information such as why and how creatures in both the human and non-human worlds have learned to dance and sing. Yet, this miraculous biophony — this concerto of the natural world — is now under serious threat of complete annihilation. Not only are we moving toward a silent spring, but a silent summer, fall and winter, as well.

If the world is changing fast, Africa is changing at breakneck speed. It’s on the frontline of many of the social and environmental changes mentioned above. Its urbanisation rate is faster than anywhere else in the world (pdf), putting additional pressure on natural resources where there is little or no capacity for sustainable resource management. Parts of the continent are treated as a toxic dumping ground for Europe. The level of deforestation is catastrophic. And, with industrialisation yet to be played out in full, and few resources to mitigate the impacts of climate change, vast swathes of this continent look likely to keep on changing beyond recognition.

Huw and I are privileged enough to be here now, and to have access to both technology and to a few of the less documented parts of this enormously diverse continent. While all of this is swilling around in our heads at the moment, it will probably influence what we record and how we present it more and more as the journey goes on. For now, we have three immodest hopes for the soundscapes: that they may inspire somebody somewhere to help work towards protecting their own local habitats and soundscapes; that, maybe, one day, some of them might be useful to somebody, probably in a way that Huw and I don’t yet understand; and that one or two of them might put a smile on your face for a minute or two.

More information:

The niche hypothesis, Bernie Krause (pdf) »
Loss of natural soundscape, Bernie Krause (pdf) »
The tuning of the World, R Murray Schafer »
The World Listening Project »
Wildsanctuary »
The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology »
World Soundscape Project »
Listen to Africa soundscapes »

Leave a comment »

  1. Lovely stuff, really thought provoking, and thanks for the links to the various sound projects. I used to like the Birdsong DAB station but that seems to have disappeared now. Fortunately, I made a recording…

  2. Thanks Jamie :) For bird recordings, try xeno canto and The Wildlife Sound Recording Society – both have lovely stuff, although you have to click around to listen.

Leave a comment