Good Vibrations

Ear to the Earth Festival hits New York with frog calls and waterfalls

By Tobin Hack

Frog call medleys and gurgling waterfall sonatas are no longer just for insomniacs and their white-noise makers. A burgeoning community of artists and environmental activists believe that making music (and the arts at large) has the power to reconnect us with nature and instill an emotional understanding of environmental degradation—a critical step on the road to sustainability.

Leading the charge is Ear to the Earth, an international network of musicians, sound artists, scientists, and environmental activists who explore environmental themes through music made with natural and industrial sound recordings. This week, their second annual festival hits New York; featuring renowned artists like John Cage, Bernie Krause, Mark Moffet, and Bruce Odland.

Festival mastermind and composer Joel Chadabe says that Ear to the Earth is important because listening to sound is, in his mind, the best way to understand the environment around you, and an excellent way to get people involved in environmental issues. “We’re always interpreting the world by what we hear, but then when we hear something that’s extraordinary, we turn around and look at it,” says Chadabe, who would like to see environmental activists make more frequent use of sound as a tool to promote awareness.

Festival presenters Bernie Krause and Bruce Odland both deeply regret that man-made noise is squeezing natural soundscapes into increasingly constricted domains. The two have spent their respective careers examining the same ecological problem—the territorial duel between natural and industrial noise—but Krause is looking for answers in natural soundscapes, while Odland is looking for them in the noise of city sounds.

Krause, who coined the industry term “biophony” to describe the soundscape created by wildlife and the natural world, is a natural-sound purist. “The biophony is the original music, the original Mozart. The animals taught us to dance and sing,” says Krause. Our problem, he believes, is that we’ve departed from the cohesive “symphony” of nature and begun to create chaotic sound that disconnects us from our world, and even makes it difficult for us to hear each other.

“As habitat diminishes, and the soundscape is compromised in more and more places, the effect on us is one that drives us to more Prosac,” says Krause.

There was a time when Krause was drawn to the newest trends in music and sound; he began his career as a folk singer with The Weavers, was one of the first players of the Moog Synthesizer, and worked with The Doors, Van Morrison, and Mick Jagger. But he refers to his former self as “a big fat idiot” and says his life felt frenetic. Learning to record natural sounds changed everything. “The stillness, the quietness, the overwhelming ability to finally focus on something other than myself, to just be aware of how I fit into the world around me. It was an epiphany,” he says.

After 40 years of sound recording, Krause signed a deal with Google Earth, where his over 3,500 hours of recordings (singing Jaguars among them) are now available as a sound layer. He can identify a few thousand animal sounds, and even E.O.Wilson now concedes that Krause’s work is a relevant and scientifically legitimate part of the environmental movement.

Bruce Odland, on the other hand, has spent the past 20 years working with composer Sam Auger to find connectedness to the world by recording the sounds of industry and oil. Odland and Auger’s “Reqiuem for Fossil Fuels,” the festival’s finale and piece de resistance, is comprised entirely of sounds from places like Grand Central Station, Wall Street, and Harlem, over which four live singers will perform Mozart’s requiem, in Latin.

The piece is about responding to the times, the age of oil and the car, and the sounds of an inefficient culture, says Odland. He’s looking for the same connectedness to the world that Krause is after, but in urban landscapes. “When I go into a city, I want to have the feeling that I get information from the world around me; that I’m in a loop with it—the same loop that I have in nature—not the feeling that I’m just the only soft thing around to absorb whatever sounds industry wants to make.”

In today’s environmental movement, “the thing that’s missing is a perceptual emotional place from which to grieve and look at [environmental problems] without fear,” says Odland. “That’s what the form of the requiem mass is good for.” A funeral for cars, “Requiem” has been advertised with posters displaying a crucifix made of amputated car parts.

For eco-catharsis, for eco-mourning, for a deeper connection with your world through natural and city sounds, check out Ear to the Earth online, or in live in Manhattan, each night from the 12th through the 20th of October.

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