I am writing a blog listening to the birds in the trees and the wind blowing the leaves. In the distance I can hear an ice cream van and a police siren, there is chatter from a couple of doors down and the chink and clatter of plates, the faint sound of a train. A suburban symphony, when you stop and listen you can pick out the sounds, the early evening hubbub, the sun is setting on a beautiful July evening.
We don’t often stop to listen, to isolate the different sounds, so often I have headphones crammed in my ears blocking out distractions and interruptions. But yesterday evening I spent time listening to the animals of Sumatra, Zimbabwe, Costa Rica and Borneo – I was enjoying ‘The Great Animal Orchestra’, a new sound installation at the Horniman Museum by Bernie Krause.
I wasn’t going to write a blog, the summer holidays are upon us, my three children are clamouring for attention, blogs are pushed to the back of my mind. But I have been reliably informed by the award-winning media team at the Horniman that blogs should be a short introduction, an information burst, a thought-provoking blast, surely I can rise to the challenge and manage that. I didn’t even have my trusty notebook with me, but my diary proved a welcome home for my impressions, so inspired I felt on the night I had to capture my thoughts before they floated away on the summer breeze.
As I walked through the beautiful grounds to get to the Horniman, a jazz band were limbering up to play to those dotted around on the grass enjoying the sun setting over London, a perfect beginning to an evening immersed in sound. Listening to Bernie talk of his work surrounded by friends of the Horniman was a real treat. Straight away you could hear his passion, he has a storyteller’s voice, a soft inviting American tone, he spins a tale as well worked as the music he loves to share, the animals and their voices become an extension of his story.
He talked of humans as nature’s mimics, his recordings are of the animals; insects, birds and monkeys that inhabit far away places and greet the sun with their cacophonous sound. You walk through the music gallery to reach the free installation and it is a perfect scene setter. These man-made instruments our own way of trying to replicate nature’s beauty, some of the instruments themselves shaped like birds, a false visual mimicry that attempts to emulate natures’ song book.
You enter a darkened room with a screen at one end, the sound signatures of gibbons, Howler monkeys, cicadas, bats, birds, frogs and insects can clearly be seen. It is amazing mapping the sound to the visual, you can anticipate an animal voice and clearly see the accurate repetition of a bird’s call. The link between sight and sound is entrancing, it is like a sheet of music unfolding before you. The visual soundscapes vary so much between locations and Bernie tells us how sound can be used by the animals to mark their territory, the howler monkeys in particular using their voices as a vocalisation of their domain. The bright jagged peaks of sound and the continual bands of insect noise all provide an audible and visual indication of the healthy thriving vitality of these ecosystems.
After so much visual stimulation I shut my eyes, it is a hot and sultry evening, I am almost transported to the tropical climes as I listen to the animals and natures signature call. I anticipate drops of condensation falling from large palms above my head that never quite arrive. A shame there are no bean bags to stretch out on and lose yourself. The visuals are so stimulating, it is a totally different experience to close your eyes, shut them out and focus on listening and hearing nature alive and bursting all around you.
I love the Horniman, its eclectic mix of strange (overstuffed) animals, musical instruments, ethnographic collections from distant cultures, an aquarium with colourful fish and beautiful grounds. If you were building a new museum in the 21st century you would never put such a strange combination together. As I listened to the Chief Executive of the museum Janet Vitmayer introduce Bernie at the start of the evening, she talked of the holy grail of all museum visitors and museum lovers, the privilege of walking through galleries empty of people, the silent air heavy with the unspoken stories of collections. She talked of walking through the natural history gallery and for the first time after hearing Bernie’s work, the animals were alive to her, the sound installation echoing in her mind, life coming to these long quiet, once vibrant and noisy living creatures.
If the Horniman with its strange and wonderful collections misses one thing it is this, the life, sound and vitality of the animals it teaches us about. The Great Animal Orchestra could not be a more perfect way of realising and releasing that crucial missing element, the sounds of the animals that sit encased in glass not more than a few metres away. I wonder how many visitors have stood in front of the famous Horniman walrus and imagined the noise he would make. His powerful voice would command as much attention as his elevated position in the heart of the galleries.
I love The Great Animal Orchestra, it is a perfect addition to the Horniman story. I urge you to go on a hot sultry day, sit and imagine yourself many, many miles away. Then walk through the galleries and imagine them alive with sound, every creature with an individual voice melding into natures’ great symphony of sound.
The Great Animal Orchestra is a free sound installation designed by Bernie Krause. Created from recordings of natural habitats in Borneo, Costa Rica, Sumatra and Zimbabwe, the installation reveals nature’s music and its ‘orchestra’ through Krause’s distinctive spectrograms, offering a visual representation of what can be heard.
From 27 July – 31 August 2014