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Great Book Falls at Second Hurdle
on 29 April 2012
This is a book with one big virtue but a lot of faults.
The virtue is the central idea. The natural world consists not just of landscapes but of soundscapes, made up both with the sounds of the land and of the animals that inhabit it. These soundscapes are complex, because animals react to each other. They choose different parts of the aural spectrum for instance so that they don't clash, and they fall silent when something loud, often but not always man-made, intrudes. Experts have ignored this complexity, preferring to concentrate on the sound of a particular bird, for instance, and ignoring the context. Human beings are too numerous, too noisy and too insensitive and are systematically destroying these soundscapes.
This is a new and important idea powerfully presented. That in practice there is not a lot that can be done about it does not detract from that fact.
These are the faults.
Bernie Krause has an ear for the natural world but not for language. The writing is cloth-eared. Some of it is incomprehensible and much of it sentimental.
Krause knows a lot about sound, having spent a lifetime recording it. There are other things he doesn't know about but that doesn't stop him holding forth about them. Here are two examples.
He disses the composer Olivier Messaien, who devoted a lifetime to realising birdsong in musical form, because he dealt with birds a species at a time and ignored the aural context. This is ungracious. I dare say that Messaien has attuned more people to the sound of the natural world than has Krause, and he has done so more elegantly and more coherently.
Krause's account of the attitude of the Christian churches to music would have benefited from half an hour with Wikipedia. He would have learnt things different from what he expected and wanted to believe and it might have modified somewhat his smugness -
Which is fault three.
Finally, and most seriously, he starts out with the idea that the natural soundscapes are in some way crucial to human music. He mentions Steven Mithen's fascinating work The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, but he doesn't take Mithen's ideas any further. He has to confront the fact that music is sound that is organised in an entirely different way and for entirely different reasons from the sound of the natural world, and he never starts to do so. Instead, he retreats and devotes the final third of the book to a peevish attack on the human race. This was no doubt much easier and more amusing to write. Unfortunately journalists can do it with their brains disengaged; there are examples in the Guardian most days.
In short, there is a most important book to be written here. It's a pity that Krause gave up on it.