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The Great Animal Orchestra - Bernie Kraus exhibition

This post is about an inspiring art piece that was at 180 The Strand in London at the end of last year.


The exhibition comprised of three different audio-visual and sound art pieces, the third focussed around field recordings captured by musician-turned-bioacoustician, Bernie Kraus. As well as being a pioneering electronic musician, Bernie Kraus was also at the forefront of bioacoustics and nature recording 50 years ago, and saw its importance, both scientific and cultural long, before it was an established field.

In the time Bernie has been recording, he has amassed a vast collection of beautiful sounds, captured in locations around the globe, of over 100,000 animal species in their natural habitats.


Bernie's recordings are beautiful to listen to in their own right, but they are also important in much more quantifiable ways for environmentalists, zoologists and bioacousticians. Throughout his career, Bernie has often returned to the same spot to record again and again through the decades. In doing so, he has built up a portrait of the changing sonic landscape, which as part of this exhibition, forms a chilling indication of the human impact on natural habitats.


At one point in the piece, you hear how over a span of ten years, a thriving jungle soundscape of primates, big cats and amphibians is reduced due to deforestation, dwindling before your ears, until just a sprinkling of animal calls are left.



Another recording captures the flora and fauna close to a small stream. In the first clip, you can hear the stream quite clearly, and all around is a cacophony of different bird calls (studies show that birds expend more energy and sing louder when they live next to a constant sound source like a stream or waterfall). Bernie returned to this location many times over a period of several years, each time recording what he heard from that spot. The difference in the sonic landscape from year to year is astounding. In this case, the route of the steam was diverted to help with agricultural irrigation before eventually drying up all together. The effect this has had on the local bird life is audible in Bernie's recordings. With each consecutive year, you can hear the number of different bird species and individuals decreasing until the steam is no longer audible, and the surrounding area falls silent save for a few insects.


The Great Animal Orchestra takes the form of a quadrophonic speaker array playing Bernie's recordings, coupled with visuals of a moving spectrogram of the sounds of the different animals (with annotations) that are being heard in real-time. This visual accompaniment works perfectly with the recordings. It is interesting to look at whilst listening - but not so much that it becomes the principal focus over the sound. Sound so often becomes a secondary consideration when paired with visual mediums, especially moving image, so it was satisfying to see these two elements working so well in harmony. Perhaps the reason the visuals gelled so well with what was being heard, without being distracting, is that what was scrolling across the screens, was literally a visual representation of the sounds coming from the speakers?


Read more about this exhibition here: https://www.uva.co.uk/features/great-animal-orchestra