IMPRESSIONS: An Aural and Physical Expedition Through the Sounds of the World

By Sharon Benítez


THIS APRIL, natural soundscape artist/musician Dr. Bernie Krause and English composer Richard Blackford are collaborating on a world premiere with Alonzo King LINES Ballet set to an original composition by Krause and Blackford that integrate recordings of the natural world while still relaying a shared humanity. Together, the three artists, who have each independently called the other a genius, hope to discover and convey the dynamic relationships between humans and the natural world. Combined with my own fascination and prior study in the co-development and co-existence of music and dance, I took interest in the work of these artists in the forefront of their respective fields. They allowed me to witness their collaboration process and inquire about the material that inspires it.

Krause previously collaborated with Blackford to compose “The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony for Orchestra & Wild Soundscapes” that premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in Britain in July 2014. Their own collaboration was brought on in 2012 when Emmy Award nominated Richard Blackford heard extracts from Krause’s book “The Great Animal Orchestra” about finding the origins of music in the world’s wild places and how animals “taught us to dance and sing.”

Prompted by Blackford—a former Balliol College Oxford Composer-in-Residence, with his own impressive resume of operas, musicals, concert music, and film scores—the end result was a masterful piece of music. Comprised of a full symphony orchestra, carefully blended with Krause’s recordings of the wild, their orchestral piece of music acts was like a living organism, whose character reacts and changes in timbre, polyrhythms, textures and melodies, just like Krause’s recordings of the wild epitomize.

Pair of dancers lean and share weight
Photo by RJ Muna

For more than 40 years, Bernie Krause has been collecting sounds of the natural world and archiving their histories into sonic tapestries. Each soundscape, as Krause calls it, presents its own unique signature and tells its own story. Through this biophany—all sound created by organisms—the listener is better able to find clarification and understanding of the natural world.

Krause’s field recordings of more than 15,000 different species, that include over 4,500 hours of recorded natural ambience, catalog not just the animals of the world and their ecosystems, but capture them as they use their overlapping vocalizations to create living orchestras. From the smallest of creatures to the largest on Earth, Krause has indexed everything from the sounds of frogs in the swamps of Corcovado, lemurs of Madagascar, whales off the shores of California; as well as the sounds of landscapes such as the crackling glaciers of Antarctica and the rolling profundity of thunder.

Musician and naturalist Krause is regarded as a leader and father of the field of soundscape ecology as he came to identify the different sources of sound in natural habitats as geophony (non-biological sounds in the habitat), anthropony (the sounds that humans create), and biophony (nonhuman biological sounds that occur in the wild). Together the three sources of sound generate an aural environment with their own orchestrations.

These ‘orchestras’ of collective animal voices offer the inspiration for Alonzo King’s latest dance whose own choreography and creative process has always related closely to nature. It has been noted before, expressed in the artistic vision for his dance company, that King regards dance as a science founded in universal laws and principles and draws upon culture to create a meaningful expression. King continuously and consciously creates language through movement while still preserving the integrity of each dancer’s “voice.” When paired with King’s choreography, the sonic imprints widen the scope of the stage and playfully transform the dancers’ environment. The organized expressions of insects, birds, mammals and more interact with each other, interrupting and reacting the way any orchestra or choreography would.

“It’s a conversation,” King describes, “… to work in nature and still observe and participate… how to blend and still measure co-existence.”

When King and LINES Ballet’s Creative Director Robert Rosenwasser first approached Krause and Blackford they did not have any specific vision in mind other than to “move hearts and stir minds,” as King puts it. The collaboration of the artists has brought on new and welcomed challenges as lines are blurred between design and composition as well as between mimicking and interpreting nature.

“It’s a delicate balance of music and soundscape,” explains Blackford, “Each creates space for the other medium.” In doing so, the musicians found that in composing for the dance work, less writing and more reacting to the movement was a more effective process to getting the balance right. While it was new to be working without a structured score, it allowed them the freedom to discover something unique and exciting. The development of the new work reflected a natural course similar to the one they were inspired by.

King’s own choreography inherently absorbs these theories on nature and seeks to “find a blend between reflecting and interpreting [nature] and still create an impression,” he describes. As observed in a recent rehearsal it is easy to see that King works through the idea that music is organized sounds and silence through space, just as Merce Cunningham was known to have described dance “in space and time,” and works with his dancers to convey the natural world.

The movements reveal the “eloquence of nature,” relates King, and its sounds to identify the bond among the dancers, soundscapes and the composition. The stage, in turn, acts as a mostly contained ecosystem where dancers weave in and out of the choreography, creating textures and reacting to one another in a reflection of the incasing melodies and polyrhythms of the composition. Evident from inside the rehearsal, the movements emulate the layers of the soundscape and recreate the diverse shapes of the environment’s voices. Combined with the thoughtful composition of Krause and Blackford, both artistic mediums of music and dance fuse to produce an engaging world with an atmosphere stirring enough to almost be felt or touched. The work gives the spectator a sense of place and a perception of nature as dance and music find intonation among one another.

King, Krause, and Blackford’s collaboration is a truly unique exploration into the ideas and theories surrounding the relationships between humans, animals and nature. Their endeavor returns music and dance to its original, natural state of a beautiful blended relationship. Together, the artists are unraveling a narrative often played out in the natural world that explores humankind’s involvement and development from sounds and movements of each creature’s ever-living presence.

This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of In Dance.

Sharon Benítez is a Mexican Folk Dancer and Musician who has taught and performed in the Bay Area, Mexico, Nicaragua, and London. Native to the South Bay, she graduated from Santa Clara University with dual degrees in English and Ethnomusicology. Her interests revolve around arts education, music, dance, art and the culture and context they thrive in.