In a pitch black room at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, large-scale light projections scroll across the walls, in sync with hypnotic recordings that fill the space with the sounds of wild animals. The Great Animal Orchestra transports you across the Americas and Africa, with seven soundscapes recorded by bio-acoustician Bernie Krause. One minute, whales moan and cry out to one another from the depths of the ocean. Moments later, you’re back on dry land, somewhere in Canada, surrounded by howling packs of wolves and the rhythmic chirping of insects.
In one corner of the screen, a digital clock counts down each 10-minute recording—without it, you’d lose all sense of time. That meditative quality is, in part, what has kept Krause going back into the field for 50 years. “Forget medication, forget therapy,” he told The New York Times in June. “The only thing that works for me is going out into a field and putting on a pair of earphones and listening to natural sound.”
As a musician in the 60s and 70s, Krause collaborated with The Doors, Brian Eno, and David Byrne, and worked on the soundtrack for Rosemary’s Baby and Apocalypse Now. He went out into the field for the first time in 1968, looking to capture natural sounds for his album In a Wild Sanctuary, which he produced with Paul Beaver. By 1979, his focus shifted almost entirely to bioacoustics, and he has since gone on to record over 5,000 hours of soundscapes across the world, including more than 15,000 species of animals. He was the first to use the term “biophony,” which designates the collective ensemble of sounds produced by all living organisms at one time, within a single ecosystem.
Listening to Krause’s work in 2016 is as awe-inspiring as it is heartbreaking. Half of the habitats he has recorded have now disappeared, making his work not so much a reflection of the natural world, but a collection of relics from an earlier time. Earlier this month, in a video interview with the French TV channel Arte, Krause says, “Students often ask me, ‘Are you optimistic?’” After a pause, he shares, “I’m hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.”
Prior to the seven main soundscapes presented in The Great Orchestra, a series of short recordings illustrate the devastating impact of human activities. In one example, the sounds recorded near the living part of a coral reef are presented in parallel with its mute, dying counterpart. In another, a 15-second segment recorded in Costa Rica in 1989 is filled with lively sounds of animal activity. By the time Krause returns in 1996, the forest has been cut down, leaving only an eerie silence.
Krause’s work is accompanied by a varied collection of works that round out the theme at hand, including a mural by Cai Guo-Qiang that evokes cave paintings of animals, videos of birds-of-paradise filmed in New Guinea by researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and another audiovisual installation that incorporates Christian Sardet’s mesmerizing images of plankton.
The Great Animal Orchestra is on view at the Fondation Cartier in Paris until January 8, 2017. You can lose yourself in Krause’s recordings wherever you are, though, by heading to this website produced in conjunction with the exhibition.