‘Great Animal Orchestra’ an evocative soundscape like no other

"The Great Animal Orchestra," an audiovisual installation celebrating nature, continues at the Exploratorium through October. (Courtesy of The Exploratorium)

To call “The Great Animal Orchestra” at The Exploratorium in San Francisco an immersive audiovisual exhibition in which visitors witness nature and natural sounds as never before only partly describes experiencing the remarkable work created by Sonoma bioacoustician and musician Bernie Krause.

After working on such films as “Apocalypse Now,” Krause tired of Hollywood and embarked on a new, long-term project: making 5,000 hours of recordings in nature over 40 years. He came up with an acoustic harmony among some 15,000 species studied in the soundscapes of the oceans, in Africa, in Amazonia, and in U.S. and Canadian national parks. 
Sponsored by the Foundation Cartier, a French organization promoting contemporary art, and created in collaboration with the English collective United Visual Artists, “Animal Orchestra,” commissioned in 2016, is data driven. The sound symphony is realized through real-time streaming spectrograms.

Projections of sounds speed around the darkened theater space. On one wall is a display of sonic frequencies in vivid color. A shallow ring of water below the projections moves in ripples and waves. 

In seven looping soundscapes that are 12 minutes each, there are the melodic, trumpeting calls of African forest elephants, chattering exchanges by humpback whales, howling wolfpacks in Ontario, Canada punctuated by hundreds of bird calls and insect extravaganzas. Pixilated woodpeckers come across like tuned pile drivers. African baboons sound off looking for mates as they call from inside rock caves to amplify their voices.

Screenshot image from legrandorchestredesanimaux.com.

The downside of the exuberance is the ongoing and rapid desecration of the environment, which is rapidly silencing the sounds of nature. Krause does not soften the message: He chooses to compare in several sequences the vivid sounds of living coral reefs with those quieted as species die, and the comparison is sobering.

A 37-minute documentary, “Bernie Krause: A Life with the Great Animal Orchestra,” complements the exhibition; upcoming screenings are at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. Aug. 13, Sept. 10 and Sept. 17. It’s a tribute to the sound ecologist and a reality check to make people aware of what Krause calls “anthrophony,” or the way human acoustics threaten to silence every corner of the planet. 

Those who want to explore further may visit Foundation Cartier at The Great Animal Orchestra (legrandorchestredesanimaux.com).

“The Great Animal Orchestra” continues through Oct. 15 at the Exploratorium, Pier 15 (Embarcadero at Green Street), San Francisco. Admission is $30-$45, with discounts available. Visit exploratorium.edu.

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