Soundscapes Of Silence: How To Listen To Landscapes For Ecological Damage

Look, and listen, carefully for what is there - and what isn't anymore.
Look, and listen, carefully for what is there - and what isn't anymore.
Michel Danthe

GENEVA — A musician and PhD in bioacoustics, Bernie Krause is on a mission to create a systematic organisation of the landscape of sound signatures. He sums it up this way: While a picture is worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.

“There was a time when I considered natural soundscapes to be just worthless artefacts," Krause, 75, says. "I was wrong. What I have learned from my encounters with nature and its soundscapes is that, if you listen carefully, they provide you with an extremely effective tool with which to evaluate the health of a habitat across its entire spectrum.”

For Krause, a soundscape is, first and foremost, an aggregate of sounds which are captured and then displayed according to their wavelength.

This type of display is the sound signature of a landscape and each landscape has a unique sound signature. This is known as a soundscape, a portmanteau word coined by another pioneer of ecological acoustic research, Raymond Murray Schafer.

Krause considers a soundscape to be the product of three component parts: the geophony, the biophony and the anthrophony.

The geophony is made up of all the sounds that emanate from the Earth itself such as avalanches, thunder, lightening, the sound of wind in the trees and waves in the ocean. The biophony includes all the sounds produced by wild animal species. As for the anthrophony, it is all of the sounds humans make.

The combination of these three sources constitutes the soundscape. And for the past several decades, Bernie Krause has combed the planet's countryside in order to collect as many recordings as possible.

A brand new field

After years of study, however, it is actually becoming more difficult. “When I began recording these soundscapes, 40 or so years ago, I could record for 10 hours and collect one hour of usable material for an album, a film soundtrack or for a museum exhibit. Now, due to global warming, resource extraction, human noise and other factors, it takes 1,000 hours of recording to achieve the same result.”

What Krause finds most troubling is the silence, or the reduction in density of a soundscape. He cited the example of Lincoln Meadow, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, as evidence of this. In 1988, a forestry company convinced the Lincoln Meadow residents that their planned program of selective logging of the forest would not have any appreciable impact on the landscape. Before the inhabitants gave their consent, Krause recorded the landscape’s sound signature. Twelve months and one selective logging of the forest later, he showed us two photos of the area. There was no appreciable difference. Had the operation been successful? One would think so. What did the sound signature say? Krause played for us 30 seconds or so of the recording from before and then after. The recording was supported by two comparative spectrograms. The finding was that the birds of Lincoln Meadow had been all but silenced.

Visually, the ecological impact of logging is negligible. “However, our ears tell us an entirely different story.”

Krause is making a plea that landscape research include the sound element in their studies. In February 2012, the Global Sustainable Soundscapes Network (GSSN)* was founded by Professor Bryan Pijanowski of the Foresty Department at Purdue University, based largely on the model proposed by Krause. Its objective is to bring together ecologists, acousticians, biologists and artists to coordinate and launch extensive studies into landscape acoustics. A team of researchers is now laying out the structure of a whole new scientific field: “soundscape ecology.” They are focusing on what sounds say about an area.

“Hearing sounds or not hearing them is an important factor in environmental change," said Pijanowski. "We want to understand whether sounds could be an indicator of an ecological system under threat.”

Listen below to a soundscape from Puerto Rico:

*Correction: due to an error in the original French-language version, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Krause's organization, Wild Sanctuary, founded the Global Sustainable Soundscapes Network. In fact, it was founded and implemented and funded by Bryan Pijanowski of the Forestry Department at Purdue University.
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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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