Extended Program Notes

Biophony (Premiered April 2015)
Choreography by Alonzo King
Sound Design and Music by Bernie Krause and Richard Blackford
Lighting Design by Axel Morgenthaler
Costume Design by Robert Rosenwasser

The soundscape refers to every sound that comes to us at once. It is made up of three basic sources: the geophony, all non-biological natural sounds like wind and rain; the biophony, the collective sound vocal organisms generate in a given habitat; and anthropophony, all the sounds that humans make; some are controlled, like music and language. But most are incoherent and chaotic which we think of as noise.

Biophony, the ballet score, is a collection of soundscapes from several rare habitats, marine and terrestrial, ranging from the Equator to the Arctic, occasionally highlighted with musical instrumentation derived from the soundscape textures. Anthropophony is reflected in the dancers’ breaths and movement through space.

A spectrogram is a graphic illustration of sound with time represented on the horizontal scale and frequency (low to high) on the vertical. The above example shows the temporal and frequency partitioning that occurs between species when a habitat is still healthy.

Movement 1, Consilience
“Consilience” is an alliance of disparate elements. In this exposition we have drawn from several different habitats to achieve a cohesive expression that would otherwise never occur in a singular landscape of the natural world. Consilience opens with a lone field cricket from the American Southwest, transitions into friendly gathering of forest elephants in a Dzanga-Sangha bai (marsh) located in the western Central African Republic. The family members trumpet in an astonishingly wide variety of vocalizations with the background accentuated by the steady beat of frogs from a site in the Brazilian Amazon – a composite of both real- and half-time performances. The sequence is interrupted briefly by two alarm barks from a baboon, before fading out to a short interlude of total silence. The last section is augmented by a faintly heard and intermittent bass clarinet and percussion. The coda resumes at a site from the American Northwest where cliff swallows search the dusk air for insects with the accented ratchet–like counterpoint of a nearby ground squirrel.

Movement 2, Tempestas
This Borneo soundscape portrays a typical weather event that occurs almost daily in the tropical rainforests of the world. It opens with light rain followed shortly by a preliminary thunder strike. Rain and distant thunder continue, with the addition of a series of glissandos on kettle drums – nearly indistinguishable from the texture of the thunder – but with no insects or birds vocalizing, just as events usually unfold in the tropics (when there’s rain, the creature world can’t compete). Then, a great thunder hit occurs and the rain slowly diminishes with distant rumbles as the weather cell moves off. As the rain decreases, insects, and then frogs begin to re-appear in the landscape as they do after every storm cell event. Toward the end of the segment a series of orang-utan long calls fill out the remaining texture of the piece.

Movement 3, Mare Nostrum
Beginning with a surface geophony of ocean waves, this aquatic sonic journey slowly draws us below the surface where we hear the combined vocalizations of humpback whales interleaved with numerous species of fish (red drum, black drum, parrot, ocean trigger, file, Atlantic croaker, long-horned sculpin, and others). A pod of killer whales joins the chorus about half way through the piece, noted by their high-pitched sweeping ascending and descending social “screams”. The segment finishes with a kind of palindrome, where the listener is returned aurally to the ocean’s surface – one mixed with the sounds of far-off mew gulls.

Movement 4, Winds Across the Tundra
A composite of bird-life from the Yukon Delta is set at the base of the Askinuk Mountains, a bit more than 500 air miles WNW of Anchorage, Alaska. Birds include Canada geese, Arctic loons, savannah sparrow, white crowned sparrow, Wilson’s warbler, ruby-crowned warbler, wheatear, long-tailed jaeger, snipe, merganser, yellow wagtail, common whistling swan, scaup, willow ptarmigan, grebes, hoary redpoll, and pin-tailed duck.

Movement 5, Still Life at the Equator
During a Kenyan late afternoon and evening during the dry season, wildlife typically gathers in large concentrated numbers around the few remaining sources of water – typically the waterhole. As dusk descends, large numbers of masked weaver birds begin to settle down. Soon, a giant forest pig roars as bubbling Kassina frogs burble in the background signaling the onset of the crepuscule. A second pig roar sets off a small organic rhythm section of woodblocks and shakers, and colobus monkeys softly vocalize with an echoing purr. Startled by the pig roars, Egyptian geese respond with an alarm call, wings beating to gain purchase and flight. After a period of silence, distant hyenas sing along with a fully-expressed musical passage featuring harp, flute, and clarinet. During this section, hippos join the chorus with their chortling contact responses, as distant hyenas reverberate far away in the dark of night. The crunching sounds and very soft low growls in the final minutes come from a herd of elephants pulling up vegetation and expressing low, friendly social rumbles.

Movement 6, The Frog Who Desired Moonlight
High in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, at a place called Crescent Meadow, there was once a Pacific tree frog who would sing only when the parting clouds allowed the moon to shine.

Movement 7, A Gift of Bees
While recording chimpanzees at Gombe, Jane Goodall’s Tanzanian research site, a colleague and I came upon a low-lying bush filled with a swarm of African bees, one of the most important organisms in a healthy ecosystem.

Movement 8, Nunaniq
(Yup’ik for “a beautiful feeling of place”)
When we first proposed going to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other sites in Arctic and sub-Arctic Alaska to record, we were told by certain American politicians to forget it: “there was nothing there,” they assured us in their defense of drilling. Unconvinced, and despite other efforts to keep us from exploring the acoustic richness of the region, we went to find out for ourselves. These recordings were made over the period of a decade because good-sounding examples are hard to make in that volatile and rapidly changing climate.
An atmosphere of light coastal rain opens this composite scene with the song of a Swainson’s thrush while a humpback whale trumpets and blows on the water’s surface not more than 20 yards from our campsite. Accompanied by the thrushes, the American bald eagle and humpback blows are common signature sounds in SW Alaska. The rain diminishes and we bring the illusion underwater to hear typical humpback contact and feeding calls, followed by the descending glissando of a bearded seal. In the Yukon Delta, a distant wolf howls while a pair of Arctic loons exchange reciprocal calls in the background. An Arctic fox answers the loon. The wind, almost always present at some level in the Arctic, returns and signals what the soundscape might be like in the future, overwhelming all of the vocal organisms leaving only a creaking branch (which sounds remarkably like the voice of some strange bird) in a lone remaining tree of what was once the westernmost extent of the boreal forest that stretches from the Canadian Maritimes to east-central Alaska.

Field recordings: except for the forest elephant excerpts recorded by Louis Sarno in the Dzanga-Sangha bai, and the bearded seal in the last movement recorded by Martyn Stewart, all recordings were made in the wild by Bernie Krause.

Notes on Biophony by Bernie Krause

At one moment in our evolution, we danced and sang predominantly with the vigorous resonance generated by vast populations of non-human animals with whom we lived in a delicate balance. All of our music, our language, our sonic cultural expression was informed by these biophonies – the collective sound produced by all vocal organisms in a given habitat. That was our signature orchestra, the first sounds we learned to imitate and express as musical literature. Biophony score, with natural soundscapes by Bernie Krause, and musical score by Richard Blackford, takes us back to the original source where the sounds of animal life – organisms from microscopic to huge, mixed with natural elements from the non-biological landscape – dominated the rather modest noises we humans once generated. We had limited language skills to express what we felt, but we borrowed some from what we heard all around us to convey emotion. Through our body movement – so evocative of the successful life heard everywhere – we modern humans are able to re-connect once again to convince the other creatures that we are all just an extension of one sonorant family.

This is the tuning of the great animal orchestra – the inspiration for the ballet. It’s an illumination of the acoustic harmony of the wild, the planet’s deeply connected expression of natural sounds and rhythm. It is the reference for what we hear in today’s remaining wild places, and it is likely that the origins of every rhythm and composition to which we dance come, at some point, from this collective voice. At one time there was no other acoustic inspiration.

Click here to listen to Alonzo King and Bernie Krause discuss their collaborative process with KQED's Scott Shafer.

Biophony was made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Biophony was also made possible by a grant from The Creative Work Fund, a program of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This collaboration and its world premiere are supported by the Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund.