If the accepted definition of an orchestra is an ensemble of musicians playing a variety of instruments, a new exhibition at the Fondation Cartier makes the case that animals in their natural habitats are an orchestra of the purest form. Its conductor – or perhaps more accurately, its conduit – is Bernie Krause, a long-time musician, recording engineer and producer who has been collecting and archiving the sounds of creatures in the wild since 1968. As a pioneer in soundscape ecology, he is credited with the notion of a ‘biophony’ or ‘niche hypothesis’ – the collective sound produced by animals carving out their particular acoustic niche in a given environment.

EXCLUSIVE: listen to Krause's recording from Mungwezi Ranch, Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe

With 'The Great Animal Orchestra', which also happens to be the name of his recently published book, Krause's scientific work is positioned within a more artistic (but no less relevant) construct. The exhibition gathers together a diverse group of artists (Cai Guo-Qiang, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Adriana Varejão and Agnès Varda, among others) who have created works from these soundscapes. But Krause’s recordings are the main attraction, in part because the 77-year-old’s selection of audio segments have been married to dynamic visual sequences commissioned by the Fondation Cartier and executed by London-based creative studio, United Visual Artists.

The installation can be found in the building’s darkened lower level, where his biophanies from North America, the Amazon, the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve in the Central African Republic and the oceans are optimised as an immersive experience far removed from the source material. Here, the unintended music of crows, Eastern wolves, blue jays and squirrels from Algonquin Park, Canada – as one example – appears as both a graphic of flashing red light and a streaming projection of digital information interpreted from a spectrogram. Along with a shallow reflecting pool, which translates the deepest sounds as rippling water, the combined visuals translate frequency, intensity, duration and possibly even communication in an evocative way. Without any images of animals, the effect becomes one of comparison. The clicking noises from a whale might conjure up an MRI machine; the howling wolves sound like sirens; chirping cicadas might have inspired electronic dance music. Then comes the irony that these comparisons reinforce an anthropocentric view – as humans, we’re often just mimicking the natural world.   

Despite the fact that the animals are communicating freely without any direction, Krause refers to the 12-minute recordings as ‘compositions’, since they exist within a timeframe. Further, he notes how these limited critter voices have 'evolved to find their acoustic niche where there is enough bandwidth to express themselves to both transmit and receive information in a way that's going to support their existence'. The streaming spectrograms, he says, makes this clear.  

When asked whether the digital depictions – both recordings and visuals – take us deeper into nature or suggest an abstracted experience, Krause’s straightforward reply is both. ‘It has its origin in the natural world. But it's obviously an illusion, because what's taken from Algonquin Park is now in Paris. And that's a bit of a stretch,’ he tells Wallpaper*.

But within the abstractions is a sobering truth: these sumptuous biophonies are changing as habitats become increasingly threatened – or, in extreme cases, no longer exist. Biodiversity is diminishing but also, as he observed from birds near his home 80km north of San Francisco, their sounds are no longer the same. This makes his recordings (currently obtained using a portable Sound Devices 722 or 744 recorder and Sennheiser MKH microphones) even more valuable, and why visiting cities can feel so enervating. ‘I hear the wild critters that live in a city struggling for purchase. And in the natural world, that's not the case,’ he explains. ‘They all have to find their niche again, whether it's a physical niche or an acoustic one.’