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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sounding Natural: Bioacoustician Bernie Krause Brings Biophony to the Ballet

Posted By on Wed, Apr 1, 2015 at 12:01 PM

click to enlarge Kara Wilkes. - RJ MUNA
  • RJ Muna
  • Kara Wilkes.
Ballet is an exaltation of artifice, a dancer its ultimate creation, with limbs that extend in every conceivable direction to describe geometry as neatly as a compass draws a circle on the planar surface of a floor.

George Balanchine paid homage to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor in his 1941 masterpiece Concerto Barocco, a ballet that glorifies craft — the merging of individuality with the exigencies of rhythm and spatial arrays, all costumed in black-and-white practice clothing that references the labor of human creativity, even as it abstracts the body into idealized forms. In LINES Ballet’s Spring Home Season, April 3-12 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, choreographer and artistic director Alonzo King brings back his own 2013 Concerto for Two Violins, a daring challenge to Balanchine’s ballet and possibly the perfect juxtaposition to his new work, which shifts the perspective from culture back to nature.

Called Biophony, after a term coined by bioacoustician Bernie Krause to describe the sonic imprint of a habitat’s living creatures, the ballet uses Krause’s recordings of wild environments from the Central African Republic to the Alaskan tundra, collected over four decades and arranged by composer Richard Blackford, as the soundscape through which LINES dancers drift, whirl, and fly. A soundscape, he explains, comprises three parts: geophony, nonbiological sources of natural sound, such as wind and water, biophony, and anthropophony, the sounds made by humans. Of this last, he remarks, “Some anthropophony is controlled, like music, language, or theater, but most of it is incoherent and chaotic, and that’s what we call noise.”

Despite the absence of metronome and conductor, Krause is quick to emphasize the connections between his recordings and the structures of classical music and dance. “All of the sounds in these habitats are ordered in a very specific way, and they are structured in the same way you would choreograph a piece. You could say soundscapes are examples of original scores — they’re sonic narratives from which we learned to dance and sing and they’re the proto-orchestrations that inform melody, harmony, and dissonance and teach us how to successfully combine sounds. It was all there in the world’s natural soundscapes. Alonzo and his dancers really got it right away — they picked it up more quickly than any other musicians I’ve ever worked with.”

click to enlarge Courtney Henry and Michael Montgomery. - RJ MUNA
  • RJ Muna
  • Courtney Henry and Michael Montgomery.
Context is the most important aspect of Krause’s work and what led him to the theory he describes in his 2012 book, The Great Animal Orchestra, in which he observes that each species occupies a sonic niche in a habitat in order to communicate with others of its own kind. He explains, “In the history of recorded sound, people have been devoted to recording the sounds of individual animals. This reflects a 19-century view of the natural world—you needed to shoot the bird or capture the bird or paint the bird and store it in a drawer somewhere in a museum in order to understand it. But you don’t understand anything by this reductionist view of the natural world.” Instead, he suggests, these soundscapes demonstrate the spectrum of sound humans might create in an orchestra. Certain cultures, such as the Ba’Aka of the Central African Republic, have never lost this instinctive relationship with the other natural sounds around them, using the sounds of the forest as “a natural karaoke with which they sing.”

Regarding the recordings used in King’s Biophony, Krause notes, “Some of these soundscapes can no longer be heard in their original form — some of them have gone completely silent because of human destruction.” Yet despite the elegiac aspects of his work, he insists on the profoundly affirmative intention of this collaboration with King and Blackford. “It’s a celebration of life. Nature and culture are intricately linked. They cannot be separated. Our culture has separated ourselves from the natural world. When we call it ‘nature,’ there’s ‘it’ and ‘us.’ It’s in our character and our culture to separate, but we are all living organisms.”

Alonzo King LINES Ballet presents Biophony at 8 p.m. April 3-12 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard. Tickets $30-$65; linesballet.org
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