SALEM — “Here come the wolves,” Bernie Krause says brightly, as if anticipating the marching band mid-parade. Krause, speaking in a 2021 documentary film playing on a screen just outside “The Great Animal Orchestra” — his enveloping installation currently rattling doorways with its bleats, titters, wails, and croaks in a darkened gallery space at the Peabody Essex Museum — was at his home in Northern California, completely at ease. But as he spooled through a snippet of his 5,000 hours of wildlife field recordings — decades’ worth, his life’s work — he narrowed his eyes as his lips stretched in a slim, thoughtful grin. He was back in that moment, thrilling and harrowing as it was: two wolf packs, he said, one in front, one behind, closing in on him and his microphone. Then, right on cue: the howls.
Recording the wild, whether the vocal stylings of its many inhabitants, the wind through the trees, or the burble of a fast moving creek, is a highly particular pursuit. In the late 1960s, Krause and his musical partner, Paul Beaver, had helped pioneer the use of the Moog synthesizer in popular music and film (“Apocalypse Now” is just one of dozens of classics to bear their sonic imprint). Eventually, Krause found studio work less than satisfying. On one of his first field recording trips in the early 1970s, he was hooked. His work on “Apocalypse Now” would be his last crack at music of any kind. He knew, right then, that the symphony of the wild would be his life’s pursuit. It has been ever since.
Making those sounds a little more audience-friendly is the goal of “The Great Animal Orchestra,” museum version; it’s also the title of Krause’s 2012 book. In a dark galley, plump ottomans are scattered across a viewing space in front of a wall-height screen that wraps around the room on three sides. Follow it left to right: In a chapter of recordings from the Dzanga-Sangha National Park in the Central African Republic, the alarmed-sounding screech and chirp of a hyrax, furry and round, like a tree-bound gopher, tremble a clutch of bright green horizontal lines. Those lines track right to produce a spectroscopic reading that travels the length of the screen, as new voices — the distinctive trill of the red-chested cuckoo, the low, throaty bone-quaking rumble of an African forest elephant — are added to the chorus.
As the elephant bleats and growls, I notice for the first time that what I assumed was a mirror lining the base of the screen is actually a shallow pool of water; the creature’s rough complaint ripples its smooth surface into angry shudders. What the elephant might be so angry about is worth considering. Krause himself estimates that half the biodiversity represented by the 15,000 or so species he’s recorded in the last 50 years is gone. The most recent Living Planet Report from the World Wildlife Fund in 2020 reports that the planet has seen a 68 percent average decline in population sizes of birds, amphibians, mammals, fish, and reptiles since 1970.
The installation is the result of an invitation from the Fondation Cartier, in Paris, which suggested Krause collaborate with United Visual Artists founder Matthew Clark to create a visual component to his life’s work. Foundation director Hervé Chandès hoped that connecting Krause’s archive to the art world would make it more visible, both literally and figuratively. “The Great Animal Orchestra” works its audio-visual magic across seven color-coded regions — red for Algonquin Park in Ontario; blue for oceans, generally — though there’s a bleak, unifying theme to it all.
The installation has drawn significant crowds from Paris to London to Shanghai to Seoul. But for all that it is, it can hardly be seen as beautiful, like a tribute to a natural world with all that technology can avail. What I saw was a digital specimen jar, cold and hard, stuffing what’s left of the vastness of global biodiversity into its hard drives and then stringing it out as a ragged procession of LED-imprinted data.
What was most transparently clear to me, after being in the grip of “the Great Animal Orchestra” for close to an hour, was the dystopian calamity already in process that it warns against. “The Great Animal Orchestra” is a chilling monument to the deep and growing estrangement and indifference our species has had from and toward virtually all others. This, by now, is just what we do. A planet where we find ourselves increasingly alone — us, and the insects — is the future we’re writing for ourselves, day by day.
Warning, ultimately, is the job of “The Great Animal Orchestra,” and one it performs unsettlingly well. I can still hear the echo of the near-verbal cry of the Hadada ibis, seen in a flash of tremulous green in Dzanga-Sangha. It sounds like desperation, a plea for help. Is any coming? Too little, I worry. And too late.
THE GREAT ANIMAL ORCHESTRA: BERNIE KRAUSE AND UNITED VISUAL ARTISTS Through May 22. Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. 978-745-9500, pem.org