Hidden Orchestras            by Kirk Nurock
                Proud Music of the storm!  Blast that careers so free...you hidden orchestras!          - Walt Whitman

The Aristotelian concept that "art imitates nature" has long been embraced by western culture. During the many periods of realism, painters sought to capture nature's exact light and hues. And from Impressionism to today, there continues a sense of wonder at the abstraction found in leaf or waterfall.

Double Standard
But oddly, in music we have assumed the exact opposite: that the sounds of nature are merely noises - annoying ones at that. Roaring thunder, barking dogs, incessant crickets. In order to make music more pleasing, we developed instruments and tonal relationships ostensibly superior to those of nature. Of course, most instruments resonate with nature's overtone series, and in Africa for example, flutes and drums are made from tree bark and animal hides. There are classic birdsong evocations by Messaien, and composers George Crumb and Paul Winter have famously integrated whale sounds in their works. Nonetheless, there remains an overall feeling that music is music and nature is not.


          Cornell's Collection

It seems to me that music lovers as well as professional musicians have not yet listened thoroughly enough to nature's orchestra. I believe many would be astonished by its vast repertoire, intriguing detail and enchanting realm of invention. Founded In 1930, Cornell's Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds is now the world's largest archive of audio and video recordings of animal behavior. Their samples actually number several hundred thousand. Their close-miked digital recordings were made in locales like Thailand's Khao Yai National Park and Kenya's Kakemega Forest. Many of these unfold like little stories. One might hear wrinkled buzzings interrupted by one soprano bleep, a sudden register leap to a low hrumph, then soft whispers - all from one creature, spanning maybe 30". The rhythms alone are a study in intensity and grace, many falling into poly- meters, such as one finds in Bartok or Stravinsky. But don't take my word for it. You owe it to yourself to hear such creatures as The Great Patoo, Franquet's Epauletted Bat and The Gibbons Family Chorus!

          Visit: www.birds.cornell.edu/MacaulayLibrary (The videos are inspiring, but so is listening with eyes closed.)

          God's Own Music

I believe that in music as in the visual arts, nothing transcends nature.   And with the help of liberate theories of what can constitute beauty (e.g. Cage),  today we are ready to open our ears to these earthly sonorities.

Moreover - as in color theory - every sound we have created, whether vocal, instrumental or electronic, already appears in nature...plus countless more.[1]  All of these sounds resonate on our planet simultaneously, each in their own circadian cycles, expressing what could be called "God's music." It seems impossible to imagine such an unknowable totality. Or is it?... Structurally - not unlike a symphony - this "totality" seems to include short motivic phrases, long sustained tones, various pitch classes (including those we would consider microtonal), and a multiplicity of rhythmic groupings, sonorities, and dynamics. There are unpredictable elements along with consistent ones, phrases left to interpretation and others to improvisation.


The essential purpose of all this is, of course, communication. What we have thus far described in musical terms are complex languages through which creatures "talk" to each other. Darwin will walk you through an array of vocalizations for danger, hunger, and mating that he observed - differently in each species. [2]

So let us factor in the calls, responses, messages and yearnings that inhabit each utterance. Perhaps they could be likened to the motivic conversations traded between Jazz players. Indeed, Jazz is highly structured, yet speaks through each individual "wailing" in the moment. (Aristotle might be pleased - music imitating nature after all.)


"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education." - Albert Einstein

Comparisons with symphonies and jazz may be helpful initially. But ultimately we must surrender to earth's sonic universe as a paradigm unto itself - about which admittedly little is known (the way physicists still regard quantum and string theory). By basing hypotheses too much on existing musical knowledge, we may miss the mysteries from which we'd benefit most.

The old saying "there's nothing new under the sun" seems axiomatic enough. However, among the things "not new under the sun" are whole regions we simply haven't gotten to yet.

I'm not sure why, but since I was a small child I've always dreamed of hearing all the sounds of nature at once. Then again, I've always wanted to come back as a gorilla. I leave you to your own conclusions.


"On the threshold of beauty, science and art collaborate." - Edgard Varese

It's wonderful how much we still don't know. There are ancient Peruvian and Native American rituals in which shamans communicate with animals - often with the help of entheogens like peyote. Can others learn to achieve this, and in "unaltered" states?

Can certain species understand other species? Might some be multi- or even pan-lingual? And non-creature sounds like ocean waves and thunder? - do these function as communication per se? And what about silent, telepathic communications? - can these be discerned by modern science? [3]

"Mapquest" provides wide-range photographs of the earth from altitudes previously known only to astronauts. Can satellites also record the earth's sounds from such a high and wide expanse that we could hear multiple layers of nature's vast counterpoint?

In 1977, Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer documented constant decibel escalation in the post-industrial soundscape. He warned of the unsuspected ways noise pollution increases stress, health risks and environmental decay. How can we reduce these levels, among our many green pursuits? [4]

If the earth and humans went to couples therapy, surely the humans would be urged to listen better. And the earth would join a support group for battered partners.

And so...a composer's prayer:

May we all learn to listen patiently, savoring the details. From up close and from afar. With science, art and compassion. With fun and with fury. May we remember to breathe deeply - sonic in itself. And...may we never stop imagining. [5]

K. Nurock, NYC, January, 2009


    [1] In 550 BC, Pythagoras discovered "music of the spheres" - high droning vibrations that, according to his astronomy- based calculations, were ringing eternally. (One would crave to hear those resultant chords - if human ears could tolerate their volume.)
    [2] "The Expression of the Emotions In Man and Animals," Charles Darwin, 1872. Chapter IV, The Emission of Sounds.
University of Chicago Press (1965).
    [3] In a rapidly growing profession, Animal Communicators are hired by families, farms and zoos for cross-species mediation and healing. It's easy to be skeptical, but this is a credible scientific/intuitive field, related to shamanism.
    [4] "The Tuning Of The World," R. Murray Schafer, Knopf. Since then new fields such as Bioacousitics and Acoustic Ecology have emerged, with agendas promoting healthier practices by industry, legislators and the public
    [5] Prayer dedicated to Pauline Oliveros, deep listening pioneer-savant.


Cross-Species Online -
Highly Recommended Sites

Sounds on MP3 (all free online...)  
Cornell Library of Nature Sounds www.birds.cornell.edu
Wildlife Sounds www.wildlife-sound.org/index.html
National Geographic (ornithology sounds) www.handheldbirds.com
Songs of the Humpback Whale www.emusic.com/album/Humpback-Whales-Songs-of-the-Humpback-Whale- MP3Download/11122951.html
Jim Nollman www.interspecies.com/index.html#homesite
Rupert Sheldrake www.sheldrake.org/homepage.html
Eugene Linden www.eugenelinden.com/apes.html
Charles Darwin www.aboutdarwin.com and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

Oliver Messiaen (vis bird sounds)

www.boston.com and www.oliviermessiaen.net
Messiaens Oiseaux Exotiques, cond. by Pierre www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht5qqE_e1UE
George Crumb (re: "Voice of the Whale") www.georgecrumb.net/comp/voice-p.html
Pauline Oliveros www.paulineoliveros.us and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauline_Oliveros
Composer/author R. Murray Schafer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._Murray_Schafer
Paul Winter www.livingmusic.com and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Winter
Acoustic Ecology http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/WFAE/about/index.html
Bioacoustics http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioacoustics
Noise Pollution www.nonoise.org
Shamanism and Animals www.animalspirits.com/index1.html
Animal Communicators (many links to history and techniques...) http://healing.about.com/od/petcommunicators/Animal_Communicators.htm
Music healing Animals www.livescience.com/animals/080103-harp- therapy.html
Nature Sounds http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_sound

KN Commencement Address


          Commencement Address

             by  Kirk Nurock

                  New School For Jazz and Contemporary Music

            New York City        May 18, 2006


[Opening: Congratulations to the graduates and their families. Greetings to Program Director Martin Mueller and esteemed guest Mr. Bob Hurwitz.  Short reminiscences of our classes together.]

Honorandus ab omnibus hominibus. This quote is from the Hippocratic oath doctors take at their graduations. "...a member of society with special obligations to my fellow human beings." Hippocrates wrote it in 440 BC. It's about ethics and morality. It says--among other things--that doctors shall follow a spiritual calling as they have been put on earth as healers.

Of course we in the arts also follow a calling...one so powerful that many of us felt it even in childhood. So I find myself wondering at your graduation, might there be some oath for musicians to take, to honor our calling. And--in some larger sense--why were we artists put here?

In our culture, artists seem to cultivate a kind of emotional awareness. We create heightened states of perception that can open the human mind and heart, allowing for enhanced inner reflection. We can also amuse, provoke, challenge...I like David Liebman's term "edu-tainment."

But let's get a broader musical perspective as we look back again to the Ancients.  It was Pythagoras who discovered the overtone series in 550 BC. He also studied the planets and calculated that there was a kind of "music of the spheres"--deeply haunting dronings and ringings that he said continue throughout all time. Moreover, he found that their pitches are related to our overtone series and algebraically linked to human music and hearing.

It seems we musicians derive from this. It's as if we are all particularly tuned to the sonic universe and are here to continue creating its music. If doctors heal, musicians resonate.

I believe the Universe put so many musicians on earth because it needs us so badly. Though the economy and the marketplace may not bend to this force, it is clear we contribute to no less than the nurturing of humanity and the vibratory health of the planet. Musicians everywhere revivify the human spirit through sonic exuberance.

And dear graduates, each of you is central to this great echo. I believe that every time you play even one note in a practice room, a ripple is felt. And every time you perform sincerely and passionately for others, human evolution takes another step forward in its yearning for bliss.



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So amidst your ambitions to find work and create a survival for yourself, please always find time to care for your self and your treasure.

I urge you to avoid aggressive competitivism as much as possible. I urge you to avoid habitual self-criticism. Keeping our standards high is key of course, but being harsh on yourself will rarely create better music, let alone happiness. And as you grow older, especially, do everything you can to avoid bitterness.

Our egos always want external rewards. But I want to say that the gift you were born with IS the gift. If you sometimes feel you're not getting enough recognition...keep in mind that as an artist you were already highly recognized...by a sacred force far greater than some writer who works for a magazine.

When seeking success, always remember to give. Remember to resonate...with the society, the earth, and with our vast past and unknowable future. Be certain to keep the music of the spheres within your sphere. Duke Ellington once referred to music as "a system of ribbons, a multiplicity of ramifications, a million facets of gossamer sensations." [pause...] Somewhere in there, we all dance.


* * * * *


An oath for musicians might include something like "I create to serve the greater good. My music is one with all music." But I encourage each of you to create your own oath, affirmation or mission statement. It could serve this current chapter in your lives and then be revised as you seek further horizons. Or the same one may last your whole life.

Before I close, I want to invite you all--and this is purely voluntary--to join me in some resonating in this very hall. If you wish to, please take a deep breath and begin to sustain the syllable Ah on any note at all. [KN conducts audience Ah.] Now we're going to sustain Ah again and slowly slide upward. [sliding Ah.] And finally, in great celebration of our graduates let's all do a big vocal shake...like this [all join wild shake].


* * * * *


Now I want you to go out there wailing!! And cavort everywhere you possibly can in those millions of gossamer sensations!!




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