Q&A with Invisibilia's 'The Last Sound'

Apr 10, 2020

Invisibilia explores how unseeable forces can control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions. Their latest episode, "The Last Sound" examines the power of sound and what we can learn about ourselves and the world if we sit still to listen. They spoke with Bernie Krause, who was a successful musician who heard a sound unlike anything he'd ever encountered and at that very moment it completely overtook his life. He quit the music business to pursue it and has spent the last 50 years following it all over the earth.

For many sitting still to listen has now become a reality as we navigate this pandemic and lockdown in place. We chatted with Abby Wendle, Producer of Invisibilia and Hanna Rosin, Corespondent/Host of Invisibilia to explore what it was like to produce "The Last Sound."

What led you to explore the power of sound and reach out to Bernie Krause?

(Abby) Lately I've gotten really into something called sonic meditation. People get together and make sounds with each other, or just listen to the space around them. It can get strange, for sure. But I highly recommend it - especially if you're stuck inside right now. A good howl can let out a lot of pent up energy! Two pioneers of that practice are Pauline Oliveros and Annea Lockwood.

Earlier this year, Lockwood spoke with The New York Times about the role that sound can play in raising awareness about climate change. For her, simply listening to the natural world can help us hear that, "We are not separate, at all. And the more we recognize that, the less harm we will do, I feel. The more we'll be drawn away from exploitation, toward conservation." That idea stuck with me. Sound can be powerful. Listening can be powerful. Shortly after I read that, my friend and colleague Hanna Rosin mentioned she'd heard about this guy, Bernie Krause, who was interested in the same ideas and also had this compelling personal story to tell - about sound, but also about how climate change has impacted his own life. And I thought, aha, I have found a way to merge my love of sound with my desire to tell stories related, in some way, to our climate crisis.

Bernie and his wife Kat Krause at a restaurant in Sonoma, California.
NPR

What was the most surprising aspect you discovered about the power of sound?

(Abby) I read that scientists to this day can detect the echo of the Big Bang. That means sound, if explosive enough and unimpeded, can travel for billions of years! Apparently the Big Bang sounds unstructured and chaotic, which I guess is why they call it a "bang." Imagine that - everything... It all started with noise.

The acoustic niche hypothesis is that creatures sharing an ecosystem evolve to make sounds in different rhythms and pitches so they don't get in each other's way so their voices can be heard. What do you think humans can learn from that?

(Abby) I find Bernie's hypothesis beautiful. Like, look, the animals are making room for each other! So, perhaps humans could make a little room for them? But evolution isn't a conscious process - the animals aren't brokering agreements with each other about who gets to speak, how, and when. But perhaps the hypothesis can help us hear that life is a collaboration of many different, interdependent parts. And we humans, being creatures ourselves, are connected to all of it - from sexy megafauna like whales to overlooked pond scum.

Has your appreciation of sounds from the natural world changed over time?

(Abby) Yes and no. Whenever I'd get in trouble as a kid, I'd go into the woods behind our house and lay down to listen to the wind in the treetops. It helped me calm down and put things in perspective. I still like to do that. But my appreciation for sound - natural sound and all sound, really - has grown as I've gotten older and spent more time working with and thinking about it. I hope that continues.

Spectrogram of the sound recording Bernie made while in Kenya in 1983.
NPR

In a previous episode you asked listeners to sit still and record the sounds around them. You received hundreds of submissions. Coincidently, you received them right before the pandemic hit. What sounds stood out to you the most?

(Hanna) People recorded sounds for us right before the pandemic hit hard in the U.S. - like days before. And the day I listened to them was the first day we were ordered to work from home. And the shock of it all was really fresh. So I sat down to listen and suddenly found myself crying! But it wasn't to the beautiful sounds of whooping cranes or penguins marching. It was to the sound of a commuter train in Bombay! And a barbershop! And then I realized that I was crying because these minute recordings of mundane life suddenly sounded to me like lost sounds - snippets from a world that had just shut down and got quiet, and I was flooded with nostalgia for what I would not hear for a while.

As you practice social distancing what sounds have you found a new appreciation for or now find particularly soothing?

(Hanna) The sounds I loved in my headphones are NOT the sounds I find soothing in real life. Now, when I hear groups of people around the corner I feel panic! The sounds I love right now are really small and signal domestic routine. My son's heavy uneven footsteps in the (now late) morning. My girlfriend pouring dog food into the bowl.. The mail dropping through the slot.

What do you turn to in order to remind yourself that you are one with nature?

(Hanna) I can hear so many more birds and even the wind now, because it's so quiet out. But it's funny. I feel more separate from nature than ever. I think maybe that's because when we are outside now we have to be so on guard, and wear masks, and mentally measure six feet, that it's hard to feel meditative. I think that may be why I just bought my first indoor house plants, because I'm worried to enjoy nature I will have to bring it inside.

Now that so many of us are forced to be still due to the pandemic, what good do you think will come out of this? What can we learn?

(Hanna) The main thing I've noticed is that we are starting to be able to discern between noise and sound. In normal times we are carried along on waves of noise. Our busy routines, small talk, schedules, meetings, commuting, eating out, whatever. But now that we've slowed down considerably we are just more tuned into real sounds. Those can be the sounds of nature, or beautiful things. And they can also be the sounds of tragedy and suffering. But they are all big and real and very much more present now that they are no longer drowned out by all the noise.

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