Earth Tones

Soundscape Project combines nature, dance and music

So a troupe of dancers, engineering students and musicians walk into a nature preserve with Bernie Krause and—no joke—compose a conceptual art piece about the origin of music.

“The idea is that animals taught us to dance and sing,” says Krause, a renowned nature recordist, author and consultant on the Soundscape Project at Sonoma State University. “There’s almost nothing in Western music in the 20th century that relates directly to the natural world,” he says. “This is an important project.”

Claudia Luke, director of SSU’s three nature preserves, first met Krause years ago working on a project in the Mojave Desert, where he recorded, for the first time, the high-pitched calls fire ants make when they’re rallying for an attack. She’s excited about the cross-discipline collaboration of this project, which includes choreographed dance, video, recorded and composed sound, and the environment of the natural world. “It’s turning sound into art,” she says.

Dance students used the preserves as a rehearsal studio, engulfing themselves in nature before even hearing the finished soundtrack. “Composers often use these types of sounds in contemporary dance,” says the project’s Sebastopol-based composer Jesse Olsen Bay, “but I haven’t seen anything specifically about these types of sounds. Everyone working on this project was responding to these soundscapes.”

There are subtle differences in the field recordings. Dawn at the Fairfield Osborne Preserve is a sparse mix of owls and other large birds, each occupying a different sonic space. At the Galbreath Valley site, it’s more of a blanket of small sounds with large birds, like crows, taking the lead melody. One challenge, says Olsen Bay, was to translate the “hugeness” of nature into “a form that wants to be neatly packaged.” Olsen Bay took the field recordings and worked them into his own studio compositions.

Luke says she hopes the performances help spark the idea that sound can tie into sense of place as much as, if not more than, any other form of stimulation—especially with the free performance at the acoustically sonorous Green Music Center.

“What SSU is doing now,” says Krause, “they’re coming full circle to the origins of music. They’re rediscovering that natural soundscapes really have a certain resonance to them that musicians can draw from.”

The Soundscape Project holds performances on Thursday–Sunday, Nov. 21–24, at the Evert B. Person Theatre at Sonoma State University (Thursday–Saturday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm), and a free noon performance on Friday, Dec. 6, at SSU’s Green Music Center (tickets required). 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. For more information, visit