“SOUNDS WILD AND BROKEN: Sonic marvels, evolution’s creativity and the crisis of sensory extinction” by DAVID GEORGE HASKELL Hugh de Ferranti


SOUNDS WILD AND BROKEN: Sonic marvels, evolution's creativity and the crisis of sensory extinction

DAVID GEORGE HASKELL: 448pp. Faber (2022)

When I gave a talk for the FHRC back in March, I showed excerpts from many video recordings of musical performances, asking listener-viewers to consider how diverse forms of rita might be manifest in what they saw and heard. One clip was a few minutes of an outdoor performance of shakuhachi traditional solo repertory (a honkyoku 本曲 piece), in which a woman stands playing in what appears to be a woodland: . Throughout this 2021 clip, the thirteenth ‘Mini-concert in nature in time of Covid 19’ recorded by Netherlands-based shakuhachi player Hélène Seiyu, calls of a group of birds are continually audible, and the camerawork implies they are perched in trees a few metres away from the woman. The recorded performance was suggestive of human gifting of ‘our’ music to non-humans who might be listening, might enjoy the ‘gift’, and might respond. Yet the video also made me think about how people can regard bird calls as communicative gifts, and indeed the performer herself appears to respond with her instrument to the enveloping sound from the trees above, rather than initiate aural dialogue or try to elicit voiced responses and participation in ‘music’ from the birds. In that sense, the performance situation was not one of musical interaction with birds, for the shakuhachi music was a set composition and throughout it the overall level and density of sound from the birds remained unchanged.

As someone who used to enjoy listening daily to frequent and often quite loud bird calls in my backyard and a park right next door, during the decade I lived in Armidale, northern NSW, even after a subsequent decade of living in outer Tokyo suburbia I’m still trying to adjust to what seems to me a paucity of bird calls, and also the sheer gentleness, that is, the low volume and soft timbres, of almost all the ‘suburban’ birds. (For some reason, the crows that are ubiquitous in most of Tokyo are scarce out here in Kawagoe.) From the book I’m introducing in this essay, I’ve learned not only of a new scientific consensus of ‘Australia as the crucible and exporter to the world of songbird diversity’ (187), but also that there are former migrants to my country who were “impelled to return to Europe, unable to bear the cacophony of birds that ‘crash[es] into your consciousness’ ”! (Whitehouse 2018, quoted in Haskell 2022, p183) In light of my ongoing experience of the sheer acuteness of contrast between avian soundscapes in Armidale and here in Kawagoe, that otherwise astonishing fact hardly surprised me.

I’ve begun to explore academic (and other) writings on avian and other non-human ‘vocalisation’, and moreover Sound Studies literature on sonic diversity and its depletion. Sounds Wild and Broken is a recent book by David Haskell, North American-based biologist renowned for his ability to reach a large non-specialist readership through deployment of both poetic expression and depth of scholarship. (Two of his books, including the one I focus on here, have been selected as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.) He is also gently persistent in informing readers of the nature, extent and causes of some of the planetary-scale problems of our times -- in this case pervasive sonic degradation and depletion of the aural environment’s richness. Even in his 2022 book’s Acknowledgements text, he drives home that message both verbally and with the impressive promise he makes:

In these pages, I make the case that the acoustic crisishas four main pressing and intersecting dimensions: silencing that ensues from loss of ecological habitat and attacks on human rights, especially in tropical forests; the nightmare of industrial sound in the oceans; the inequities of noise pollution in cities; and our frequent failures as individuals and cultures to listen to and celebrate the storied sensory richness of our world. I will donate at least half of my net proceeds from this book to organizations that work to heal and reverse these aggressions, fragmentations, and losses. (379)

Haskell has a huge agenda, encompassing the global history of sound itself and sonic communication among species on Earth, the evolution of animal vocalisations (including those of humans), biology’s past ignorance of sound and more recent attentiveness to it, and an ongoing worldwide erasure of sonic diversity that is part of a broader diminishment of humans’ capacity for sensory perception and attentiveness – “the crisis of sensory extinction”, no less. For the purposes of this short essay, then, I will draw give an account of two of the 400-page book’s six parts, each of which is further divided into several chapters. In Human Music and Belonging (Part IV), and Listening (Part VI), respectively, Haskell considers humans’ music-making in its inseparability from biological conditions and what he sees as the ‘music’ of other species; the matching of sound-making to and moreover the creative manipulation of acoustic space; and our responsibility both to listen closely and actively to soundscapes, regardless of whether they are apparently natural or human-made, and to be aware of inter-species damage being inflicted by the proliferation of noise.

Human Music and Belonging immediately drew my interest as I’ve thought a lot about music’s embeddedness in place and space. My ethnographic and sociological approaches to those issues, however, could not have prepared me for what I found here! The Part IV title deliberately includes ‘human’ as a qualifier for ‘music’ because much of the rest of the book concerns the vocalisations of birds and whales, and the sounds of insects, the former two of which Haskell resolutely regards as music. Moreover, having devoted a chapter in Part III to vocal learning among animals, he now turns to musical instruments (human-only sound making tools) and instrumental music, a mode of creative sonic expression unrelated to the use of language. ‘Bone, Ivory, Breath’, the first of Part IV’s three chapters, is a meticulous and moving account of what are currently the world’s oldest surviving instruments, Paleolithic bone and (mammoth) ivory flutes between 35 and 40,000 years old, found in southern Germany in 2006. Haskell makes a paradoxical link between the enjoyment of instrumental sounds and human attention to non-human sounds: “Through tool use – manufacturing musical instruments, a recent and uniquely human activity – we experience sound as animal kin may still do, and prehuman ancestors surely also did, as a sonic experience full of meaning and nuance beyond and before human words” (201). He goes on to stress that these instruments appeared in the same place and same era as the first figurative art, the so-called Venus Paleolithic figures, small carvings representing female humans: “The world’s oldest known musical instruments are entombed right next to the oldest known figurative sculpture” (202). ‘Resonant Spaces’, the second chapter in Part IV, begins with an exploration of the rich acoustics of the natural enclosed spaces in which Paleolithic flutes probably were played, and broader evidence that Paleolithic humans paid attention to the resonance of caves. Emphasising that humans did not “deliberately sculpt sound-making spaces” until later in history, he then moves to an exploration of just that – the building of dedicated enclosed environments for human music and speech, and the devising of technologies for creating and modifying spaces in which we experience sound: headphones, electronic and digital systems for controlling and re-shaping sonic space. Haskell posits the shaping of space as the third element in a triad of human sonic creativity: composition, sound-making, space (223). In the third chapter, ‘Music, Forest, Body’, Haskell begins by decrying the symbolic refusal of sites for high culture, in particular the symphony concert hall, to admit the non-human, but he soon tears that illusion away, declaring it bunk in the face of inextricable relations between instruments and natural resources, and the physicality of performance. He historicises the fact that quality orchestral instruments are made largely from woods and other materials obtained through trade and exploitation of resources in European former colonial territories: “The sounds of the orchestra are worldly, immersing me in the beauty and brokenness of both biodiversity and human history. Music is not transcendent or abstracted, it is immanent and embodied”(248). Haskell praises the way musicians meticulously care for and prolong the usage life of instruments made from wood, but contrasts such practices with short-term usage of timber items, especially furniture, now seemingly ubiquitous in modern daily life and the cause of critical deforestation as corporate supply feeds insatiable global consumption. This attention to the materiality of musical instruments leads on to consideration of the human body’s modes of interface with them in performance and in listening. That is the path Haskell treads toward four pages of polemic crucial to his entire book (253-6), where he throws down the gauntlet to those who insist that music is only made by humans! Dispensing with arguments for sonic communication, aesthetic or emotional responsiveness, cultural embeddedness and innovation, he admits of only one respect in which humans’ music is “nearly unique”:

Music, then, separates us from other beings in the sophistication of our tools and architecture, but not in other regards. We are, as other musical animals are, sensing, feeling, thinking, and innovating beings, but we make our music with tools in a built environment of unique complexity and specialization’ (256).

The final sentences of Part IV make a perfect segue to Part VI, Listening (in the understanding that readers will also absorb Part V’s forensic documentation of species erosion and the acoustic violence being done to animals in oceans, forests and cities):

The belief in a maestro species, “he who is greater”, can be dissolved by music’s unifying powers. Experiences of musical beauty can knit us back into life’s community. But we must first choose to listen.’ (258)

The first of Part VI’s two chapters is ‘[Listening] In Community’. I found to my amazement that most of its 20 pages are devoted to experiences of listening in Japan and Australia, my two homes. Two settings for sonic community are presented: The first is that of local groups who shoulder responsibility for and try to maintain the originally 100 soundscapes across the length and breadth of Japan that a Ministry of the Environment study group designated in 1996 as 「残したい日本の音風景」. The second is an experience of a site-specific environmental artwork created by an Australian sound artist, Leah Barclay, whereby participants engage in ‘embodied listening’ to shoreline stretches of a lake near the Queensland coast, receiving an ‘expanded sensory and imaginative connection’ to the many forms of life in and in proximity to the water. Then the last six pages of ‘In Community’ are about other artists’ approaches to placing music in proximity to natural sounds -- a 2019 sonic and compositional installation in the New York Botanical Garden, and clarinet performances in active interaction with insects, birds and whales by David Rothenberg:

To listen and play with … an animal whose lineage separated from ours tens or hundreds of millions of years ago brings our ears to the edge of a vast chasm of sensory and aesthetic experience. … This is experimental biology and philosophy of sensory experience. … We live among other species with elaborate vocal cultures, yet we seldom reach out to experience what might lie at an intersection of sonic cultures. (369-371)

The second section of Part VI, ‘[Listening] in the Deep Past and Future’, is a short and meditative ending to the book, concerned with the origins of sound as waves of energy in the expanding early universe, and its ultimate future: “All leads to silence”. Haskell both consoles and exhorts us to action by stressing the special qualities and value in sound and listening attentively: “We inhabit the generative power of the universe, expressed in the particularity of the moment. By killing and smothering Earth’s many voices, we silence and destroy what made us’”(377).


As impressive and moving as I found this book, despite Haskell’s worthy attempt to persuade me, I’ve yet to be convinced that the raucous Australian bird calls I miss and the demure Musashino Plain ones I’m coming to know can accurately be represented to human listeners as music. Another way of thinking about the problem is this: While there may be intricate patterning and formal principles inherent in the ‘vocal’ sounds animals play with, we don’t sufficiently understand them, and therefore we can enjoy listening but we can’t hear those sounds as music, nor join in the sonic games (unless we are experimentalist performers like Rothenberg). Perhaps we don’t even deserve to come to comprehend the ‘music’ within the sonic play of animals, given the damage we’ve done to the environment we share with them!

Right at the start of his text, Haskell informs readers that “For more than nine-tenths of its history, Earth lacked any communicative sounds … Hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution unfolded in communicative silence” (Preface, xii). That simple fact can soon make us feel overwhelmed as we try to grasp the actual depth of biological history. Yet it positions both the understanding of the aural environment sought by Sound Studies researchers, and the acoustic crisis’ that is Haskell’s primary concern, in close relation to important recent inter-disciplinary developments: the unification of pre-history and history as deep history’, a convergence among biological and other science fields’ constructions of human life and culture before the first written documents (Shryock and Smail 2011), and the planetary’ and alternative histories proposed by Chakrabarty (2021).

Finally, if rita is intrinsically an ethical concept, then the human-generated crisis of sound-making and listening is one of (many!) contemporary global-scale problems that undermine and run counter to potential for rita in human experience. As Haskell points out, people must listen in order to fully perceive the presence and acknowledge the right to presence of both human and non-human others:

…we are increasingly disconnected from sensory, storied relationship to life’s community. … This destroys the necessary sensory foundation for human ethics. The crises in which we live, then, are not just “environmental”, of the environs, but perceptual. (xiv)



Chakrabarty, Dipesh 2021 The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. University of Chicago Press

Shryock, Andrew and Daniel Smail 2011   Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present. University of California Press (1st Edition)

Whitehouse, Andrew 2018 ‘Senses of being: the atmospheres of listening to birds in Britain, Australia and New Zealand’. In Exploring Atmospheres Ethnographically. Sara Asu Schroer and Susanne Schmitt (eds.) Routledge: 61-75

Ministry of the Environment, Government of Japan 「残したい日本の音風景」