Pedro Alcalde & the wilderness orchestra

Pedro Alcalde, author of Animal Musicians, is a renowned composer and conductor. He has conducted numerous prestigious orchestras throughout the world–in Madrid, Berlin, Rome, Osaka, and St. Petersburg, among others. In an interview with The Secret Mountain, he discussed the majesty of animal sounds, his thoughts on children’s music education, and the process behind the writing of his new book. 

How did you come up with the idea for this book? 

Zahorí Books publishing house in Barcelona asked me to write a book considering non-human animals as musicians. I accepted right away. We may believe that we know everything about nightingales, we could learn Keats’ wonderful poem by heart, but only the night we have one near our window singing loudly and endlessly do we realize the true extent of their mystery. There is something in the nightingale’s insistence, coupled with their prodigious ability to vary each stanza, which places us right in front of our theme: what music is that?

It’s rare that we meet musicians that are so keen on science and the study of animals. What inspired you to engage with this field, since your primary area of interest has been composition and conducting?

What inspired me were the striking commonalities between non-human and human musical behaviours. For humans, in any composition, the challenge is how to arrange the various sounds in a certain, conscious way. This is a common premise with the animals of this book as well: they carefully study and structure their sound creations. However, there are some surprises concerning conducting. For example, frogs never sing together (which is the true obsession of any conductor). If they did sing as one, who could then recognize their individual voices? And, this is precisely the purpose of their song.

How has your career lead to a passion for children’s music education? Have you ever taught music to kids? 

I share the idea of “age-transversal knowledge.” I believe children love thought-provoking information just as much as adults do. We conceived of the book as a compilation of animals that share with humans the passion for music, thinking that it would become attractive to both adults and children alike.

What is your favourite of all the animal musicians in the book? 

It is very difficult to choose among all these wonderful animals. Unlike frogs or cicadas, wolves sing in groups not just because they are side by side, but because they seek to mix their individual voices in extremely fascinating chamber choirs. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of listening to them.

How did you choose which animals to include, and which ones to leave out? Were there many animals that didn’t make the cut? 

I tried to include different issues like the variety of species, the different modes of sound production, their geographical distribution, and so on. One of the ideas that I consider of crucial importance, for example, is the fact that different animals (with their different means of sound production and different music) also have different ears. For example, in the book there are three animals that produce sounds that are inaudible to the human ear. This topic seems essential to me, because it helps us to de-narrate all these discourses of the supposed human omnipotence in and over nature.

If you could be any animal in the book, which one would you choose?

If there were no whalers around, I would love to be a humpback in the ocean.

How did you go about collecting field recordings of all the animal sounds? 

It is a work in progress, and one that will likely never end. We always imagine that a good animal sound recording is one presented without any sound distraction: loud, clear, close, and without background. However, this is a sound that does not exist in nature. Today we are beginning to accept the fact that field recordings present the real sound habitat in which animals live. “The great orchestra of animals,” as Bernie Krause calls it.

Do you have pets of your own? What kinds of sounds do they make? 

I have a dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, her name is Mwezi. She loves to participate in the form of dialogues to discuss important issues. She does not bark, but she does emit a combination of moans, sighs, whines and growls, occasionally adding some howling. I think I’ve never understood anyone better. It makes me reflect on the subject of language. The philosopher Nietzsche said that the best that is understood of language is not the word, but the tone, the intensity and the modulation, even the rhythm in which a series of words are pronounced. That is, the music that is behind the words and the personality behind that music…

What kind of animal sounds do you hear everyday in your neighbourhood?

Until recently, I lived in front of Barcelona´s zoo and it was really curious to wake up in the middle of the city with the elephants trumpeting and the lions roaring. Nowadays, more and more zoos are closing in Europe. I live in another neighborhood now and animal music here is mainly composed of different birds. A couple of blackbirds just had their breeding in the yard. You could say that they have already started with the singing lessons.

Would you ever consider incorporating animal sounds into your future compositions? 

I have often included them, but usually the sound does not refer to the specific animal that produces the sound. Once, instead, in a ballet composition dedicated to the Russian writer Anton Chekhov that premiered in 2010 in Moscow, I couldn’t help including the singing of a Russian nightingale in one of the compositions. In this case, yes, the sound referred to its source. 

The illustrations to this book are so compelling. Did you work with the artist, Julio Antonio Blasco, on the creation of these animal drawings? 

Julio already started drawing after receiving the text of each of the animals. He sends a first draft of the layout, we discuss it with the editor, and then he finishes the illustration and adds colours. Therefore, there is always this understanding between form and content. 

Will there be a chance to see you do a live presentation of the book with recordings sometime soon? 

I would be very pleased. I am preparing a sound installation with 14 sound channels, one for each animal. And I would love to show it in a live presentation. It would be like going back to the times of Eden.