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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Lifetime of Listening

Air Date: Week of

Listening closely to the world around. (Photo: Tim Chapman)

Few have heard the world as Bernie Krause has. Originally trained as a musician, he spent years recording the most famous musicians of the 1960s and 70s. Then he left the studio to explore the origins of music in nature. Krause has recorded wild sounds in places few have ever been or even dreamed of. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah listens in.


GELLERMAN: Bernie Krause is an acoustic adventurer. For the past forty years he’s traveled the world, searching and recording sounds few people had ever heard before.

[SOUNDS OF AMAZON: Bernie Krause “Amazon Days” from Amazon Days, Amazon Nights (Wild Sanctuary, BMI, 2002)]

Krause recording at Saint Vincent’s beach, Florida (Wild Sanctuary)

GELLERMAN: And some sounds you might never get a chance to hear if it weren’t for Bernie Krause. He recorded this in the Amazon rainforest a decade ago. Since then, sixty thousand square miles of jungle have been destroyed, that's an area about the size of Florida. You can read about Bernie Krause’s sonic journey in his new book: “The Great Animal Orchestra.” And you can listen to the man behind the microphone in this story by Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bernie Krause lives in an idyllic part of Northern California. It’s all pastures, and vineyards. It’s a good place to tell a story.

KRAUSE: The valley of the moon, Jack London country. He lived about a mile from here.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And set some of his adventures in this landscape, along with the South Pacific and of course, Alaska. Jack London introduced Americans to wilderness most would never see. Bernie Krause does that with sound.

KRAUSE: This is where I edit and put things together and also do the archiving. We have a huge library of natural soundscapes

Bernie Krause in his home studio filled with equipment. (Wild Sanctuary)

SRISKANDARAJAH: His garage-sized home studio houses 45 hundred hours of natural soundscape recordings. Krause is in his 70s now, but shows no sign of slowing his life’s work.

KRAUSE: I’ve always been in sound - cause I don’t see too well, so my world is informed by the acoustic world around me. And this archive is really important because so much of the material in that archive that was recorded in the early years - 1970s, 1980s, early 90s - is from habitats that no longer exist.

[SOUNDS OF THE AMAZON: Bernie Krause “Amazon Days” from Amazon Days, Amazon Nights (Wild Sanctuary, BMI, 2002)]

His recording gear has shrunk over the years. (Photo: Ike Sriskandarajah)

SRISKANDARAJAH: More than half, he estimates have fallen silent. These archives hold lost ecosystems’ swan songs…

[AMAZON BIRDS: Bernie Krause “Amazon Days” from Amazon Days, Amazon Nights (Wild Sanctuary, BMI, 2002) ]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Recorded in beautiful fidelity.

KRAUSE: And here’s what I use.


KRAUSE: Step on over to my shelves here… (rustle) These are the workhorses of most field recordists - who are serious, that is.

SRISKANDARAJAH: There are long skinny microphones, short stethoscopes, windscreens that look like zeppelins. The recorders range from sleek digital gear to their analog ancestors.

KRAUSE: It goes from an old Nagra, here pick this up.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Okay. (Laugh) Wow!

KRAUSE: And that’s light. It doesn’t have the batteries in it. You didn’t get a hernia when you lifted that, did you?

SRISKANDARAJAH: It’s unwieldy, but this old Nagra recorder is a trusted friend.

KRAUSE: I’m reminded of the time that I was recording with it and dropped it out of a helicopter…

Krause contributed synthesized helicopter effects and other sound work for Apocalypse Now. (1979 Electra)

[HELICOPTER SOUND EFFECT: The Doors: Opening to The End from Apocalypse Now: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1979 Electra)]

KRAUSE: I had my feet dangling over the side and the Nagra recorder in my lap and the chopper lurched and the Nagra fell off my knees and fell onto the beach 40 feet.


KRAUSE: And it was still working.

[MUSIC: The Doors: Opening to The End from Apocalypse Now: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1979 Electra)]

KRAUSE: It’s the only machine that’s atomic bomb proof - that’s the machine you want to have.

SRISKANDARAJAH: When you want to record the apocalypse?

KRAUSE: When you want to record the apocalypse.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And Krause might be one of the only guys who would know.

[GUITAR: The Doors: Opening to The End from Apocalypse Now: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1979 Electra)]

KRAUSE: Which, by the way, we worked on that movie.


KRAUSE: …Now! Yeah, did all the helicopter sounds with a moog synthesizer and also about a third of the score.

[APOCALYPSE NOW MUSIC FADED INTO GUANTANAMERA INSTRUMENTAL: The Weavers: Guantanamera from Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 (Vanguard Records, 1963)]

SRISKANDARAJAH: If you’re talking about recorded sound around the late 60s, there’s a decent chance Bernie Krause had something to do with it. He was a part of so many seminal moments in history, he’s basically the Forest Gump of sound. Here’s the short resume: as a young man he replaced Pete Seeger as a singer in the Weavers.

Bernie Krause on the left and Pete Seeger with a guitar in the middle. (Vanguard Records)

[GUANTANAMERA MUSIC: The Weavers: Guantanamera from Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 (Vanguard Records, 1963)]

KRAUSE: And together we introduced Guantanamera at Carnegie hall…

SRISKANDARAJAH: He left folk and got into electronic music, partnering with the late recording artist Paul Beaver.

[SYNTHESIZED MUSIC: Hot Butter: Popcorn from Best of Moog- Electronic Pop Hits from the 60s & 70s (Relativity, 1990)]

KRAUSE: And together, we introduced the synthesizer to pop music and film.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Soon all musicians wanted to tap into the incredible electric sound.

KRAUSE: And then we began working with a lot of different artists at the time - Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, a bunch of others.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The Monkees, the Doors, George Harrison. Krause and Beaver also created sounds for 135 feature films: Rosemary’s Baby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original Dr. Doolittle…


KRAUSE: But you know, I don’t remember much about that stuff, I just don’t recall.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Krause doesn’t talk much about his time in Hollywood. But he does remember what he left for. It was a challenge: an album on ecology. To combine electronic sounds alongside natural ones.

KRAUSE: I hadn’t really given much thought to that idea, like what was outside, cause I’d never been outside, I was terrified of the natural world.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Really, since you were a kid? You weren’t an outdoorsy, camping sorta guy?

KRAUSE: Not really. I mean a goldfish scared the hell out of me!

SRISKANDARAJAH: So the city kid from Detroit, turned studio artist, headed outside.

KRAUSE: I gathered up a small recorder, tape recorder, went into the field, and recorded in Muir woods around San Francisco.


KRAUSE: No question about it - the first time I turned on my recorder and had earphones on outside, everything changed.


Bernie Krause and Paul Beaver work on “In a Wild Sanctuary”(Wild Sanctuary)

KRAUSE: For a kid who suffered from ADHD, if I wanted to get a good recording, I had to sit for a long period of time, quietly, alone and not moving. This made me feel so good just to sit there quietly and watch events unfold that - uh - that’s what I wanted to do.

[MUSIC: Beaver & Krause: Walking Green Algae Blues from In A Wild Sanctuary/ Gandharva (Rhino/Warner Bros 2005)]

SRISKANDARAJAH: This is from the album, In a Wild Sanctuary, it draws from those first recordings of a stream in Muir woods.

[WATER GURGLING/BLENDED WITH MUSIC: Beaver & Krause: Walking Green Algae Blues from In A Wild Sanctuary/ Gandharva (Rhino/Warner Bros 2005)]

KRAUSE: I didn’t want to be inside anymore with those smoky rooms and all the musicians telling bad jokes and the drugs and the rest of the stuff that was going on. It was really boring to me.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The wilderness was interesting. He studied it and earned a Ph.D. in the creative arts with a focus on bioacoustics, then left to find places of sonic serenity.

KRAUSE: Well, the next step was to get away from airplane sounds and traffic noise and a lot of people yapping and talking - which is the only way that you can do it.

In A Wild Sanctuary album cover (1970 Warner Brothers)

[MUSIC: Beaver & Krause: Walking Green Algae Blues from In A Wild Sanctuary/ Gandharva (Rhino/Warner Bros 2005)]

SRISKANDARAJAH: But escaping the human soundscape is not easy

KRAUSE: As you know - it’s not a group process… hello.

SRISKANDARAJAH: As we’re talking, a plane flies over and confirms - it’s hard to find quiet


KRAUSE: Let’s wait till that guy goes by. (pull up, pull up… yeah)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Even though Krause’s California home is tucked into a shady hill, with no humans in sight - there are airports, a highway and a race track nearby. The seclusion here is an optical illusion - something that’s harder to fake in sound.

KRAUSE: Because it tells the truth. Your ears tell the truth.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The truth in soundscapes is his core belief. And Bernie Krause has field-tested it.

KRAUSE: I recorded, not very far from here, at a place called Lincoln meadows in the Sierras. There was a lumber group that wanted to cut it down and they were introducing the then new idea of selective logging.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Basically, cutting every other tree.

KRAUSE: I said to them, any chance I could record before you do the selective logging and see what the density and diversity of birdlife is in the spring - and they said yeah, sure, come on by, and I did.


SRISKANDARAJAH: But a year later, the loggers fell short of their word.

(Little Brown)

KRAUSE: If you take a look at a Google Earth image of that site, what they’ve done is - they kept the tree density along the edge of Lincoln meadow the same, but if you walk back a couple hundred yards, they clear cut it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In one year the ambience of the meadow went from this -




SRISKANDARAJAH: Google used these and other of Krause’s recordings as a feature in Google Earth. Universities got interested too. The idea of using soundscapes to show change in an environment has been gaining momentum for years, but the discipline is still pretty small.

KRAUSE: It’s called soundscape ecology and the ones who’ve actually picked up on the scientific end of this thing are Michigan State University - the enviro-sonics lab there, and also, at Purdue University - Bryan Pyjanowski.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Last year Bernie Krause and Professor Pyjanowski co-wrote a paper describing the field in the journal Bioscience. And the Purdue professor recently launched a website called the Soundscape Network.

PYJANOWSKI: We collect huge amounts of files. We have over half a million sound recordings, many of them about 10-15 minutes long.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Besides making the audio publicly available, Pyjanowski mines these recordings as data sets that gauge the health of ecosystems. The answer is relevant to biologists, engineers, urban planners and policy makers. And all of them have something to learn from Bernie Krause.

PYJANOWSKI: I mean he’s thought about what can produce sound and he’s run around and done it. I haven’t gotten out and done all the different things that he has. But he’s teaching me.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The guy that recorded ‘Apocalypse Now’ has a lot of technical knowledge to share. But the intuitive skill of listening is harder to teach. Brian Pyjanowski is learning to listen to the whole ecosystem as a “biophony.”

PYJANOWSKI: As ecologists begin to study this phenomenon, we want to be able to borrow from the vocabulary of musicians but also learn from them the way in which they listen. They’re great listeners.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Here’s Bernie Krause again.

KRAUSE: We’re a visual culture so we don’t know how to listen. We know how to listen, sort of, to music.

SRISKANDARAJAH: We listen to music, but we’ve forgotten to listen to nature. Krause’s new book is “The Great Animal Orchestra.” It argues that art imitates wildlife.

KRAUSE: Humans are imitators. It’s what we do for a living, we imitate. And when we saw primates pounding out rhythms on the buttresses of fig trees, in the forest, we developed the drum. The different length broken reeds by a stream, we got the flute.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Krause finds the origins of music in the world’s wild places.


KRAUSE: We didn’t learn it from Julliard, not the Eastman School of Music or Berklee in Boston.


KRAUSE: We learned it from the critters.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Krause hears the biophony everywhere, in places we never knew existed. He’s recorded underwater, the sounds of an anemone trying to eat his hydrophone -


SRISKANDARAJAH: - and spitting it back out -


SRISKANDARAJAH: into ant hills where insects chirp as their legs rub together -


SRISKANDARAJAH: - and inside trees, where thirsty plant cells produce incredible, imperceptible pops.


KRAUSE: We cheated a little on this one. We drilled a tiny hole about the size of a pencil eraser into this cottonwood tree and inserted a hyrdophone because the sound is very high frequency and recorded the sound and slowed it up by a factor of seven when we got back into the studio so we could actually hear it.


KRAUSE: And I just happened to hit on a stretch that was perfectly in synch rhythmically -

An Eastern Wolf in Algonquin Park (Algonquin Park Museum)


KRAUSE: - the beat is perfect.


KRAUSE: People always say, they use this old trope, that a picture is worth a thousand words. I always say well, okay, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.

SRISKANDARAJAH: These soundscapes tell stories, of invisible, unreachable places, and ones that have gone silent. There’s one more story. One in particular that would’ve made Krause’s neighbor, Jack London, proud. It was captured in Ontario’s Algonquin Park.


KRAUSE: Yeah, I went out one morning and, uh, all of a sudden I was surrounded by these wolves.


KRAUSE: The guy that was with me was terrified. I was in heaven. I wrapped a string around a tree and set up two mics on it and began to record. I had a pack of wolves in front of me and a pack of wolves in back of me and was completely surrounded with these two groups just yowling at one another in the dawn light…


KRAUSE:…and it was absolutely glorious.


SRISKANDARAJAH: The boy who flinched at goldfish, grew up to chase the call of the wild. Packs of wolves, in stereo, don’t even really bother him.

KRAUSE: That’s because I’m crazy!


SRISKANDARAJAH: There’s another reason.

KRAUSE: The sounds of the natural world are the sounds of the divine - the sounds of the human world are anything but.


Krause at his Northern California home: Jack London once lived in the area. (Photo: Ike Sriskandarajah)

SRISKANDARAJAH: For Bernie Krause, listening lets him step out of our everyday landscape and into the gospel of nature. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.


GELLERMAN: A sound may be worth a thousand pictures but for some photos and more about Bernie Krause and his new book “The Great Animal Orchestra”, turn to our webpage: loe dot org.



The Great Animal Orchestra

The Soundscape Network


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