When We Talk About Animals – Ep. 39

When We Talk About Animals - Ep. 39

In 1968, Dr. Bernie Krause was leading a booming music career. A prodigiously talented musician, he’d played guitar on Motown records as a teenager, replaced Pete Seeger in the folk band The Weavers in his twenties, and had become a pivotal figure in electronic music by age 30, mastering the synthesizer and introducing it to popular music and film. He worked with artists like The Doors and the Beach Boys, performed music and effects for iconic soundtracks for more than 130 films and shows like Apocalypse Now and Mission Impossible, and co-produced game-changing albums showing the world how the synthesizer could combine sounds into new timbres.

My background is as a professional musician, so I have always thought of the sonic world as being a kind of chorus of sound,” Krause says. “It never occurred to me to take [animals] out and abstract them one by one. It’s a bit, to me, like abstracting the sound of a single violin player out of the orchestra and trying to express the magnificence of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. You can’t really do it. You can play the theme, but it doesn’t give you the impact of it.” (Photo by Chris Chung, Press Democrat, Santa Rosa)

Then Warner Brothers commissioned his duo, Beaver & Krause, to create the first-ever album incorporating the sounds of wild habitats. Bernie headed into Muir Woods north of San Francisco with a portable recorder, mics, and stereo headphones. What he heard changed his life. A flowing stream; gentle winds in the tall redwood canopy; a pair of calling ravens, feathers resonating with each wingbeat. It was an immense new world of music. Listening to it made him feel calm, focused, and simply good in a way he hadn’t felt before.

Bernie decided he wanted to record wild animals for the rest of his life. And that’s what he did. He quit Hollywood, got a PhD studying bioacoustics (back when the field comprised about five people) and began traveling the world to record wild habitats. Over the past fifty years, he’s built what The New Yorker aptly called “an auditory Library of Alexandria for everything non-human.” His astonishing archive includes the sounds of more than 15,000 species, from barnacles twisting in their shells, to chorusing tropical forest frogs, to feeding humpback whales.

Previous wildlife records isolated the calls of individual creatures, but Bernie recorded habitats as a whole. Hearing the interwoven sounds of plants, animals, and landscapes and the complex interplay between the timbres, pitches, and amplitudes, he proposed a remarkable new theory of ecosystem functioning: that each species produces unique acoustic signatures, partitioning and occupying sonic niches such that the singing of all of the creatures in a healthy ecosystem can be heard, organized like the individual players in an orchestra.

It cannot be overstated how impressive and important Bernie’s library is. There were no mentors, no guides for what equipment to use in extreme weather, no instructions for how to capture the subtle sounds of snow falling, the depth of a glacier cracking, or the whispers of wolves. Nor was there the scientific language to describe what he was hearing and what it revealed. Bernie and his colleagues had to figure all this out themselves, inventing a new scientific field called “soundscape ecology.”

“When we lived closely connected to the natural world, we learned these sounds from the animals,” Krause says. “We learned melody from the animals. We learned orchestration from the animals because that’s how they were organizing and creating this bandwidth for themselves. We learned rhythm by watching gorillas and chimpanzees mark out on the buttresses of fig trees. We have nothing original that we can claim here. All the copyrights are owned by the critters.” (Photo by Nick Nichols)

Bernie’s soundscapes were full of epiphanies about the origin of our own culture and music, about the profound connectedness of creatures, and about the unseen tolls of human activity. Fifty percent of the habitats in Bernie’s archive no longer exist due to habitat destruction, climate change, and human din.

In recent years, Bernie has turned his attention to conveying the profound beauty, change, and peril of these soundscapes to a wide audience through books and artistic collaborations, including a 70-piece symphony composed with Richard Blackford for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and an exhibition celebrating nature’s vast and imperiled musical ensemble with Fondation Cartier in Paris.

His work reminds us how much we have to gain by being quiet, listening, and saving the world’s animal choruses — and the gravity of how much animals and humans alike have to lose if we do not.

“You have to be very comfortable with loneliness and solitude and isolation, because when you come up with new theses, particularly in the field of science and biological sciences, that’s the first thing that you’ll get,” Krause says. “But I’m very comfortable with that, so I had no problem. As a matter of fact, it just drew me more and more into it, the more resistance I got from the scientific community.” He reflects on his career and research in The Great Animal Orchestra. Bernie’s next book, Tranquility in a Very Noise World, will be published in September 2021.

This episode contains music and recordings are from Wild Sanctuary.

Bernie Krause’s Recommendations:

The Soundscape by R. Murray Schafer

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

The Invisible Pyramid and The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley

Black Nature by Camille Dungy

How to Fly and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Nature and Madness and The Others by Paul Shepard

Music by Cosmo Sheldrake

Love This Giant by David Byrne and St. Vincent

Become Ocean by John Luther Adams

It’s OK To Cry by SOPHIE

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