Dreams of the World: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places with Bernie Krause

Bernie Krause: Dreams of the World by National Geographic Creative photographer Kike Calvo. Photo © Tim Chapman Bernie Krause in St. Vincint’s Island in the Florida panhandle, recording the outlet of the Flint River, which stretches from Albany, GA to the Gulf of Mexico (St. Vincent’s Island). Photo © Tim Chapman

Dreams of the World: One Dream a Time. This post is the latest in the series Dreams of the World, which profiles interesting people Kike meets during his travels. 

Krause’s work navigates the realms of science and art. A musician, author, and ecologist, he founded Wild Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to the preservation and recording of natural soundscapes. Krause’s legendary soundscapes uncover nature’s rich sonic tapestry — along with some unexpected results. “My dream is to set up an academic center for Soundscape Ecology, which will link science and humanities, exploring new ways to communicate about scientific concepts,” Krause said. Continuing on his path of innovating new sonic perspectives, Krause will expand his work into an even more widespread venture: something that’s increasingly important as we distance ourselves from the wild more than ever.

“Before I turned four years old, I began to study music with violin as my first instrument. I also studied composition,” Krause said. “When I turned 13 or 14, I switched to guitar and learned many styles including jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, classical, and folk. A few years after I finished university, I went back to school to learn about electronic music.”

Krause has an extensive music background. After a time as a member of the band The Weavers, he moved to California, where he discovered the synthesizer. Along with Paul Beaver, he formed Beaver & Krause, and the duo navigated the newly emerging world of electronic music. Beaver & Krause are credited with helping introduce the synthesizer to pop music and film.

His work with Beaver & Krause pioneered the use of natural sounds in recorded music. After his music partner’s death in 1975, Krause became more and more intrigued by the daily music of the world around him. Soon, he was exploring entirely wild soundscapes.

“I never use the term, ‘nature,” said Krause “Nature strongly implies a separation between us and something ‘out there’ that we’ve summarily set our sights on destroying from the time 1800 years ago, when the word entered the lexicon as natura, which, BTW, meant ‘at enmity with God’). All living organisms are involved in a world of sound.”

His interests led him to capture these sounds around the world. He has achieved international renown for his ability to capture the depth of ambient sound – an area of our lives we so often neglect to notice. “Over the past 48 years, I’ve collected a very large archive of natural soundscapes, described by one journalist as equivalent to and important as the legendary Library of Alexandria,” Krause said. His work can now be found in albums, speeches, books, and even incorporated into live performances.


Krause in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, recording biophonies in the refuge, the first such mission of its kind. Location: Timber Lake, just south of the Brooks Range in the Alaskan tundra. Photo © Robert Hillmann.

It’s hard to believe now, but initially, Krause was afraid of spending time outdoors. He started this adventure cautiously. “In the beginning, I didn’t go too far – just a nearby park,” Krause said. “But when I turned on my recorder and heard, through my headphones, the splendid soundscape that included the subtle sound of a few birds, a flowing stream, the effect of a gentle wind in the high canopy of the redwood trees, I knew then and there that recording wildlife was what I was destined to do for the remainder of my life.”

Krause’s newfound passion led him further and further afield. “Gradually, over the following 10 years, from 1969 – 1979, I found myself recording more and more in wild habitats,” said Krause. “Traveling to remote places, as far away from cities and other human places as I could.” He eventually returned to school and got his PhD in Soundscape Ecology: the study of sounds that come from landscapes.

“There are three main types of sound in a landscape,” Krause said. “The first is geophony, the non-biological sounds produced naturally in wild habitats like wind, the sounds of a stream, ocean waves, or movement of the earth. It is important to note that these were the first sounds produced on earth, long before organisms had evolved to hear them.”

“The second is biophony, the collective sounds produced by living organisms in a given habitat,” Krause said. “These are the sounds of birds, or leafs rustling in the wind.”

“And lastly, there is anthropophony,” Krause said. “The kinds of sound we humans produce. Some of that sound is controlled, like music for example, or language, or theatre.”

Amazon Soundscape from KIKE CALVO on Vimeo.

But Krause sees many urban sounds as a distraction from this tapestry; these sounds debatably do not fall into any of the categories we’re evolved to hear. “Most of it, coming from electrical or mechanical products we cannot seem to live without, carries no useful information,” Krause said. “When it comes from those sources it is classified as noise, particularly when it interferes with what we do want or need to hear. Consider a noisy restaurant with lots of very loud music when you’re trying to hear another person say something important to you.”

Krause may be one of the most knowledgeable people in the world about the sounds around us. By now, he notices them the way a painter might notice subtle details of her surroundings, or a chef might taste imperceptible subtleties in food.

He’s written a fascinating book on this subject: The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. “I developed this work following a single idea, the natural soundscape,” Krause said. “From its origins, to its present states, music and language.”

We think of music as an organized process created by humans, but what about us makes us prefer certain sounds and rhythms? The reasons go back to something deeper, developed over millennia from the ecosystems around us – a mystery Krause is helping to solve.

Sadly, his work is also becoming relevant for another reason: due to mass extinction of the animals in his recordings, over half of his soundscapes can never again be heard in their original form. His work is valuable to ecologists for this reason. At the same time, Krause’s recordings help listeners notice how their sense of hearing affects them in a new way.

“We’ve learned to hear what we see,” Krause said. “So when we’re looking at the water’s edge at our feet, we see – and hear – the crackle of tiny bubbles bursting where we’re standing. When we look offshore in the distance as the breakers curl and crash, we tend to lose the sound of the bursting bubbles and hear the boom of the distant wave action off in the distance. The combination of our eyesight and hearing fools us. Because if you close your eyes and listen, you’ll hear very differently.”

Sounds often have to be recorded from several different distances and angles and combined afterwards to produce a true-to-life-experience. And Krause has some difficulty recording some sounds clearly at all. “Wind is a very different and difficult problem,” Krause said. “You can never record wind, alone. Only its effects, like what it does to blades of grass, leaves in trees, or as it howls around snags of reeds, broken branches or barbs in a barbed wire fence. This takes a lot of experimentation and luck to record. You have to learn to listen very carefully and to avoid wind hitting the microphone directly. For example, a recording of leaves rustling in trees almost always sounds like rain. As an experiment, see if you can record it so that it sounds like the actual leaves in your mind’s ear.”

You’d think that it would be easy to record what’s already happening around you, but the recordings often don’t sound right when you return home. Capturing these sensations has only been more full of surprises for Krause as time has gone on.

We may wonder what Krause has learned from all these experiences? It’s an aspect of life that many of us have experienced unconsciously, but have thought little about. “To shut the hell up, be very quiet, and listen,” Krause said. “When the roar of urban sounds are taken away, what first seems like silence slowly unfolds into subtle sonic layers. When you start listening to animals, you might discover things you don’t expect: “small organisms can produce very loud sounds, and that large organisms, like giraffes, can produce very soft sounds.”

bkgorilla-copyKrause, in 1987,  recording mountain gorillas near the late Dian Fossey’s camp, Karisoke, Rwanda. Photo © Nick Nichols

The constant self-curated stream of music and other sounds entering our ears has become the normal way to pass through the world, so much that some may yearn for the novelty of something uncontrollable and unexpected. The best thing you could do to try out soundscaping yourself is read is probably read Krause’s new book, Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World (Yale University Press, 2016).

“It provides all the basics one needs to know when learning to record in the natural world,” said Krause. “The steps laid out are pretty easy to get. First, one needs to learn to listen by discriminating which sounds in the environment are useful and contain necessary information, and which are just noise (useless sound). Then, after discovering which sound you like, you can make a determination as to what kinds of technologies provide the best capture and replication of those valued signals.”

“You can buy countless sound recording products, or even use something as simple as a smartphone,” Krause said. “The prices for a professional recorder range from the low hundreds of dollars, to over $30,000 USD. But Krause stresses that “for under $450USD, a system could be bought that is of a quality comparable to what $10,000USD would have provided two decades ago.”

Unsurprisingly, Krause carries some high quality recording materials himself: “In my normal kit I carry a Sound Devices 722 (2-channel) or 744 (4-channel) recorder,” Krause said. “A backup battery supply to power the device for at least 6 hours of continuous recording; a M-S (Mid-Side) microphone rig consisting of a Sennheiser MKH30 (Figure 8 pattern) and a Sennheiser MKH40 (cardioid pattern), piggybacked and mounted in a Rykote shockmount, zeppelin and high wind cover, which in turn are all mounted on a pistol grip. The mic rig is attached to a very light weight tripod. My headphones consist of a Sony MDR 7506.” He says it’s also important to plan for problems like insect bites, or whatever else might confront you in your environment.”

You might not start off by recording in the Amazon like Krause has done, but part of his message is that a wealth of rich sound can be found almost anywhere if we take the time to listen. He is using new technologies to do things that were never possible before, and his work is having a meaningful impact both ecologically and artistically. The truly natural world rarely exists anymore, he has found. His work advocates for a quieter, more receptive approach to life and the world around us.

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Learn more:

Wild Sanctuary (Bernie Krause’s website )

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (Little/Brown 2012)

Le Grand Orchestre des Animaux – The Great Animal Orchestra

Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World