THE BIOPHONIC MAN
Guitarist, composer and analog synthesizer pioneer BERNIE KRAUSE left the recording studio to find that really wild sound. What he discovered was far more profound.
by Jay Babcock
Illustrations by Kevin Hooyman
“…The entity’s life will be tempered with song, music, those things having to do with nature.” — Edgar Cayce, the 20th-century American psychic, from a ‘life reading’ given when Bernie Krause was six weeks old, as reported in Krause’s Notes From the Wild (Ellipsis Arts, 1996)
Has any single person—any entity—ever been better situated to explore music’s Biggest Questions—that is: what is it, what’s it for, why do we like it, where did it come from, why does it sound the way it does—than Bernie Krause?
Check the biography. Born in 1938, Krause grew up a violin-playing prodigy with poor eyesight in post-World War II Detroit. By his teens he had switched to guitar and was making extra money sitting in as a session player at Motown. In 1963, he took over the Pete Seeger position in foundational modern American folk band The Weavers for what would be their final year of performances. He then moved west to study at Mills College, where avant garde composers Stockhausen and Pauline Oliveros were in residence. Soon he encountered jazz musician and inventive early analog synth player Paul Beaver, who was introducing the Moog to psychedelic pop music. They formed Beaver & Krause, an in-demand artistic partnership that released a string of utterly unclassifiable acoustic-electronic albums in addition to doing studio work with adventurous pop musicians (The Doors, George Harrison, Stevie Wonder, etc.) and composing and recording for stylish TV and film projects (The Twilight Zone, Rosemary’s Baby, Performance, etc.). After Beaver’s sudden death in 1975, Krause began to shift his attention towards field recordings of natural soundscapes.
This wasn’t such a great leap. In the late ‘60s, inspired by an idea from their friend Van Dyke Parks, Beaver and Krause had first tried to record outdoor sounds for use on their eco-musical album In a Wild Sanctuary. Now, Krause followed this thread more intensely, traveling to seemingly every far corner of the globe, innovating techniques and utilizing new technology to more accurately capture the sound of what’s left of Earth’s rapidly diminishing wild.
What Krause discovered there, and how it compares to what we now experience in daily life in the un-Wild, is the subject of his latest book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, published last year. Writing with a scientist’s precision, an artist’s poetic wonder and a human being’s persistent outrage, Krause tosses in astonishing highlights from decades of field notes (elk in the American West are into reverb; the sound of corn growing is “staccato-like clicks and squeaks…like rubbing dry hands across the surface of a party balloon”; ants sing by rubbing their legs across their abdomens; the fingernail-sized Pacific tree frog can be heard more than a hundred yards away; “You can actually determine the temperature by counting the number of chirps made by certain crickets”; etc.) as he make several interweaving arguments about the aforementioned Big Questions of Music. One thesis is that the sound of animals in a healthy habitat is organized, a sort of proto-orchestra. What follows from this is the startling argument that gives the book its title: our music comes from early humans mimicking the sounds of the soundscapes they were enveloped in—we “transform(ed) the rhythms of sound and motion in the natural world into music and dance… [O]ur songs emulate the piping, percussion, trumpeting, polyphony, and complex rhythmic output of the animals in the place we lived.” And we developed our music(s) not just by imitating animals such as the common potoo, who sings the pentatonic scale, but also by mimicking other natural sounds: in one of the book’s most striking episodes, Krause recalls hearing the church organ-like sound of wind passing over broken reeds in Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon. “Now you know where we got our music,” a Nez Perce tribal elder tells him. “And that’s where you got yours, too.”
This past spring, I interviewed the entity Bernie Krause via the far-from-ideal set-up of two speaker phones. Ah well. Following is some of our conversation, condensed by me, and edited with additional thoughts by Bernie via subsequent emails.
ARTHUR: You seem to have discovered the reason why humans like music. What you seem to have uncovered in your work is that human music somehow replicates the primordial human experience in the wild, which is the experience of being embedded in a soundscape produced by animals and land. Perhaps when we listen to music, to organized sound, it brings us back to that in a way, and that’s why it appeals to us. Am I exaggerating what you’re saying?
BERNIE KRAUSE: When we evolved out of the Pleistocene, living close to the land and completely integrated with our respective habitats, part of that equation was the voice of the natural world. It became ingrained in our system to the extent that in order to find cohesion with our environments, we imitated the sounds we heard. Only we did it in a way that addressed the entire soundscape organization of sound that consisted at the same time of rhythm, melody, and complex organization.
Paul Shepard wrote a book called Coming Home to the Pleistocene and in it he posited that we can’t go back because we’ve never left the Pleistocene. We just think that we’ve ‘progressed’ because of all or our technology and culture. But that’s delusional. Buried deep in our DNA is that connection to the natural world that we pretty much dismiss as a society—especially in the West. When we lived more closely linked to the natural world, we learned to communicate with it on its own level and as equals. We thought of ourselves as being on the same level at that particular point in time. We had to mimic the sounds of the natural world in order to be in sync with it. So that mimicry—all of the things that form structure we label as “music”—was something we simply did. That’s how we initially learned to express ourselves acoustically. And we did that out of necessity, especially if we wanted to remain in psychic and physical balance with the rest of the world.
The moment that it was revealed to you that the acoustic sounds of the natural world were not a disorganized cacophony but almost a proto-orchestra, happened in Kenya, in 1983. What were you doing there?
I was on assignment for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to record not only biophonies—the collective sounds that all organisms generate in a given habitat at a given time—but also to get single-species recordings as well. Late one night, I was extremely tired and not in a full state of consciousness. I laid back in my sleeping bag and I still had my earphones on, was still recording late that evening. All of a sudden it struck me that what I was hearing was pretty musical given the way that the acoustic bandwidth was expressed. I wasn’t sure how it was structured or what that might mean. But when I got back to my lab in San Francisco, I had a primitive piece of sound analysis software that allowed me to do spectrograms on a Mac. A spectrogram is a graphic illustration of sound with time represented on the x axis and frequency—from lowest to highest—on the y axis. I ran a spectrogram analysis and sure enough, there were the insects in one niche, birds in another, frogs in another niche, and mammals in another, each staying out of each other’s way so their voices could be heard unimpeded. So indeed it was structured. That was the thing that first captured my attention. Well, if the sound was structured, and if we did learn about sound from the voice of the natural world then this could be an insight into how it happened.
What I subsequently discovered was the idea of the biophony being a kind of organized animal orchestra happens in every healthy habitat on the planet. That’s because each habitat has its own voice, its own acoustic output that defines the sonic parameters of that biome so that each voice evolves to find its own bandwidth or temporal moment. In healthy habitats, you can always tell where you are on the planet at any given time of day or night or season by the configuration of those voices. It’s like a distinct language or, in a more subtle sense, a strong local accent. And every biome, marine or terrestrial has a discrete signature. Now, isn’t that cool?!
You’ve talked about the way that humans use the natural sounds around them as inspiration for making sound.
Our music is quite simplistic in relation to some of the natural soundscapes I’ve got in my archive. I would suggest that the closer you get to the natural world in [daily] existence, the more closely the music reflects the complexity and range of expression and dynamics. It was surprising to me that even our most elaborate musical arrangements in the West do not begin to compare in that regard. Happily, there are still those fortunate enough to live in the light of that inspiration.
Like the Ba’Aka people of the Dzanga-Sangha rainforest in Africa, who’ve been recorded since the mid-’80s by a New Jersey immigrant named Louis Sarno. You’ve been involved with his work.
I read an article about Louis in either Time Magazine or Newsweek, one of those publications, and found that we were kind of circling around the same ideas. When we finally corresponded, it turned out that we were thinking exactly along the same lines. Only he was much closer to the daily encounters of biophonic and musical experience than I was. I just wanted to confirm our mutual observations. Sure enough, there was no light between what we thought we were hearing. We’ve done some wonderful work together since—culminating in a book and a couple of albums. I also have archived a number of unreleased recordings of his.
What was Louis discovering that you were intrigued by?
The link between the music of the Ba’aka and the forest soundscape. They were using the biophony as a natural karaoke orchestra with which they performed nearly all of their musical repertoire. Louis essentially confirmed that what I imagined was actually happening: the music they were creating had a direct relationship to the sounds of the natural world around them.
Is music more complex and nuanced the closer it is made to the natural world?
Not exactly. What I’m suggesting is that music of the West is kind of like a snake swallowing its own tail. It’s really quite solipsistic. We keep feeding on our own sources, mostly self-referential, rarely reaching out to the soundscapes of the wider and—to me far more compelling—wild muses. There’s a deep philosophical need in our musical expression to imitate ourselves now, rather than to draw inspiration from the natural world. We keep looping back on our own creations, looking for new resources where there are none, dismissing the most expansive and exciting reserve there is.
You started making whole-habitat recordings in the 1960s. Did you realize what you were capturing…?
Well, when I approached the recording of natural sound, the typical models for recording at that time were limited to the fragmented capture of individual species’ songs and calls. Mostly birds. Then more recently, frogs and mammals. There are large collections that typify that model of abstraction and fragmentation of the natural world. It’s actually a form of conceit. Perfect examples of this acoustic deconstruction of the natural world can be found at the core of the collections at Cornell University or the British Library of Wildlife Sounds. To me, this protocol is a little like trying to understand the magnificence of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by extracting the sound of a single violin player out of the context of the orchestra, just hearing that singular part. In order to understand the composition, you have to hear the whole orchestra. So I went back into the field, and with that model in mind, began to record natural soundscapes, having no idea what the outcome would be. That was 1968. As time progressed into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I began to unearth information in those biophonies that were previously unexamined. For instance, the models that I had created allowed me to think in terms of how the health of habitats were expressed acoustically. Even more important, how the interrelationships between human to Other in the natural world are communicated. In a sense, it meant reflecting on how we impact those biophonies through the imposition of the noise we generate and impacts of resource extraction, land transformation, pollution, and global warming. All of those issues.
You’ve said it now takes you much, much longer to get good recordings in the field than you used to.
When I began recording in the field over 45 years ago, I could record for 10 hours and capture one hour of useable material, good enough for an album, a film soundtrack or a museum sound installation. Now, because of global warming, human noise and resource extraction, and many other factors, it can take up to 1,000 hours or more to capture the same thing.
To witness this happening, decade after decade… How do you handle that without being dispirited?
Who said I’m not dispirited? It’s a corollary. … I have 4,500 hours of terrestrial and marine habitats in my archive of whole soundscapes and 15,000 creatures. My archive is rare because over 50% comes from habitats so radically altered that they are either altogether silent or they can no longer be heard in any of their original form. And that’s in 45 years. So if 50% of my archive is now unhearable, that’s a pretty incredible rate of devastation. And we’d better give some serious thought to how that’s going to be mitigated.
What can be done? More national parks? Land trusts? Wildlife corridors?
I think that these land trusts are very, very important, as long as we don’t try to impose thoughtless mitigation on the human endeavor that’s already done so much damage. Sometimes, despite all of our good intentions, we tend to do more damage cleaning things up than if we just left them alone and let natural recovery processes take over. Hands-off policies can often turn out to have far better outcomes than anything we can rationally devise.
Where in North America can people go to experience a healthy habitat soundscape?
There are places as far ranging as the Adirondacks, the southwestern American deserts, the Rockies, and even the American southeast. And there are sometimes moments right in our own backyards. My wife and I live in a rural area in Northern California where within a 90-minute drive, there are probably a dozen or so locations, at certain times of day, where one can record for an hour and not hear a single aircraft or vehicle. While most of these are secondary growth habitats, they are still thriving and acoustically interesting.
There are times of relative quietude and tranquility in all but the most densely packed urban area where one can go out and record and not hear straight-piping motorcycles and jet aircraft and light aircraft flying overhead. You just have to be aware of your acoustic environment. There’s a place 20 minutes from where I live that I have recorded each year for the past two decades. I look for places to record that are relatively quiet for long periods. They exist.
Can you talk a bit about your work with schoolkids?
Because this work is pretty intuitive, I don’t particularly have to gear the message to either young or old. They mostly all get it right away. What is true is that kids don’t have a lot of adult resistance to ideas, they absorb concepts and consider them differently…with a lot less cynicism. And they begin to understand, immediately, what work has to be done and how they can get go about doing it. Whereas we older folks, who think they know a lot, are impaired by certain biases, and it takes us a lot more energy and time to process the ideas and execute them for our own benefit.
When working with kids, I give them a sound discovery assignment to locate the signature of a single bird. With an inexpensive recorder, something you can pick up at Radio Shack or similar outlets for not very much money, I ask them to record a robin. That’s it. So they go out, find a robin in a tree and aim it toward the bird. Then they bring the recording back to me. I always encourage them by positive reinforcement. But I do point out that it’s also a great recording of a bus, or a garbage truck, a leaf-blower or a motorcycle. There’s a helicopter flying over. Somewhere in the background of the ambient noise, though, is the faint sound of a robin. I persuade them not to give up and to go back and try that again. They come back a second time and there’s still a lot of noise on the tape with that robin way in the background. It’s usually at that point, out of frustration, that they begin to make the connection between the noise pollution in our environments that prevents them from reaching their objectives. I say right! How are you going to find a time and a place that the robin sings and there’s not so much noise? Then they begin to think about the issues. And the issues become personal to them. When that occurs, you’ve made an impression that’s really important in their lives.
Sometimes I get odd questions at the end of my presentations, like the kid who raised his hand and asked about the most dangerous animal I ever recorded. Without missing a beat, I answered, “humans.” “Well,” he stammered getting red in the face and ready for a confrontation, “my dad says that a polar bear is the most dangerous animal.” I waited a moment for his words to sink in and then said, “Ask your dad if he’s ever seen a polar bear with an AK47 in his paws.”
And when they do this, they become advocates for the experience, for wild nature.
Sure. If you want to create a change in attitude, you’ve got to empower learners to discover these answers for themselves and in their own way. Lead them to an environment where something else of great value is entering their ears other than lots of incoherent noise. The recording of soundscapes is one of the important uses of technology that helps inform us about the benefits of natural sound that surrounds us.
Really great recorders can be got now for under 200 bucks. 15 years ago the same quality gear would have set you back $10,000 or $12,000. The access to great gear and the price drops have really made a remarkable difference. This has resulted in an explosion of what’s called ‘citizen science’—people running out into the field trying to record natural sound. And they’re finding out just what the problems and pleasures are.
You write in the book: “The wild natural world is essential to our spiritual and psychological health—a source of rooted wisdom that we simply can’t acquire from other aspects of our modern lives… Certain sounds—such as breathing, footsteps, a heartbeat, birdsong, crickets, lapping waves, and flowing streams—stimulate the limbic system in the brain, resulting in the release of endorphins and a feeling of serenity… a fundamental condition healthy organisms need in order to feel physically and mentally vigorous. They enable us to think clearly.” There really is no substitute?
Natural soundscapes are likely embedded and hard-wired in our DNA. That experience of natural sound, whether it’s waves at the shore, the wind in the trees, natural sounds created by a sonic world, are all part of the world we had to navigate when we emerged from the Pleistocene. One of the reasons that we pick vacation spots is our initial knee-jerk response to go to a quiet place where we can go and relax. Those quiet places, the kind of places that come to mind in that limbic brain of ours are sites like by the ocean shore, or a lush forest somewhere, or by a stream in the mountains or in the desert, depending on what we’re wired to positively respond to. We’re drawn to those kinds of habitats, initially. However, because we feel terribly insecure about the life around us in particular, we take with us all the accoutrements of culture like iPods and iPads and noise-creating devices to blot out and distort the very thing that drew us there in the first place—and we’ve spent all this time and money getting there. We go to a resort by the beach and there’s MUSIC! This godawful horrible music that’s piped into restaurants and elevators and lobbies, whatever, so that we feel “reassured.” To me, I’m horrified! If I hear that kind of stuff in a restaurant or a public space I’m in, I get the hell out of there, as quickly as I can. I can’t stand it anymore. Why anyone would go into a national park with a straight-piping motorcycle is beyond insane to me. It not only stresses the critter life, but it impairs the experience for visitors, as well.
You know, our ears tell us that the whisper of every leaf and creature speaks to the natural sources of our lives which, indeed, may hold the secrets of love for all things, especially our own humanity.
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Bernie Krause website: wildsanctuary.com