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. Continue reading