Bernie Krause has recorded jaguars growling, frogs chorusing at dawn, singing cottonwood trees, and groaning glaciers. A naturalist and pioneer in the emerging discipline of soundscape ecology, he has traveled the globe from the Arctic to the Amazon, making what he calls “whole-habitat” field recordings of wild places threatened by climate change, commercial development, and industries such as mining and logging. Every site he’s recorded, he says, has a defining sound signature as unique as any musical composition.
Krause was a musician long before he became a nature lover or a scientist. Born in 1938 on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, he started taking violin lessons at the age of three. As a teenager he embarked upon a successful career as a guitarist, playing on Motown records and later performing at Carnegie Hall as a member of the folk group the Weavers. During the 1960s he became interested in experimental electronic music and moved to California, where he helped introduce synthesizers to popular music and film, working with such artists as George Harrison, the Doors, and Stevie Wonder.
At the age of forty, having grown sick of Hollywood and cramped studios, Krause began a PhD program in creative arts with an internship in bioacoustics — the study of the sounds animals generate. His research involved making field recordings in remote settings to capture natural soundscapes, which have two components: One is what he calls “biophony” — the collective sounds made by nonhuman organisms in a given area. The other is what he calls “geophony” — nonbiological natural sounds like wind, water in a stream, or waves at the ocean shore. To fund more expeditions to far-flung destinations in the years that followed, he took commissions from museums, zoos, and science academies.
In addition to releasing more than fifty albums of natural soundscapes on his Wild Sanctuary Communications label, Krause is the author of four books: Notes from the Wild, Into a Wild Sanctuary, Wild Soundscapes, and The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. He recently collaborated with British composer Richard Blackford on a symphony, also titled The Great Animal Orchestra, in which wild soundscapes are combined with orchestration. The first full-length work of its kind, it premiered in July of this year at the Cheltenham Music Festival in England. In 2013 Krause presented a TED talk titled “The Voice of the Natural World” in Edinburgh, Scotland.
I met Krause for this interview on a golden spring morning at his home in Sonoma County, California, where he lives with his wife, Katherine. Waiting for me in the driveway, wearing beefy sandals, hiking pants, and a shirt that must have had at least ten pockets, he looked as if he were ready to trek off into the woods. Instead he ushered me into his office, where two computer monitors showed spectrograms: visual depictions of sound that resemble abstract paintings.
Now seventy-six, Krause is a sprightly man, friendly and funny and eager to communicate his passion for listening. He wears thick glasses that magnify his eyes and lend a certain intensity to his gaze. Ten minutes into our conversation, a small bird flew in through the office’s open door and went behind a sofa. After it had found its way out, Krause said that wildlife encounters were common near his home: once, he’d seen a mountain lion sitting in a tree no more than twenty feet from the garage.
Transcribing my tape of the conversation a few days later, I heard the flutter of that bird’s wings through my headphones. It was a soft, delicate sound — a brief pause in the flow of words. I pressed REWIND and listened to it again.
Tonino: You’ve written that “each creature thrives as much through its voice as through any other aspect of its behavior.” What are the evolutionary purposes of sound?
Krause: If an animal develops a voice, it’s because some aspect of its life depends on it: defending territory, communicating with mates, signaling danger. If that voice is masked by surrounding sounds, the animal is not going to be successful. Animals’ voices have evolved to be heard within the larger natural soundscape, but for the most part they haven’t adapted to modern human-made noises.
Tonino: Could you define soundscape?
Krause: R. Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer and naturalist, coined the word back in 1977. The soundscape is all of the sounds in a given habitat, whether generated by living or nonliving components. The nonbiological sounds are wind in the trees, water in a stream, waves at the shore, and even the movement of the earth. These were some of the first sounds on the planet.
As organisms evolved, they began to produce their own acoustic signatures, which had to fit within the existing soundscapes. At first, human-made sounds, such as language and music, were also in harmony with nature, but in modern society most of the noise we make is chaotic: an airplane flying overhead, traffic on the street, the beeping of electronic devices. These noises don’t have any inherent meaning; we know a certain sound is an airplane or a car, but the rumblings aren’t intended to communicate any message. This sort of incoherent human noise can have a profound effect on certain organisms. It can cause chorusing frogs to lose their synchronicity. It can mask the sounds of other creatures, who may miss their chance to claim territory or locate a mate. The disruption and confusion also create a perfect opportunity for predators to make their move.
Once we accept the idea that the soundscape is a valuable source of information — an extraordinary narrative we have yet to decipher — we open up whole new worlds to explore. And if we want to think about our impact on the natural world, then we’d better listen to what the nonhuman vocal organisms are saying in response.
Tonino: So we can listen to natural sounds as a way to determine the health of a habitat?
Krause: Yes, the effects of human endeavors all around the planet can be gauged by listening to the sounds of different habitats. Wild, urban, rural — they all can be interpreted. They are speaking to us all the time.
For instance, I just discovered that when you’re in a rain forest, where the density and diversity of wildlife are the greatest, you will always hear critters entering the soundscape each day in a structured order, almost as if following Darwin’s timeline of evolution: insects first, then amphibians, then reptiles, then birds, then mammals. If we can learn to understand those relationships, then we can begin to understand how to live more successfully within that structure.
Tonino: Is sound a better way to judge the health of an environment than using our eyes?
Krause: I think so. It’s easy to fool the eye. Frame a photograph just so in Central Park, and you’ll think the picture was taken in a pristine northeastern forest. But the ear will tell you otherwise. Slight shifts in sound can signal disruption or stress within a habitat. In most cases I can determine if a habitat is healthy within a few minutes. I tell my students: A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.
Tonino: You’ve recorded more than 15,000 species and have more than 4,500 hours of soundscapes in your archive.
Krause: Let me make something clear. I’ve always recorded the entire habitat — the collective sounds of nonhuman organisms that I refer to as the “biophony.” I strive for a holistic approach. I’ve never been interested in species-specific recording, in which individual vocalizations are separated from their context. That would be like trying to understand Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by extracting a single violin player out of the context of the orchestra. But that’s what we’ve been doing for 125 years with field recordings. The first known recording of natural sound was made by Ludwig Koch in 1889 in Germany. He recorded a bird. And ever since then, it’s been lone birds: isolated violins rather than full orchestras.
So when I refer to the 15,000 species I’ve identified in my library, that’s true, but they’re all part of the soundscapes I’ve recorded. I don’t have them separated out. My goal is to let the soundscapes tell us what kinds of changes are occurring in the environment.
Tonino: So what is happening in the environments you’ve recorded?
Krause: Nearly 50 percent of the habitats where I’ve made recordings over the past forty-plus years have been so severely damaged that they’re now either biophonically silent or altered to the point of being unrecognizable. Here in Sonoma County, where my wife and I live, I’ve been recording for two decades at a spot in a state park just twenty minutes away. I can tell you that spring is coming a couple of weeks earlier at that spot than it did twenty years ago. The vegetation is leafing and blooming earlier, which means that the food sources for migrating and resident birds are shifting, and different species of birds are arriving at certain times because of those shifting food sources. The species populations and the cumulative number of birds, frogs, and insects are changing, too.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is a difficult place to record because there’s a damn airport smack in the middle of Grand Teton National Park, but there’s a place in the shadow of all that noise, about twenty miles northeast of town, called Spread Creek Pond, that I do like to visit. When I first recorded there in 1981, the mix of birds was pretty magical. The soundscape had probably been intact at that site for quite a long time. In 2009 and 2010, my recordings revealed a great change. Whole populations of creatures had been replaced with new ones. It was a totally different soundscape.
Sometimes a habitat I revisit retains characteristics of its older self, sometimes it’s completely changed, and sometimes it’s totally silent. I’ve been in habitats that have been so heavily affected by selective logging that you don’t hear a thing. Most of them are in the American West, but I’ve also found examples in Costa Rica, the Amazon, Africa, and Indonesia.
In almost all cases, silent habitats are a direct result of industry — mining, deforestation, and other forms of resource extraction. There are rare instances of biophonic changes resulting from natural causes, such as the 2004 tsunami that hit the forests of Aceh Province in Sumatra, or the 1988 wildfire that destroyed large areas of forest in and around Yellowstone National Park.
Tonino: In the early 1980s you traveled to Kenya for a field assignment. What happened on that trip?
Krause: That was my first major job after I got my PhD in bioacoustics. The California Academy of Sciences had hired me to record natural soundscapes for a watering-hole diorama it was developing in its African Hall. The exhibit’s designer, Kevin O’Farrell, had a great idea: to create a fifteen-minute program in which the diorama changed from day to night. As the lights grew bright and then faded, my recordings would progress from the dawn chorus to the evening chorus.
One night in Kenya, after having recorded on and off for maybe thirty hours, I was finally back in my tent, about to go to sleep, when I heard the soundscape differently. It was startling. The sounds hadn’t changed, but the way I heard them had. Rather than chaos and incoherence, I experienced it as structured sound, much like that of a musical score. When I came back to San Francisco, I began to look at the soundscapes through a spectrogram, which provides a graphic illustration of sound. The visuals confirmed that the soundscape was indeed organized and partitioned. The insects had their frequency bandwidth, the birds had theirs, the mammals had theirs, and the amphibians and reptiles had theirs. All of these channels of transmission were distinctive and cleanly layered. I made probably forty or fifty spectrograms and showed them to bird and mammal experts working on various aspects of ecology, but everyone had the same response: “It’s a nice idea, but how are you going to prove it?” I’d point to the spectrograms and say, “Here’s the proof, right here!” They’d tell me I had to put numbers on it, write a paper, and have it peer reviewed, and even then I got no traction.
Well, I wasn’t going to be dismissed like that. I kept at it, recording different habitats — equatorial, temperate, desert — and looking at the ways the inhabitants expressed themselves. All through the eighties and nineties I got commissions to make recordings around the world. And every time I went on an expedition, I came back with another example of how the sounds in the natural world are organized. I tried engaging people at the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell, but they were not supportive. At that time the field of bioacoustics was based primarily on recording a single species at a time — isolating individual birds, fragmenting the soundscape into bits and pieces. But you don’t learn much from that model. We get our best information by listening to how each voice fits into the larger pattern of voices. Why do birds of the same species, such as white-crowned sparrows, have different dialects and syntax when they’re vocalizing in different areas? It’s largely because the local soundscape and landscape structures provide very specific channels in which they can communicate. The birds develop songs that will be clearly transmitted and received in each area. You won’t learn this from a recording of a white-crowned sparrow singing alone.
Tonino: What’s the status of biodiversity in the world?
Krause: That’s not my area of expertise, but it’s generally believed that the accelerated rate of species loss over the past ten thousand years is due to human activity. The rate of extinction is estimated to be from one thousand to ten thousand times higher than normal. By many accounts it exceeds the rate of extinction 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period, when nearly 50 percent of plant and animal species died out.
And you can hear those disappearances — some of them, at least. Soundscape ecology is still a young field, which means we often don’t have enough baseline information to make exact determinations about species loss. My archive goes back forty-plus years, though, and it does imply the localized extinction of species in some instances.
When you blow apart a mountaintop to get coal, you destroy a fragile habitat, likely forever. When you clear-cut a patch of old-growth forest, the insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals that called it home are likely gone forever. How many forevers do we need to illustrate both our dominance and our level of stupidity?
Tonino: What led you to this work?
Krause: My eyesight isn’t good, so my impression of the world is informed mostly by sound. When I was a child, my family lived on the outer fringes of Detroit. There was still farmland there and patches of secondary-growth forest. Since early childhood I’ve had a terrible case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], and the one thing that helped me calm down and go to sleep at night was listening to the sounds outside my window. If I heard those sounds again today, I’d be able to recognize every bird and creature that was vocalizing. They’re inside me.
My parents had absolutely no connection with the natural world, but they steered me toward music very early. I began studying violin when I was three years old, and a year later I started studying composition, mostly classical. When I became a teenager, the hormones kicked in, and I switched to guitar. I learned jazz, pop, and classical, but when I applied to music school in 1955, no school would accept the guitar as a major. I was told the guitar was “not a musical instrument.”
I ended up studying Latin American history as an undergrad and working my way through college playing here and there: sometimes on sessions for Motown, other times doing folk-music performances. After graduation I went to New York City and Boston and managed other artists. Then I heard the Weavers were looking for somebody to cover the Pete Seeger slot. I auditioned and earned the spot, debuting at their legendary Carnegie Hall concert in 1963.
After the Weavers broke up in January 1964, I came out to California to study electronic music at Mills College, which had an early analog synthesizer that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. I was fascinated by the instrument’s potential.
I was introduced to a fellow named Paul Beaver, who did eerie music for movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon. He had a thirty-foot-long table set up on a soundstage in Los Angeles, all covered with oscillators and filters and a theremin and various instruments he had invented. He would scurry back and forth to drop a sound in here and there as the movie was being shown on the screen. I was intrigued.
Paul and I bought one of the first Moog Model 3 synthesizers off the line and made an album with it called The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music. It was just a teaching guide, but it was on the charts for twenty-six weeks. Our second album was hardly recognized at all. Our third album, In a Wild Sanctuary, marked the beginning of my work with soundscapes.
We had been looking for an idea that would resonate with the culture of the late 1960s, something important that we could introduce. Songwriter Van Dyke Parks suggested that we do an album on the theme of ecology. I’d read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which had come out in 1962, but I was only vaguely aware that certain species were disappearing and that we might someday no longer be able to hear them in the wild. Paul and I decided to base our next record on the concept of “in a wild sanctuary,” which was a line from early-twentieth-century novelist Ellen Glasgow. Paul wouldn’t have anything to do with the outdoors, though; he wore a blue serge suit and wingtip shoes everywhere, even if it was one hundred degrees out. So the fieldwork fell to me.
With a small stereo recorder and a pair of mics, I hiked into Muir Woods, north of San Francisco. I was terrified, imagining that this was a truly wild habitat. The paths were maintained, and there were signs all over, but at the time I didn’t know what might be lurking behind those trees.
When I turned on the recorder and put on the headphones, the most amazing thing happened: the whole space came alive with a depth I’d never heard. My God, I thought, that’s really beautiful. There weren’t a lot of birds around — maybe a couple of ravens and some Canada geese flying overhead — but it was more than enough to change the direction of my life. I no longer wanted to be locked in a studio making recordings and decided to find a way to do this for a living. Sitting and listening to natural soundscapes calmed and centered me and relieved my ADHD in a way no other activity ever had.
Tonino: As a society I think we could use something to calm and center us.
Krause: We’re distracted all the time, and we love the distractions. Look around a restaurant, and you’ll see families sitting together — every member with his or her nose in an iPhone. You’ll see people walking down the street who aren’t aware of anything around them because they’re immersed in their gadgets. And now there’s Google Glass. I don’t know when this is going to stop, but it needs to.
Tonino: Aside from bearing witness to the losses, why listen? Is there some redemptive or healing power in hearing what’s left to be heard?
Krause: I listen because no other sense — sight, touch, taste, or smell — gives me such a robust awareness of place. It just nails it. It tells us where we are with astonishing precision. There are still indigenous groups living closely connected to the natural world who can walk through their rain-forest habitats without a flashlight and know exactly where they are because of what they’re hearing. It is that precise for them.
If you go on vacation to the Galápagos Islands or some other ecotourism destination, you can take hundreds of pictures with your iPhone, but if you’re trying to preserve a sense of place, I promise you that photos will not give you anything close to the memento one soundscape can provide. The richness, the spaciousness, the complexity — it’s all there in a recording you can make with an inexpensive piece of gear. My colleagues and I are trying to organize a group of citizen scientists around the world to record places before they’re irrevocably altered. The explosion of human population is driving up the rate of resource extraction every day, but it’s not too late to listen to the sound of life, and there is a great joy in that.
Tonino: Aren’t some animals able to adapt?
Krause: Occasionally. The white-crowned sparrows I mentioned earlier are some of the most gifted adapters in the world. You’ll find them everywhere from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the center of Los Angeles. Other urban birds adapt, too. And orca whales sometimes live in areas where there’s a lot of boat traffic, such as the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Seattle. Boat propellers generate a lot of noise, but orcas have managed to change their vocalizations so they can hear each other over the din. Communication is important to social interaction within their pods.
Tonino: How long are most of your recordings?
Krause: When I first started to record, because of my ADHD, the longest I could sit still was one minute. So my early recordings of soundscapes were only a minute long. Gradually I realized that wasn’t going to work. I hated editing one-minute pieces together to get a longer recording. By the late seventies I was up to twenty minutes, the length of a seven-inch reel of tape. In the late 1980s came digital technology, which allowed even longer recording times, and I began sitting for an hour and a half. Now, with portable hard drives, I can record for ten hours at a time, which means I can sit for that long, too. My whole life has been a process of learning to listen.
Tonino: You once climbed into a crevasse in a glacier and recorded a sound made by the ice, which you called “a continuous low rumble more felt than heard.” Seals hear through their whiskers; dolphins perceive sound through their jaws. What is sound?
Krause: Sound that we generally hear is represented by cyclical waves of pressure transmitted through the air. In response to those waves the tympanum, or eardrum, moves in and out, capturing and transforming the impulses and sending them to the brain, where they are experienced as sound. So sound touches us in a physical way. The glacier, which transmitted sound waves through the ice (rather than through the air) to an underwater microphone referred to as a hydrophone, made a sound so low in pitch that I couldn’t hear it, but back in the studio I saw the cone of the speaker moving in and out very slowly, the change in pressure captured by the hydrophone. You can’t hear a sound that is lower than twenty cycles per second, but you can feel that signal in your gut, particularly when the sound is very loud.
Tonino: Are there creatures whose vocalizations occupy parts of the sound spectrum that we can’t hear?
Krause: Around 95 percent of all sound-producing organisms generate signals within the range of human hearing, but some mammal groups, like certain cetaceans [marine animals], vocalize much higher or lower. The blind Ganges dolphin, for example, has an incredibly high-pitched voice, whereas the blue whale’s is so low we can’t hear it without special technology. Bats echolocate at pitches exceeding our hearing range. So do some insects. Elephants and giraffes can vocalize in ranges below our ability to hear.
You can take hundreds of pictures with your iPhone, but if you’re trying to preserve a sense of place, I promise you that photos will not give you anything close to the memento one soundscape can provide.
Tonino: What’s the wildest place you’ve ever recorded?
Krause: Sadly, there are no true wild places left on this planet. The marks of our presence can be found everywhere.
That said, there are plenty of places that are remote enough that they feel wild — much of Alaska, for instance. These are the places that engage me, places that have no roads or fences within a week’s hike in any direction, no signage directing you toward one route or another, no rangers eager to inform visitors about the life cycle of the arctic fox or the grizzly bear. And, best of all, as naturalist Bill McKibben suggests, they are places where there’s nothing to buy. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would qualify as one of these places, as would the Yukon delta. I like to be alone and far from all the distracting noise and technologies we cannot seem to live without.
Tonino: What sort of encounters with wildlife have you had while on recording expeditions?
Krause: I was always terrified of animals growing up and never had a pet. According to my parents, pets were dangerous and dirty, goldfish included. At some point in my life, when I was around thirty years old, I decided to get over that fear and learn something about the lives of nonhuman creatures.
I’ve had a couple of close encounters. Despite the sensationalist ways such confrontations are usually reported in the press, unless the animals are sick or under stress, they aren’t typically vicious and dangerous. They simply exhibit behavior that best ensures their survival. The trouble I’ve gotten into has usually been because I was acting stupidly and not paying any attention to my surroundings.
First, when I was in the late stages of my doctoral internship, I was assigned to count bowhead whales by recording what I could of their vocalizations. This meant camping at a remote spot in northern Alaska on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, near a place called Cape Halkett. It was the end of May, and about ten days into my two-week stay, on a very cold morning — probably ten below — I was in my sleeping bag when I heard a crunching sound on the ice outside my tent. I pulled on my boots and reached for my only “weapon,” a flare gun. Then I unzipped the tent and crawled outside in my long johns. About twenty feet away was a polar bear standing a full eight feet high on its hind legs. As the bear moved closer, I stopped shaking long enough to aim the flare gun at its chest and fire off one shot. The magnesium projectile singed the bear’s fur where it hit, and the animal quickly turned and lumbered away.
Another time I recorded mountain gorillas at the late zoologist Dian Fossey’s research site in Rwanda. I went through the usual orientation program for newcomers, which explained the strict behavior protocols necessary to be in safe contact with the gorillas. Maybe because of my ADHD, I let myself become distracted. My second day out, while sitting in the midst of a fairly large group of primates, I heard in my earphones what sounded like a fight: lots of screaming and tearing up of vegetation and running back and forth. I had gotten myself between two males battling over a female. One of the males grabbed my left shoulder in one hand, picked me up, and threw me and all my gear about fifteen feet into a patch of stinging nettles. Luckily I wasn’t hurt, and my gear was OK. After that, I learned to pay careful attention in the field.
Tonino: What’s the most thrilling soundscape you’ve heard?
Krause: By far the most exciting experiences are the unexpected ones. When I dropped a hydrophone into a freshwater pool for the first time in Kenya, the underwater chorus immediately caught my ear. I heard the sounds of water boatmen, insect larvae, and tadpoles. In an Alaskan tide pool I lowered a small hydrophone into the belly of a sea anemone and caught a sort of belch as it expelled the mic. Then there are the voices of bearded seals from the Arctic and their cousins the Weddell seals from the Antarctic. We think they may be imitating electrical signals transmitted through the earth’s magnetic field from thunderstorms some five thousand miles away at the equator. And the sound of ice breaking up is a noise any synthesizer player would kill to reproduce.
Tonino: What are your thoughts on the origins of human music?
Krause: It’s clear to me that humans — especially those who are closely connected to the natural world — are great mimics, and that we learned our forms of musical expression from the biophonies of the wild. In other words, we learned the organization of sound because soundscapes are organized. We learned that if we want two separate voices to be heard, then we’d better put them in different ranges. Rhythm? Chimps hammer out important rhythmic messages on the buttresses of fig trees. Frogs in the Amazon and Africa vocalize in elegant patterns of time. Nothing we’ve done is all that original.
When the Catholic Church began to build the large edifices within which most Western religious music was created, they were designed with thick stone walls that, in part, were fabricated to keep out the sounds of the natural world. The spaces inside cathedrals are reverberant — they reflect the echoes of our own sounds back to us. So Western music was separated from its original influence and became self-referential. And that’s the way it has developed over the years.
Music today is removed from the natural world. About fifteen years ago I read an article about birds endangering aircraft that were landing at and departing from Gloucestershire Airport in the UK, which services the nearby estates of the British royal family. Authorities tried everything to scare the birds off the runways — cannon fire, recordings of hawks, shotguns — but nothing worked. Finally they played Tina Turner. The birds fled. I’ve never been able to find out which Turner track they used.
Tonino: Do you still make music?
Krause: I’ve just finished a collaboration with Richard Blackford, a composer-in-residence at Balliol College at the University of Oxford. Based on themes in my new book, it’s called The Great Animal Orchestra: Symphony for Orchestra and Wild Soundscapes, and in it the musicians are responding to the soundscapes, not the other way around. We’re using the soundscapes the way humans did many millennia ago: as a natural accompaniment with which to combine our own creative expression. The starting point and inspiration is the organic structure of the natural soundscape. That’s what makes this piece unusual. When the conductor cues a sample of, say, a jungle in Borneo, the violins and other instruments are arranged so that they meld with the sonic texture generated by gibbons or insects so organically that listeners cannot tell which is animal and which is human.
Tonino: How is the din of industrial culture affecting indigenous traditions of listening and vocalizing?
Krause: The best example I know of is the Ba’Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic. They live in the southwest part of the country, in the remote Dzanga-Sangha rain forest, probably a ten-day trip on foot from Bangui, the capital. When an anthropologist by the name of Louis Sarno first went there in 1984, the Ba’Aka were completely isolated. Sarno spent time with them and recorded their music. And here’s what’s interesting: they launched into song only when certain soundscapes occurred. The soundscapes acted like a backup band providing the acoustic organization to which the Ba’Aka performed. Also, whenever anyone in the tribe got sick, he or she would march deeper into the forest to get well and be healed in part by the comforting sounds of the biophony. Sometimes the cure was a combination of known analgesics from the vegetation, but other times it was spiritual healing delivered through the biophony.
The Central African Republic is going through tremendous political upheaval, and the impact on the Ba’Aka has been horribly destructive. The French and the Germans and multinational corporations have come in to “harvest” some of the hardwood forest, and now the Ba’Aka are reduced to poaching bush meat — capturing gorillas and chimpanzees and bonobos and even some elephants. They’ve gotten involved in prostitution. They’re heavily into drugs. They’re sick more often. They’re stuck in the cash economy the West has introduced. It’s always the same seductive promise: “We’ll give you a better life.” And now they’re having trouble surviving.
These are the places that engage me, places that have no roads or fences within a week’s hike in any direction, no signage directing you toward one route or another, no rangers eager to inform visitors about the life cycle of the arctic fox or the grizzly bear.
Tonino: You’ve said that some of your best teachers, when it comes to listening, have been indigenous people. I’m curious who those people were, what you learned, and what their style of teaching was like.
Krause: I’m most familiar with the Jivaro in the Amazon basin. Their teaching style was Socratic: it emphasized asking questions. And it was very organic. If I wanted to learn how they navigated the forest at night, they didn’t tell me; they just took me with them. When you walk through the rain forest at night, you can’t see the stars because the canopy overhead is so dense. So how do you navigate? Simple: with your ears. These people used the biophony as an aural GPS and knew exactly where they were in the jungle and what creature was a quarter mile down the path and whether or not it was worth hunting just by careful listening. I wasn’t taught this process outright. I learned it from being in their company and watching them do incredible feats that I would never have thought possible.
Tonino: What role does listening play in your daily life?
Krause: It gives me a sense of place. My wife and I live in a house made of dirt, because I find it more comfortable acoustically. The walls don’t reflect sound as much, so there isn’t a lot of reverberation. We’ve intentionally settled in a part of Sonoma County that is relatively quiet — at least, compared to places with denser human populations. This makes all the difference on a day-to-day basis. The tranquillity makes me feel healthier, more relaxed. When I left San Francisco decades ago, my friends told me I’d be back in six months. I’ve been back probably six times, and then only to visit.
Noise is a big draw for a lot of people. Some like a noisy restaurant because they feel that’s where the action is, but to me it’s debilitating. I never travel without a sound-pressure-level meter like the ones you can get on your iPhone, and if the noise level registers over 70 dBA*, my wife and I turn around and walk out. I’m not going to endure that. You know, restaurants are often designed to be noisy because the loud ambience gives an impression of “action.” But the real reason is that loud noise makes you stressed and encourages a quick customer turnover. After an hour of yelling at your tablemate over 85 or 90 dBA, you want to leave.
Tonino: You’ve said that noise we don’t register as such still has detrimental effects on us. Can you give some examples of how we live with such noise and what it means for our quality of life?
Krause: In areas that are less noisy, like some smaller European towns, people aren’t so stressed. The United Nations and the World Health Organization have done studies on this. Noise is insidious. It impairs kids’ ability to learn at school.
In 1981 President Reagan appointed James Watt head of the Department of the Interior. One of Watt’s first actions was to defund the Office of Noise Abatement [ONA], which was then part of the Environmental Protection Agency. Starved of funds, the ONA is now fairly powerless and listed under Housing and Urban Development. When Watt was asked why he’d defunded it, his answer was “Noise is power. The noisier we are as Americans, the more powerful we appear to be to others.”
Tonino: In your book The Great Animal Orchestra, you titled a chapter “The Fog of Noise,” which reminds me of the expression “the fog of war.” I know that extremely loud music or noise has been used to torture prisoners. What are your thoughts on noise not just as power but also as a form of violence?
Krause: Loud noise is violent. It’s an assault on our ears. The loudest sound system ever documented in a car is something like 174 dBA. Let me put that in perspective: If you stand next to a jet plane as it’s about to lift off, you’re hearing 129 dBA. A .357 Magnum shot an inch from your ear is 165 dBA. Every six-decibel change represents a doubling or halving of the sound-pressure level. So the car system that’s 174 dBA is louder than the firearm by more than a factor of two.
Tonino: When you present your work to students, how do they engage with it? Do you find that they’ve spent too little time outdoors to grasp soundscape ecology?
Krause: When I talk in schools, I immediately notice how distracted kids are. I tell them that I’m not going to talk until I see every cellphone put away. Richard Louv — author of Last Child in the Woods and many other books — writes about how kids today get completely sucked into technology. It’s part of the consumer culture they’ve been thrust into. I don’t know whether there’s a Technology Addicts Anonymous group, but there should be.
Once the cellphones are out of reach, I begin to talk to them about the sounds of the world and the work of listening. I play recordings for them. This is where it gets interesting. If I’m talking to kids below sixth grade, most of the time I get positive questions, like “How can I do what you do?” After the sixth grade the perspective shifts, and I get questions like “How much money do you make?” or “What’s the most dangerous animal you’ve ever recorded?” My answer to the second question is always the same: man. And they’ll say, “My dad says the polar bear is the most dangerous animal on earth!” I’ll tell them to ask their dad if he’s ever seen a polar bear with an AK-47.
It’s obvious the children’s minds have shifted since elementary school — you can almost see the layers of distraction by the ways in which they interact with each other and the world around them. That’s why we’ve got to encourage kids to be ecologically conscientious in the earliest stages of their lives, especially if we’re going to make them aware of the importance of life around them.
Tonino: You’ve said that the concept of natural soundscapes represents a threat to some people. How so?
Krause: In 2000 the National Park Service introduced the Natural Soundscape Project, and I wrote the visitor program for it. The idea was to encourage visitors to experience the parks by listening. Two Republicans from the House of Representatives decided they didn’t like the term soundscape. It sounded too radical to them. They wrote a scathing letter to Fran Manilla, then head of the National Park Service, threatening to withhold funding unless the word soundscape was removed. So it became the Natural Sounds Program — and they still took away much of the funding.
Tonino: [Political theorist] Noam Chomsky says if the powerful go out of their way to slander something, it’s probably because they’re legitimately threatened by it. So maybe that letter indicates how powerful soundscapes really are.
Krause: Science is considered dangerous in this culture. It’s just crazy what’s going on.
In 2002 a Republican senator from Alaska named Frank Murkowski went before Congress to advocate drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He held up a blank white sheet of paper and said, “This is what’s in Alaska” — nothing but snow and ice.
After I saw that, I did some research and learned that no one had thought to capture the biophonies of the refuge. A few recordings had been made of individual creatures, and video crews had picked up some “wild” sound to cut into their programs, but no one had done any recordings to establish a baseline by which to track future changes to the soundscape. So my wife and I raised the money to take three different teams to record at three remote locations inside the refuge for ten days in early June 2006.
During that period we were able to document more than 150 bird species, more than 30 mammals, and numerous insects. For a place that was supposed to be as empty as a blank white sheet of paper, the density and diversity of wildlife were amazing.
Tonino: You’ve called yourself a “devout” listener. Is there a spiritual aspect of listening to the natural world?
Krause: Yes, more and more the biophony has become for me the voices of the divine. I have never heard a piece of music, my own or somebody else’s, that is as life-affirming as a well-recorded natural soundscape. I’ve never heard a word spoken from any pulpit that can compare. Natural sound is magical for me.
Soundscapes are able to heal us more deeply than music, because music is culturally biased. As soon as you turn on the stereo, things get complicated. One person wants to listen to Mozart; another wants Eminem. Natural soundscapes — the sound of ocean waves, the trickle of water in a stream — pacify almost everyone. There’s a universal quality to these sounds. In his great book Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks describes instances in which he’s seen patients listen to a piece of music and actually go into a petit mal seizure. I’ve never heard of that happening with the sounds of the natural world.
I have never heard a piece of music, my own or somebody else’s, that is as life-affirming as a well-recorded natural soundscape. I’ve never heard a word spoken from any pulpit that can compare. Natural sound is magical for me.
Tonino: What about loud sounds in nature — storms and thunder and ear-splitting howls or squawks?
Krause: Sometimes nonbiological natural sounds — geophonies — can be pretty impressive. I’ve heard winds and rainstorms lash a habitat for several days at a time without letup. Although creatures can produce vocalizations that are quite loud, no single organism can exceed the noise levels the environment can naturally generate. But my guess is that these naturally occurring sound events are somehow factored into a critter’s DNA, whereas human noise — the random and incoherent kind — is not. The amplified noises we typically introduce into the environment are too new for most critters to have adapted to; they feel the stress but don’t know how to react.
Tonino: You’ve proposed a National Day of Tranquillity. How did that idea come about?
Krause: As you might recall, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, all flights were grounded. Human activity took a break in a rare moment of quiet reflection. The next day, on September 12, my wife and I were sitting in back of the house, and there wasn’t a plane in the sky or any traffic on the road. We could hear nothing but the birds and the breeze and the insects. We actually felt a little guilty about enjoying that moment of tranquillity together. Then I started getting e-mails from my colleagues around the world who were out in the field with recorders in Germany and Austria and France and Great Britain. They were all remarking on what a peaceful day September 12 was. We needed serenity right then. So that’s what inspired the idea for a National Day of Tranquillity. Of course, it isn’t going to happen. Far too much commerce depends on air and road travel. Someone once calculated in response that the economy would lose something like $8 million a second! [Laughs.]
Tonino: We sometimes use the words silence and tranquillity as synonyms, but they aren’t the same, are they?
Krause: No, they’re not. Silence means no sound, not just an absence of human noise. We can’t endure absolute silence for long. If you were put in an anechoic chamber, where all you can hear is the blood rushing through your head, you’d develop anxiety, depression, and hallucinations from sensory deprivation. We have to have some kind of subtle background sound in order to thrive. It’s how those of us who aren’t hearing impaired orient ourselves to the world. We need to hear the birds outside, the wind, the creaky house, some acoustic reference that provides for us a sense of place. That’s tranquillity.
Tonino: You seem to view humankind as an aberration, a rogue soloist playing too loud, but on some level aren’t we a part of the orchestra, too?
Krause: No. But we are faced with critical choices and endowed with the responsibility of preserving life wherever it is found: we can act in ways that are life-affirming or not. If you want to make noise that drowns out meaningful vocalizations integral to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, that does not affirm life. When we drive down the street with a straight-pipe motorcycle, all we’re confirming is the shallowness of our own existence. Mostly we make noise to show our presence, to give us the illusion of dominance, to say that we’re here, that we’re at the top of the heap.
Tonino: Don’t other animals vocalize to show their presence, too?
Krause: When a nonhuman creature vocalizes, that behavior is predicated on some aspect of its survival. It needs to be heard, and it’s constantly calibrating its vocalizations toward that end. From my experience, that is not usually the case with the incoherent sounds humans tend to generate with all our gear. Given our unique ability to create sustained loud noise through amplification or machinery, all too many of us have come to believe that we don’t have to reflect or respect the natural voices that surround us. We simply overwhelm everything in our path, like motorcycles roaring through Yellowstone, imposing our excesses on the landscape. We are not conscious of, nor do we much care about, our effect on other living organisms.
Tonino: How can we better integrate our sounds into the greater orchestra?
Krause: First we have to listen. And in order to listen, we have to be still. We don’t know how to be still anymore, so we’ve got to learn the great benefits of stillness again. With stillness comes humility. When we learn to listen to the world around us and at last hear it unimpeded by all the layers of ego-driven noise that we generate, we may develop a different perspective. But I don’t know how we’re going to do that. I wish I did. I only know that being quiet and listening has made a big difference in my own life.
Tonino: Have any particular habitats acted as teachers or guides for you?
Krause: Every habitat I’ve ever recorded that was unimpeded by human noise has resonated with me in special ways. Although I hadn’t grown up in these settings, I felt their mysterious force. Even now I spend a lot of my time listening to my old recordings, trying to glean from them the messages inherent in those narratives.
When I hear a recording, I know immediately where it was made, and I feel the sense of place all over again: Sumatra. Borneo. The Central African Republic. Corkscrew Swamp in Florida. Spread Creek Pond outside of Jackson Hole. My special recording spot in the state park just up the road here in Sonoma County. Each of these places is unique, so perfectly composed to reveal its own acoustic signature.
Tonino: Is experiencing a soundscape live different from listening to a recording?
Krause: To me it is. When I’m present on a site, there’s a powerful energy flowing between the sound source and me, the listener. Listening to a recording requires some adjustment in the brain to fill in the sense of place one gets from a live sound. In the studio, whether I’m listening with earphones or over speakers, I lose the tactile, visual, olfactory, and special sense of place that the habitat itself provides. The soundscape becomes an illusion, and I can only hope that the recording preserves some of the qualities of the natural world.
Tonino: Often in your travels you’ve found yourself in a forest or a desert that hasn’t been significantly altered or degraded, acoustically speaking, since the time of our earliest human ancestors. What does that feel like? Do you sense our ancient species-hood?
Krause: I like to think that I’m hearing these places as our ancestors once heard them, and sometimes I can trick myself into believing it. But I don’t know what the world was like sixteen thousand years ago at the end of the last ice age. The world has changed so radically. In the prelude to my most recent book I speculate about what that primordial world might have sounded like — especially the incredible variety of wildlife as it was expressed through its signature sounds — but really I have no idea.
A number of years ago I did a piece for a large company whose name I’m not allowed to mention but whose symbol is a rodent. The bosses wanted to know what the soundscape was like at a particular site during the time of the dinosaurs. I re-created the soundscape based on the insect fossils buried in the rocks at the site. Maybe it works. No one will ever know. Those sounds are now gone forever.
Tonino: You’ve written, “We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that any of us can improve on the natural world by our presence.” Where does that leave us, then? Is our real work just to get the hell out of the way?
Krause: I’m not sure. It reminds me of what Aldo Leopold said about tampering with “nature”: If we’re going to tinker with the natural world, we’d better keep all the parts. My addendum to that would be: Yeah, and we’d better keep the schematics, too. But we don’t know what our true effect is, because we’re not wise enough, or gifted enough, or smart enough. We’ll never completely understand the natural world. All we can do is strive to live more gracefully within it. Maybe we can restore a stream by cleaning it up and getting all the detritus out of it, but we can’t put the world back to the way it once was. We can only attempt to preserve a good balance between wildlife and ourselves. I don’t know if we ever will — it seems like we’ve got competing objectives — but the option is there.
Tonino: And listening can be a part of that effort.
Krause: If you’re sitting still and listening, you’re not destroying anything. You’re just listening.
* The abbreviation dBA stands for “A-weighted decibels,” which, according to the website Noisehelp.com, “are decibel scale readings that have been adjusted to attempt to take into account the varying sensitivity of the human ear to different frequencies of sound. (The main effect of the adjustment is that low and very high frequencies are given less weight than on the standard decibel scale.)”