Posted by: kaleidophonic | June 7, 2012

Natural Soundscapes: The Work of Bernie Krause

Hi folks! It’s been a little while since I posted – the social movement still rumbles on here in Montréal, and today I’ll be meeting with someone who has been recording the nightly “casserole” marches to talk sound, power, and protest. So stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, I’d like to point to a great article recently posted at the BBC, with thanks to Bobad for sharing it with me: “An All Nature Animal Orchestra“, about Bernie Krause, an avid collector of natural soundscape recordings. Krause has coined the term “biophony” to describe the rich sonics offered by our planet’s biological creatures. Since he began recording the sounds of nature in 1968, he has amassed an archive of over 4500 different  soundscapes. But in a frightening testament to the ecological destruction being perpetrated against Mother Earth, over half of these soundscapes have since disappeared from nature. In this respect his work is invaluable, a treasure trove of disappeared sounds and sonic evidence of ecological systems that are no longer with us.

You can check out Krause’s website here, and while the soothing sounds of nature play in the background, you can read the BBC article below, which I have copied because it basically says all the things I want to say. Following the article is a youtube video of a radio interview with Krause, about his book The Great Animal Orchestra.

An All-Natural Animal Orchestra

Alastair Leithead Alastair Leithead BBC News, Los Angeles

Man on rocks holds microphone over water
A landscape may look healthy, but how does it sound, and what does that say about how its wildlife is doing?
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It’s a question Bernie Krause has spent much of his life trying to answer. To do so, he’s recorded the sounds of thousands of places in far-flung corners of the world.
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He coined the word “biophony” to describe these recordings. These soundscapes have helped him show what happens to animals in stressful environments, and explain where our language comes from.
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It wasn’t what he originally planned to do.

Moog master

Bernie Krause started as a classic musician. He joined the US folk group The Weavers in 1963, but became famous for introducing some of the biggest bands in the world to the synthesiser in the mid-1960s.

George Harrison, Simon & Garfunkel and The Doors all learned from Krause and his partner Paul Beaver.

Beaver and Krause composed and played the Moog synthesiser with the Monkees and provided soundtracks for big Hollywood blockbusters. They’re credited with introducing the synthesiser to pop music and film.

But it was a chance encounter while recording an album that put Krause’s life on to a different track.

“We were doing an album for Warner Brothers called ‘In a Wild Sanctuary’ which was the first album ever to use ecology as its theme, and the first ever to use natural soundscapes as a component of orchestration,” he said.

“I just went out into the field and the first time I switched on the recorder it changed my life, because the stereo space opened up in a way I had never heard before.

“Being outside and hearing the wind in the trees and birds flying overhead and the way space opened up was just magical to me so I decided that’s what I wanted to chase for the rest of my life.”

He now has an archive of more than 4,500 separate soundscapes collected from all over the world since 1968. More than half of the soundscapes he recorded have since disappeared from nature.

Sound graph

[as an example – Krause recorded an area in Northern California before and after logging took place. The spectrogram of the recordings show the differences visually. The spectrogram of the “before” recording is on the right.]
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The Arctic in Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada are the most pristine sounds he has collected, as there are so few people around.

He has examples from Borneo, Zimbabwe and the Amazon, which were crowded with sound when he recorded them.

But political change, climate change and the impact of humans on the landscape have all contributed to their loss.

Strange frequencies

In his book The Great Animal Orchestra, Krause uses the evidence of ‘biophony’ degradation to demonstrate how even healthy-looking ecosystems can sound damaged.

Krause argues that in a pristine place, animals, insects, birds and reptiles have each found a niche – their own frequency in which they can communicate to each other and be heard above everything else.

“It’s taken quite a while for all those critters to figure out where their voices should be,” he says.

By creating a spectrogram – a graph of the soundscape created by plotting time against frequency – he’s able to see the patterns that natural sound forms.

“When it looks very structured and you can see the discrimination between those voices, you know it’s healthy habitat.”

A spectrogram can also instantly show if certain frequencies are missing.

In 1988 Krause recorded a soundscape in part of northern California before a new style of logging began. When he returned a year later, the scene looked healthy, but many of the ecosystem’s sounds had gone.

‘Karaoke orchestra’

Krause also links the languages humans developed to the sounds of the wild.

“Animals taught us to dance and sing because we were mimics – we were always mimics,” he says. “When we heard the biophony, the sound of living organisms in a given habitat, we imitated those sounds and their structure.

“We used the sounds of the forest, or the desert, or wherever it was we happened to live as a natural karaoke orchestra with which we performed. In other words we used it as a backup band.”

His collection mostly includes the sounds of whole landscapes, not individuals, on land and beneath the sea. To record sea and river sounds, he uses an underwater microphone called a hydrophone.

He recorded a shrimp, which makes the loudest sound on the planet for its size, and a sea anemone which isn’t as quiet as it looks.

For Krause, listening to the environment provides a much-needed perspective.

“We’re not listeners, we are lookers,” he says. “We understand our world through what we see in Western culture, we are not guided much by what we hear.”

That’s too bad. As Krause’s work shows, there is so much to hear, if we’d only just listen.

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