Story: Jonah Raskin Photos: Steven Krause
The American naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson called himself “a transparent eyeball,” and added, “I see all.”
Bernie Krause, the world’s foremost soundscape ecologist, might describe himself as “a transparent ear” and add, “I hear all.” Not surprisingly, the license plate on his car reads, “Écoute,” which is French for “listen.”
Krause’s whimsical invitation to humans to open their ears and hear all the cries and whispers of nature—not just isolated, individual bird songs, for example—offers our species an opportunity to be more fully alive and to experience the world in a new, exciting way that might be called “wraparound sound.”
Born in Detroit in 1938, Krause is a longtime resident of the Valley of the Moon and the author of three majestic books, including The Great Animal Orchestra, which chronicles his travels from continent to continent to record the howls, tweets, roars and melodies he hears in wild places. “Bernie Krause is, above all, an artist,” the primatologist Jane Goodall has said, adding, “I have watched him record and seen his deep love for the harmonies of nature.”
In the spirit of Emerson, Thoreau, Rachel Carson and Goodall herself, Krause warns earthlings that ecosystems are fast disappearing, from the arctic to the tropics. They’re also vanishing in our backyards and in state parks like Sugarloaf Ridge, one of his favorite haunts.
At 77, Krause still travels widely though age, he admits, has begun to slow him down. But his voice is not diminished and now, more than ever, he’s one of the most impassioned voices for a way of being in the wild that doesn’t diminish wilderness.
“The Great Animal Orchestra,” an immersive light and sound instillation based on his recordings and adapted by the London art practice United Visual Artists, opened in July at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. Until January 8, 2017, visitors can hear the recordings Krause made in Canada, Alaska, off the coast of Hawaii and in a forest in the Central African Republic where, he says, “the elephants are no more.”
Krause also plays a starring role in Nature’s Orchestra, a new 24-minute documentary that tracks him on a recent soundscape expedition across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Nature’s Orchestra also shows him in a classroom at Sonoma Valley High School, where he turns up the volume on the sounds of the tundra. Then the filmmakers follow him and a group of students equipped with headphones, who listen to the sounds of the nearby Nathanson Creek.
In September, at a benefit for the Sonoma Ecology Center, hosted by Ramekins, Krause talked, showed slides, and played bits and pieces from the Sugarloaf soundscape he has recorded for decades. “The habitat in the Valley of the Moon is hurting because of climate change and the drought,” he told an audience made up largely of ecologists and environmentalists. He added, “In 2015, we had a silent spring. We’re partly to blame for the unhealthy habitat.”
That surely wasn’t the kind of news audience members wanted to hear, but Sonoma loves Krause and the extraordinary work he has done over the past 50 years, and no one held his dire comments against him.
Krause’s acoustical credentials precede his soundscape pioneering. An expert musician, he performed with the famous folk group the Weavers for about a year, then moved to San Francisco to study electronic music at Mills College just as the Moog synthesizer was being developed. Krause met a like-minded musician named Paul Beaver, and the two formed a techno-music partnership named “Beaver & Krause.” In 1967 they played the Moog synthesizer on the Monkees’ recording Star Collector and went on to perform with numerous notable musicians including the Byrds, the Doors, Stevie, George Harrison and Van Morrison. Beaver & Krause also used a Moog synthesizer to create portions of soundtracks for several commercial films, including Apocalypse Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Love Story and Doctor Dolittle. They released five albums together, including The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music and In A Wild Sanctuary. Their work was seminal in the birth of both electronic and New Age music. Beaver died in 1975.
In 1968 Krause founded “Wild Sanctuary,” a nonprofit organization headquartered in Glen Ellen and devoted to recording and archiving soundscapes from environments around the world. He estimates he has 4,500 hours of archival recording, including the sounds of 15,000 species in both terrestrial and marine environments.
At the start of his career as a soundscape ecologist, Krause recorded in analog with magnetic tape. In 2004 he switched to digital. His discography runs to more than 50 individual titles, including Equator (1986), Tropical Thunder: A Rainstorm in Borneo (1991), Whales, Wolves & Eagles of Glacier Bay (1994), Sumatra Days, Sumatra Nights (2002), and Winds Across the Tundra (2002).
In 1985 and again in 1990, Krause’s recordings of humpback whales were used to lure the wayward Humpback Humphrey out of harm’s way inside San Francisco Bay. During the 1985 episode, Humphrey swam 69 miles up the Sacramento River into a dead-end slough where he likely would have died. Krause’s recordings, broadcast through an underwater speaker system provided by the U.S. Navy, lured Humphrey back to sea and almost certainly saved the whale’s life.
Humphrey returned in 1990 and managed to beach himself on a mudflat south of Candlestick Park. He was towed off with a cargo net and then lured back out the Golden Gate, again with Krause’s whale soundtrack.
In 2015 Yale University Press published Krause’s impassioned manifesto, Voices of the Wild: Animal Sons, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes, that cries out for a revolution in our relationship to nature, no less bold than Emerson’s and Thoreau’s.
At least half of the material that Krause has recorded comes from habitats “altogether silent” or so “radically altered” that they bear little if any resemblance to the habitats that he first heard. Which explains why he told the audience at Ramekins, “I like to go where there are no people, no roads, no park rangers and nothing to buy.” Krause echoes the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who told crowds in the 1830s, “In the wilderness, I find something more dear than in streets and villages.” He also recycles Emerson’s famous lament, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”
The Great Animal Orchestra (2012)—which introduced essential concepts like “geophony,” “biophony” and “anthrophony”—has been widely touted as an American classic. Like his literary/naturalist ancestors, Krause’s sympathies lie with birds, beaver, bison and all the big and little insects and amphibians that, he argues, taught us to sing, dance and make music, and who are now on lists of endangered species.
Between chords of doom and gloom, Krause offers notes of hope. Indeed, he’s heartened by the news that at Chernobyl—the site of the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster—plants and animals have come back with a vengeance. If the land and the animals didn’t die there, then there might be a way for all of us to survive, he suggests. “What can we do?” Krause asks. “Stop, breathe and leave things alone.” His words might not please some die-hard conservationists, who want to do things to and for nature. But nonetheless, Bernie Krause, the recording artist, nearly breaks into song when he says, “The natural world knows how to heal itself.”