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Tech + Life

An electronic music pioneer races to capture the vanishing sounds of the wild

Bernie Krause is recording glaciers’ groans and ravens’ wingbeats before nature's music changes forever

By Tony Rehagen

Bernie Krause has spent more than half a century capturing and preserving the music of nature. From the groans of glaciers shifting in the Arctic to the screams of gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda, he has compiled more than 5,000 hours of field recordings. But there is one sound that Krause will never need to have played back, an alarm that is cut into his brain. It’s the blare of climate change arriving at his front door.

On October 9, 2017, Krause and his wife, Kat, were awake at 2:30 a.m. waiting to see if the wildfire that had already ravaged much of Sonoma County — one of several devastating Northern California fires that fall — would turn their way. Suddenly the wooded hillside outside their home, which they had named Wild Sanctuary, burst into flame.

The blaze spread so quickly that the Krauses didn’t even have time to grab their phones. As the couple fled down a fire-enveloped driveway to their car with only the clothes they wore, Krause heard a symphony of rage in the sucking roar of the wind and the ferocious crackling of flames, punctuated by the tympani of neighbors’ propane tanks exploding in the distance. By the time the inferno moved on, every single one of the Krauses’ worldly possessions had been reduced to ash — including the original recordings of his entire life’s work.

“We came face to face with the malevolent eye of global heating and its horrific consequences,” Krause says now. “I rarely make it through a night without awakening to frightful sonic nightmares.”

Even before the climate crisis, Krause knew more than most people how much the natural world has changed in a few decades. He has been closely observing and recording nature since 1968, when he left a studio-based career as a synth-music pioneer to venture into the wild and capture the vast soundscapes of the Earth. Along the way, he practically created his own genre of sound-based art, releasing dozens of field recordings that document the sounds of our ecosystems — and the way they are changing and, lately, vanishing altogether.

“Climate change is at the core of nearly everything we’re experiencing now,” he says, including his own experience with the California wildfires, which have increased in frequency to longer droughts and warmer weather. “Every human alive must begin to take the stark revelation of these facts with all the urgency they can muster.”


Krause, 81, grew up in Detroit during a golden age of manmade sound. At 13, he dropped the violin and schooled himself in different styles of guitar, doing local studio work and playing gigs on live TV. In college, he was a recording engineer who earned extra cash sitting in on early Motown sessions. In 1963, a couple of years after graduation, he joined The Weavers, the folk quartet founded by Pete Seeger. But when the group disbanded in 1964, Krause moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to study something new — electronic music.

“When I first saw the synthesizer, I soon realized the limits of the sonic world we Western composers had imposed on ourselves,” he says. Because the synthesizer was the most popular major instrument invented in over a century, Krause says, its range pushed music in previously unimagined directions.

Krause helped introduce the synthesizer to an entire generation of acts tinkering with far-out psychedelic sounds, including The Doors, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, and Mick Jagger.

Specifically, Krause was drawn to the Moog, considered the first analog synthesizer, consisting of amplifiers, triggers, mixers, oscillators, and other electronic noise-makers that could be played using keyboards, joysticks, and pedals. Krause and experimental jazz musician Paul Beaver formed an electronic music duo that also acted as sales reps for Moog Music. In the late 1960s, Beaver & Krause, as they were named, helped introduce the futuristic instrument to an entire generation of acts tinkering with far-out psychedelic sounds, including The Doors, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, and Mick Jagger. The pair, and eventually Krause by himself, would also use the Moog to shape sound effects and scores for TV shows and movies, including the hallucinatory Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now.

But in 1968, Krause realized that the technology he’d been mastering his whole career might hold the key to uncovering a much grander symphony. Seeking a quiet place far from San Francisco’s crowded, smoke-and-coke-filled recording studios, Krause headed out to Muir Woods, north of the Bay Area, to collect sounds for a Beaver & Krause album themed on ecology. Among the majestic redwoods, Krause found himself, for the first time, really hearing the wild. He was armed with only a small tape recorder and a pair of headphones — but that was enough to unlock an entire world.

“The exhilaration I felt the first time I heard the amplified sound of the forest through my stereo headphones was extraordinary,” Krause says. “The microphones picked up many subtle sounds across far greater distances than my ears could. Overhead, a pair of ravens, feathers resonating with each stroke, carved out a sonic arc in the sky with their calls and wingbeats.”

The album, In A Wild Sanctuary, released in 1970, was a seminal recording in electronic music because of its marriage of synthesized sounds and a natural soundtrack. For instance, the track “Walking Green Algae Blues” featured a sauntering call-and-response blues exchange between a Hammond organ and slide guitar over the gentle trickle of a stream in the background. The Moog also takes center stage on “Spaced,” a galactic synth-orchestral explosion that was mimicked (uncannily) by Lucasfilm for its THX audio logo years later. In A Wild Sanctuary was also a pioneer in its focus on ecology and what seems, in hindsight, like foreboding unease with humankind’s destructive relationship with nature.

Ronald Smith, associate professor of music technology at Northeastern University, says Krause was part of a wider soundscape movement that was emerging at this time, largely on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada. These artists, says Smith, “would go on to have a major impact on environmental design” — using sound to enhance built environments.


Since the late 1970s, Krause has all but forsaken the music industry and dedicated himself to his field recordings, producing works commissioned by museums, aquariums, and zoos for sound installations and exhibits. In 1985, he mixed and modified recordings of whales, which he used successfully to lure a lost humpback from the Sacramento River Delta back to the Pacific Ocean. He’s produced albums such as 1988’s Gorillas in the Mix, put together with a sampling keyboard programmed with primate sounds. The album includes the track “Trout from Ipanema,” Krause’s first attempt to make music solely from samples of animal noises. The calypso-like tune opens with the low voice of a walrus strung out into a bass line. The sounds of fish chewing on coral and making noises with their swim bladders become timbales, snare drum, and rim shots. The lead melody is provided by what sounds like a steel drum, but is actually an elephant. Along the way, Krause introduced entire concepts and phrases to the field of soundscape ecology, such as “geophony” (non-biological sounds, such as wind and waves), “biophony” (sounds of organisms), and “anthropophony” (sounds of humans).

“Trout from Ipanema” was Krause’s first attempt to make music solely from samples of animal noises.

In 2012, Krause wrote The Great Animal Orchestra, a book that shows how songs and rhythms of the natural world are also integral to humanity’s musical expression. The book provided the basis for a symphonic concert, where natural soundscapes were incorporated into orchestral arrangement, and a 2016 audio-visual art installation, or sound sculpture, that interpreted Krause’s recordings into large-scale light displays. For instance, the symphony’s third movement, co-composed by Richard Blackford, features a chilling chorus of wolves howling with the support of four French horns. Later, “a beaver utters forlorn cries at the destruction of its family and habitat,” Krause writes, describing the piece. “A solitary bassoon extends the beaver’s lament into a universal elegy for animals displaced by mankind.” In The Great Animal Orchestra, Krause argues that humans have destroyed the aural habitat upon which animals rely in order to survive.

“Krause doesn’t provide answers, but he asks questions. You can understand the magnitude of the crisis when you get into his work,” says Thomas Delamarre, senior curator at the Fondation Cartier museum in Paris, who worked with Krause and United Visual Artists to develop the exhibit. “His work has two facets: He not only draws the dark picture of dying nature, but he’s also able to touch the audience by conveying the beauty of the soundscape. He reconnects people with this incredible beauty that we tend to ignore these days.”

“The Great Animal Orchestra” exhibit served as a sort of retrospective of Krause’s career. A year later, in 2017, Krause says, he was getting warnings from workers he knew at NASA and the EPA that field data and recordings, particularly from federally funded work, were in danger of being compromised by the anti-climate-science Trump administration. These friends said they were shipping their work offshore to certain safe sites for safekeeping. To maintain the integrity of the data from his own life’s work, Krause quietly copied his entire catalog and sent one copy to Fondation Cartier in Paris and another to a local bank.

Months later, the wildfire that destroyed Krause’s home swallowed everything else — including all of his original recordings and any other copies. The fire burnt hot enough to melt his refrigerator into a puddle of stainless steel. Original analog tapes, DATs, cameras, and his handwritten field journals were vaporized or turned to cinders.

The climate crisis has displaced Krause and his wife. They’re now living in temporary housing provided by insurance. Krause says they’ll never return to the site of Wild Sanctuary; they’ve put the 10 acres up for sale. “How can we ever again allow ourselves to feel as connected to another place,” he asks, “when the [home] we had so lovingly tended and perfectly calibrated for our remaining years was taken that effortlessly?”

Perhaps most painful of all is the loss of their home’s other inhabitants: Over 70 percent of the vegetation on the property was burnt beyond recovery. The animals that once dwelled in those trees and woodlands are gone, as well as the Krauses’ cats, who perished in the blaze. “Until the fire, the quality of the soundscape was always embracing, healing, and reassuring,” says Krause. “Natural sound was always nearby to enrich our lives. Now, something is missing. Wild Sanctuary is eerily quiet.”

Nevertheless, Krause has started to rebuild his catalog of soundscapes. He has written a new book about culture’s relationship to sound, which will be released in summer 2021. During the pandemic, he says, he has caught up on mixing six new natural sound albums that have been in the queue for a decade or more. And in the time lapse of those recordings, he can hear the horrible future that awaits if we fail to act on climate change.

“The changes are evident over time,” he says. “From one recording to another at the same site, the density and diversity of bird, frog, mammal, and insect expression has shifted so radically. In some cases — more frequently now than ever — the shift has meant a silent spring, with no sound.” 

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Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis.

 

Illustrations by Chris Malbon

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