Listening to the Animal Orchestra | Arts & Culture

Listening to the Animal Orchestra

Listening to the Animal Orchestra

Illustrations by Julia Lubas.

Crouched in the wilderness, Bernie Krause (A.B. 1960) disentangles microphone wires from thick jungle underbrush. He adjusts the mics strapped to his hat and tilts his head toward the mountain gorillas he’s recording. Too bad he’s staked out a spot between disputing males—one of them unexpectedly shoves Krause into stinging nettles. Krause hobbles away, but he’s happy to have gotten some good sound on tape.

Other field-recording expeditions have brought Krause up close to polar bears, crocodiles, killer whales, and wolf packs. He’s wiped grizzly bear saliva from his microphone, shaken rats out of his sleeping bag, and smelled the breath of an elephant. Through all this, he insists, “The only thing that makes me feel centered and calm and tranquil is working in the natural world with sound.”

Krause arrived at these remote soundscapes by improvising a path through a very musical life. Born in Detroit, Krause started violin at five years old and performed with the Detroit Symphony at 13. He played guitar on the U-M campus with a student group of folk musicians, but he had his eye on paying gigs around Ann Arbor and Detroit. The money he earned from Motown session guitar work and audio engineering covered his student expenses as a Latin American history major.

“I wanted to be a studio musician,” Krause says. “But guitar during the 1960s became very competitive, and making a living as a studio guitarist was difficult. But then the synthesizer came along, and nobody was playing it—the field was clear and open.”

Illustrations by Julia Lubas.

Krause moved to California, where he and collaborator Paul Beaver bought one of the first Moog synthesizers that rolled out of production. They played synth with the Doors, the Monkees, the Byrds, George Harrison, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, and David Byrne. They composed music and sound effects for TV shows, commercials, and movies like Rosemary’s Baby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Apocalypse Now. Krause continued to release albums, solo and with others. He also acquired an eccentric habit: recording ambient sounds in urban and natural spaces and mixing them with his music.

After a while, Krause quit Hollywood. He took a detour into audio forensics, analyzing court evidence like Nixon’s Oval Office tapes and law enforcement recordings. He got a Ph.D. in creative sound arts and did an internship in bioacoustics. Advanced studies sent Krause and his microphones underwater to record marine animal sounds for his dissertation.

Then, Krause went out on a limb and applied for a job that didn’t exist. He invented a position at a science and nature retail company and tried to persuade them to hire him for his sound-recording expertise. They shooed him out the door, but his tapes wound up in the company president’s cassette deck. Krause ended up producing a series of nature albums for them that netted surprising commercial success.

“Sound is ephemeral,” Krause laments. “It can’t be seen, touched, or smelled, and to many in our culture, it is merely a shadow sense—inexplicable and not to be trusted. It doesn’t have much resonance with us.”

He’s been fighting that perception for 50 years. His company, Wild Sanctuary, houses a sound archive of more than 5,000 hours of 15,000 animal species: earthworms moving under the soil surface, a sea anemone burping, hippos bellowing underwater, the acoustic signature of a falling snowflake, the squeaky sounds of growing corn.

When Krause first started the archive, he hunted for sounds emitted by individual creatures. But as he waited for shy animals to show up, Krause realized that the sounds of entire ecosystems surrounded him.

“From my perspective,” Krause writes in his book Into a Wild Sanctuary, “taking the voice of a single animal from a habitat and trying to understand it out of context is a little like trying to comprehend an elephant by examining only a single hair at the tip of its tail.”

Krause began recording entire soundscapes—the chorus of living communities and the noises of their habitat, such as wind and flowing water. The audio led him to a discovery: Animals in a community tend to segregate their voices. Male frogs, for example, don’t speak out of turn—they sing when their neighbors pause, maybe to increase the likelihood of being heard. And different animals use a broad vocal range, chiming in at different pitches, potentially for the same reason. Listening harder, Krause noticed another thing: Almost any time he returned to a site he’d recorded before, the diversity and density of animal sounds had declined. This worried him. “The biophony sounded too thin,” Krause describes in his book The Great Animal Orchestra. “It’s as if a full pit orchestra and a cast of dozens for a Broadway show had been reduced to a trio.”

Krause had started by inventorying single species. Then he worked to document biodiversity. Now he aims to record biodiversity loss.

Illustrations by Julia Lubas.

Krause’s advice for those who want to make a positive change always will be: Keep quiet and listen to the sounds around you.

Krause follows his own advice about half the time. The rest he spends spreading the word and playing sounds. One of his books, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, has been translated into seven languages. The BBC commissioned Krause and collaborator Richard Blackford to write the Great Animal Orchestra Symphony, in which natural sounds intermingle with orchestral instruments, and they composed the score for a ballet. Most recently, Krause installed an exhibition based on his recordings at the Fondation Cartier contemporary art museum in Paris.

He’s searching for a place to house his archive of recordings, which demonstrates how ecosystems across the globe have changed in the last several decades. It’s also a record of a Motown man exploring different worlds of sound—from the music business to the wilderness.