Music

The Natural Symphony

Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause teaches the world how to listen — and be quiet.

Krause checking the audio capture once the dawn chorus concluded.

Dawn chorus captured at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

IT IS 5:58 A.M. on a brisk spring morning in March, and I find myself speeding behind a gray SUV through complete darkness, up a steep and windy mountain road toward an unmarked location. To bystanders, it might seem as though we are running from something, when in actuality we’re running toward daylight.

On this particular morning I’m trailing behind Bernie Krause — renowned musician, soundscape ecologist, and bioacoustician — who is racing like a bat out of hell to make it to his favorite spot in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in order to set up equipment to capture audio of the dawn chorus. Krause, now 83 years old, has been recording sound for nearly half a century as part of an ongoing exploration of the world’s ever-changing habitats, but Sugarloaf in particular holds special significance. He’s been coming here, year after year, for almost 30 years to document changes in sound. But today is different. This is the first time he’s been back to listen to what has transpired since he last hit record, since the pandemic started and two forest fires ravaged 70% of the area.

It’s an unseasonably warm morning for this time of year; in fact, it’s the warmest sunrise temperature to date that Krause can recall. “I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty quiet,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what we’re going to hear, but it probably won’t be much.” Briefly disheartened by this news, I remember that I didn’t just travel to Northern California to listen to nature arise from deep slumber; I also came here to meet Krause, a man doing his part to help change the world for the better through his art and work. He’s also someone who has triggered a sense of wonderment around reconnecting with nature, in me and in just about anyone else who has ever come across any of his music or books.

Whether or not you know the name Bernie Krause, you definitely know his work. Before his name was spoken in the same breath as Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey, Krause was a musician in the more traditional sense of the term. Starting out early in life playing and composing music for stringed instruments, he turned to guitar in the ’60s, working as a Motown session guitarist, and ultimately a recording engineer and producer. His curiosity around advancements in electronic music eventually led him to the Bay Area to study at Tape Music Center at Mills College. It was around this time that he met his late musical partner, Paul Beaver, forming Beaver & Krause, one of the first groups to record commercial electronica, infusing the sounds of modular analog synths into popular music. In fact, Krause, an early pioneer of the Moog synthesizer, is widely credited for electronic music’s most notable firsts, and is responsible for introducing the synth to artists like Brian Eno, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors.

Along with working with some of the world’s biggest musical acts, he’s also known for his original scores for 135 films, including “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Apocalypse Now,” the latter being his final project in Hollywood. This was before a life-changing experience altered the course of his future.

It was not his compositions for film that led him to leave the traditional world of music for natural soundscapes, but a record he made in 1970 called “In a Wild Sanctuary,” inspired by his and Beaver’s then newfound passion for ecology and ambient sound. It was during a moment in a local San Francisco redwood park, while trying to capture audio for this record, that Krause had the epiphany: “The immediate impact of the sound field, when I switched on the recorder and heard the acoustic impression of that magical place and moment with its illusion of space and depth, jolted me to make the decision, then and there, to find a way to seek out animal-rich or tranquil places to record for whatever remained of my life.”

Through his work, using the synthesizer as a transitional vehicle to explore other influences, Krause eventually came to understand the impact of that first natural sound-recording experience. He recalls it as such: “That moment was also my first realization that, at some point in the future, I’d have another musical mentor — the rich, unlimited, and challenging soundscapes of the natural world.” Not long after, Krause enrolled at Union Institute to get his PhD in bioacoustics. And the rest was history.

By 6:15 a.m. we’re standing off the side of a dirt road, deep inside the park, as Krause sets up his gear. Equipped with a giant Sennheiser MKH mic, Krause logs notes and hits record before leading us toward a clearing with two picnic tables, where we sit in complete silence waiting for dawn to break. For most, trekking through no-man's-land enveloped by the predawn darkness can be disquieting, but Krause, who seemingly has the night vision of an owl, exudes a calmness that is both infectious and laudable. Reminiscing about his first trip into uncharted territory, he notes, “I discovered that, while the living world around me is not necessarily my friend, it is nevertheless my lifelong partner, one I truly value and respect beyond measure. In the end, we just have to keep in mind that nature bats last. If we don’t want to endure the effects of that last swing, we’d best figure out ways to abide in consonance with the life-affirming world.”


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Part of living in consonance with the world, as Krause sees it, involves a practice of deep listening. To truly understand soundscape ecology as he has defined it, a person needs to be attuned to three foundational elements: geophony — sounds generated by naturally occurring nonbiological elements like weather and terrain; biophony — sounds generated by living organisms vocalizing their relationships to each other in their natural habitats; and anthropophony — sounds generated by human life forms. Together, these voices make up the “Great Animal Orchestra,” in which we are vital players. Our main issue, according to Krause, is that humans have fallen out of tune with the rest of the players. Accordingly, he states that the only way for us to learn how to listen to what is happening to our environment and play along with the rest of the players is simply to be quiet.

And this form of quiet observation is exactly what Krause has built his present career on. He’s now recorded over 5,000 hours of sound from at least 15,000 terrestrial and marine species around the world, although he estimates that over 50% of these habitats have either partially or entirely disappeared at this point. Krause himself is also no stranger to the destructive nature of poor forest management and climate change. Back in 2017, he and his wife Katherine endured the wrath of the California wildfires and ultimately suffered the loss of Wild Sanctuary, 10 acres of hilly underwood in Sonoma Valley that had housed his home studio and archives for almost a quarter century.

Fortuitously, at the time of their catastrophic loss they’d already partnered with Fondation Cartier on a globetrotting exhibition of Krause’s work, including a backup archive containing the core of Krause’s digital field recordings. From the remnants of these sound files, “The Great Animal Orchestra” was born, an interactive audio-visual experience. Utilizing Krause’s recordings to explore the world’s rich biodiversity in an immersive form, the heart of this installation is an alarming spectrogram, a visual representation of the soundscapes he’s recorded, fed through a computer highlighting the sounds of different animals within an environment — vocalizing their relationships to each other, asserting dominance, but also clearly displaying which habitats are greatly distressed. As Krause likes to say, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.”

The pictures we gleaned from the sound we eventually captured that morning were perplexing. Although nearly one-third of the park had recently recovered from the devastation the last fire had left behind, the dawn chorus was exactly as Krause had surmised. At around 6:29 a.m., after sitting in dead silence for over half an hour, we eventually heard an owl hooting, followed by more bouts of silence interrupted by random chirps from purple finches, pings from fruit bats, squawks from red tail hawks, croaks from ravens, frantic pecks of acorn woodpeckers, and a wild turkey very adamant that his presence become known. But aside from these short intervals of pre-sunrise sounds, we generally heard nothing beyond the peaceful trickling of water from a nearby stream, and the occasional gust of warm wind carrying the sweet smell of the thick morning air to our noses. We all knew this was not indicative of a truly healthy environment, and the recordings we heard later — compared to recordings made in the park years prior — made this abundantly clear. Still, we left the park feeling more hopeful than grim. Knowing that there are people like Krause, trying to teach the world how to listen to the song of life itself, one can only hope we find our way back in tune with the rest of the orchestra before the song is over.


You can also view “The Great Animal Orchestra,” Krause’s collaboration with United Visual Artists and Fondation Cartier, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Boston until July 10, 2022.

Bernie Krause’s Guide on How to Record Sound

After decades of traveling the globe, writing books and research papers, and making records, Krause has finally been able to spread his urgent message about conservancy with the rest of the world through this collaboration with Cartier. His goal now is to secure an academic home for all of his findings. His archives would serve as the foundation for a much more expansive library of the sounds of our world — a repository to which other artists can also contribute. Until that day comes, Krause has shared some tips on how you can explore nature safely while also capturing the sounds from local environments.

  • How to start (for casual sound-recording enthusiasts)

    “With your smartphone, step outside your home and try to record an American robin, that otherwise dull-looking bird with a bright orange breast, one of the most ubiquitous birds in North America. Objective: to record it without hearing cars, trucks, buses, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, helicopters, private or commercial aircrafts, or other noises that usually intrude in the background. Hint: You may need to get up and outside an hour before sunrise to record what you’re after.”

  • What to listen for

    “Because these biophonies are narratives of place in the natural world, I listen for the ways in which each habitat expresses itself, and for the messages inherent in the context of those storylines. In healthy environments, for example, the biophonies (the collective sound produced by all organisms in a given habitat) tend to sound structured, where bandwidth is established and maintained by each type of organism — insects typically in one of several frequency niches; amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals each in their own slot. Sometimes these niches are temporal, where one organism ceases to produce sound and another fills the gap. When a habitat is under stress, that organization appears to break down and a form of sonic chaos ensues. At some point these organisms sort out and deal with the source of the problem so that their voices are not masked by others. When there’s that kind of disorder, a stressed habitat can prompt shifts in density of species (total number of individuals producing sound) and diversity (total number of species).”

  • Where to go

    “Any green space near your home is a good place to begin. Little by little, as you gain confidence in green urban environments, go for hikes in safe areas, always accompanied by another person. Try to get as far away from auto and aircraft traffic as you can. Find a quiet place, and simply sit and listen. Or keep walking, being conscious of the sounds around you. Try to pick out those that are natural, like the geophonic effects of wind in the tree canopies or grasses, or water in a stream. Listen for the biophonic signals (birds, insects, frogs, mammals). Then listen and identify the human, or anthropophonic, sound sources, differentiating between jet aircraft, helicopters, single-engine prop planes, and ground traffic. Once you learn to do this, you’ll begin the process of ear cleaning and become more sensitive to the healthy and life-affirming sounds that surround you, eliminating the distracting ones and rejecting others that don’t let you feel at your best.”

  • How to experience nature while practicing conservancy

    “Maintenance of local parks is a critical issue for us. They’re green spaces that anyone can ideally visit for moments of solace and peace. For these spaces to thrive and adequately serve the visitors that populate them, there has to be collective valuing and the will to maintain these open green spaces in a safe, healthy, and welcoming condition. That way, every person, old or young, can partake of their multiple benefits. Even though these parks are sometimes referred to as ‘the managed wild,’ it’s still vital to have these on our punch list of places to go and things to do. As for the small percentage of the planet still in a truly wild state, it’s probably best to leave these places alone, and not overwhelm them with our privileged human traffic just because a few of us can afford to get there and brag about another high adventure checked off our life list of things, to fill the void we’ve created within our fragile souls. Let’s clean up our own habitats first.”

  • How to start (for casual sound-recording enthusiasts)

    “With your smartphone, step outside your home and try to record an American robin, that otherwise dull-looking bird with a bright orange breast, one of the most ubiquitous birds in North America. Objective: to record it without hearing cars, trucks, buses, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, helicopters, private or commercial aircrafts, or other noises that usually intrude in the background. Hint: You may need to get up and outside an hour before sunrise to record what you’re after.”

  • Where to go

    “Any green space near your home is a good place to begin. Little by little, as you gain confidence in green urban environments, go for hikes in safe areas, always accompanied by another person. Try to get as far away from auto and aircraft traffic as you can. Find a quiet place, and simply sit and listen. Or keep walking, being conscious of the sounds around you. Try to pick out those that are natural, like the geophonic effects of wind in the tree canopies or grasses, or water in a stream. Listen for the biophonic signals (birds, insects, frogs, mammals). Then listen and identify the human, or anthropophonic, sound sources, differentiating between jet aircraft, helicopters, single-engine prop planes, and ground traffic. Once you learn to do this, you’ll begin the process of ear cleaning and become more sensitive to the healthy and life-affirming sounds that surround you, eliminating the distracting ones and rejecting others that don’t let you feel at your best.”

  • What to listen for

    “Because these biophonies are narratives of place in the natural world, I listen for the ways in which each habitat expresses itself, and for the messages inherent in the context of those storylines. In healthy environments, for example, the biophonies (the collective sound produced by all organisms in a given habitat) tend to sound structured, where bandwidth is established and maintained by each type of organism — insects typically in one of several frequency niches; amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals each in their own slot. Sometimes these niches are temporal, where one organism ceases to produce sound and another fills the gap. When a habitat is under stress, that organization appears to break down and a form of sonic chaos ensues. At some point these organisms sort out and deal with the source of the problem so that their voices are not masked by others. When there’s that kind of disorder, a stressed habitat can prompt shifts in density of species (total number of individuals producing sound) and diversity (total number of species).”

  • How to experience nature while practicing conservancy

    “Maintenance of local parks is a critical issue for us. They’re green spaces that anyone can ideally visit for moments of solace and peace. For these spaces to thrive and adequately serve the visitors that populate them, there has to be collective valuing and the will to maintain these open green spaces in a safe, healthy, and welcoming condition. That way, every person, old or young, can partake of their multiple benefits. Even though these parks are sometimes referred to as ‘the managed wild,’ it’s still vital to have these on our punch list of places to go and things to do. As for the small percentage of the planet still in a truly wild state, it’s probably best to leave these places alone, and not overwhelm them with our privileged human traffic just because a few of us can afford to get there and brag about another high adventure checked off our life list of things, to fill the void we’ve created within our fragile souls. Let’s clean up our own habitats first.”


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Our Contributors

Annette Lamothe-Ramos Writer

Annette Lamothe-Ramos is the visuals director of Departures. A native New Yorker now based in Los Angeles, she is a multidisciplinary artist and creative consultant working in online media, print, and film. Formerly the creative director and fashion editor at Vice, she has also created original documentary shorts and series for several major streaming platforms.

Vincent Perini Photographer

Vincent Perini is a Texas-raised, Los Angeles–based portrait photographer with a background in art history and large-format photography.

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