Transcript for Bernie Krause on "The Great Animal Orchestra"

  Jim Fleming: But first, Bernie Krause. Krause started out as a musician. He was a member of a legendary folk group The Weavers. Then, he got involved in electronic music. He also made music and effects for feature films, such as Rosemary's Baby and Apocalypse Now. But Krause found his true calling as a naturalist and soundscape artist. He's recorded the sounds of all kinds of creatures and environments all over the world for more than forty years. And he's written a book about his experiences. It's called "The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places."  Anne Strainchamps talked to Bernie Krause about his recordings.

Anne Strainchamps: I want to play an example of one of the soundscapes you brought in. Right now, we are listening to a recording you made in the Amazon, and I wonder if you can just tell us what we are hearing.

Bernie Krause: What we are hearing right now is an example of the Amazon night. It's smack in the middle of the Amazon at a research station called Kilometer 41. And my colleague, a gal from Harvard, Ruth Happel, we were walking down this pathway one night. It was around midnight. We smelled the scent of this jaguar, which Ruth understood right away. And it was scent marking as it was going along. We couldn't hear it or see it, but we sure could smell it, and it was following us down the path, wherever we went. We went a couple of miles down the path there in the dark. And finally, we got to a split in the path, and Ruth went off in one direction, and I went off in the other, and the jaguar kept following me. And at one point, I set up my mikes. I had a thirty-foot cable on my mikes, and I set up my mikes. The microphone on the stand was at one end, and I was at the other. And I turned on my recorder, and all of a sudden, the sound of this jaguar breathing right into the mike. It stepped right up to the microphone.

[jaguar sound]

Strainchamps: It's a terrifying sound when you hear it. You hear that sound, and you think, "Big predator."

Krause: It was a big predator. And it scared me to death. But there I was, and the only thing that you can do is be very quiet. You don't want to shine a flashlight on it to startle it, and you don't want to do much movement because that's what they are attracted to.

Strainchamps: One of the things that is most interesting in your book is the way you describe animals as kind of like radio broadcasters, in that different species use different bandwidths, or different channels to broadcast their communications.

Krause: What's interesting about them is that they each find their own niche to vocalize. Each species. In other words, they have to have their own bandwidth and find their own bandwidth in order to be heard. Otherwise, if their voices are masked, and their lives depend on vocal behavior in part, it's really important that they have these channels, just like television channels, it's channel 4, channel 6, channel 5, and so on. Each have these broadcast bandwidth frequencies, is really important for the structure of each animal. And in every habitat, all of the animals find their own niche in which to vocalize. Animals vocalize in relationship to one another, much like instruments in an orchestra, either competitive, or cooperative. And different animals maintain their own bandwidth in the acoustic spectrum. For instance, most of the mammals sing in the very lowest range. The birds sing in the next range up. Then the insects and the frogs. And the very highest creatures, of course, which includes insects, but also the bats have the highest voice in the land-based animal kingdom. And also, the dolphins and whales in the marine environment. They also have the very highest pitch of sounds. So that's how that works, and those structures are very important because the animal voices have to stay out of each other's way in order to be heard. And in order for the animals to thrive in any environment. And that's what we call the biophony. It's the collective sound made up by all of these organisms in a given habitat. And it's really important to understand that the soundscape is a narrative that expresses itself over a broad spectrum, not only of the animals, but a broad spectrum of disciplines as well, because a lot of information in that, and you can see that when you do a spectrogram, which is a graphic illustration of sound.

Strainchamps: What do you mean, there is a lot of information in there?

Krause: When you listen to any soundscape, a natural soundscape, you are listening to information that tells you about biology, about resource management , medicine, religion, natural history, architecture, literature, physics, and many, many others. For instance, people have asked me why you do this. Well, partly because I suffer from a terrible case of ADHD. I've always had this as a kid. And I had it as an adult, and I'm not much into medication. So the only thing that calms me down is going out into the natural world and listening to these creatures. And being quiet enough for long periods of time and just shutting up and listening to things. I can't rustle my clothes, I can't move around and shuffle my feet around. I've got to sit very quietly for long periods of time, and that's what this has taught me to do. So in terms of healing and a certain kind if medicine, that's one thing the soundscape does. It also speaks to us about religion. For instance, it's the natural soundscape from which we acquire spirituality. That was the voice of the divine for us for so many years, while we lived closely connected to the natural world.

Strainchamps: I guess what I'm wondering is, to be able to hear, or to decode the information in the soundscapes the way you do, is there an example we could play of a soundscape, and you tell us what you hear with your much more experienced, more trained ears.

Krause: Well, we don't even need necessarily a more trained ear. There are two examples that you have. One is before and after selective logging. Lincoln Meadow. What we have here is an example of the effects of selective logging, which is really obvious to everybody, and we don't have to go through a whole course in biology, or bioacoustics to understand this one. In 1988, I was approached by a logging company up in the Sierras, a place just north of Truckee, a small town on the California-Nevada border. We were told that there was going to be no biological effect from selective logging that would be a problem. That all of the creatures would still be there, that the biota of that particular environment would still remain the same, and the biome would be very healthy. So I said to them, "Fine, can I record before you do the logging and then after the logging to see if there are any changes. There should be no changes if there is no effect, if you are ensuring us that there is no effect." And they said, "Fine, go ahead and do that." So I went in and recorded in 1988, and this is a recording of what that place sounded like before selective logging. [soundscape playing] OK, now let's listen to what happened a year after selective logging, and fifteen times subsequently we've been up there recording different in years. All at the same time, on the 21st of June, under pretty much the same weather conditions. Listen to this.

[soundscape playing]

Strainchamps: That's very different.

Krause: Isn't it amazing? In a way, it's really sad because there is almost nothing there, and all the density and diversity has shifted. It's all gone now.

Strainchamps: Wow. I was thinking that of course what you and I might hear, sitting in the middle of the jungle, or any landscape, isn't necessarily what the nonhuman inhabitants hear. We've been talking about what we hear, but what do animals hear? Krause: Well, animals hear different things. Insects will certainly hear within one range that they've evolved to hear. Same thing with frogs and the birds because they hear differently too. They are listening for certain kinds of signals that convey to them that it's a safe habitat. When people are closely connected to that natural world environment of theirs, we hear things differently because we learn to hear in a very discriminating way. For instance, when I was working in the Amazon with the Jivaro tribe that lives in the Amazon basin, after a period of time that I've been there, I was there for nearly a month, I was invited to go off one evening on a hunt with him, and they hunt with blow guns and arrows. What was astonishing to me is when you walk through the jungle, it's very dark because the canopy overhead shuts out the stars, and they don't take any torches, or any light with them. They just walk through the forest. And I'm stumbling over the leaves and branches and stuff on the ground. They just walk very quietly. How do they do that? Well, they use the natural soundscape around them, the biophony. They use biophony as an oral GPS. In other words, they walk through these grids of sound, and they know exactly where they are in this forest. Not only that, but the slight changes in soundscape convey to them what animal is up the path, like about a quarter of a mile, what kind of animal it is, what direction it's heading in, and whether or not it's worth a hunt. And they pick up all this information from the soundscape, from that biophony. Strainchamps: So it's a kind of sound map. Krause: It's absolutely a sound map to them, but not only that. Here's the key. The key is that the humans who live closely connected to that natural world environment, like the Bayaka in the central African republic, or the Jivaro in the Amazon, or the Kaluli in the New Guinea, Papua New Guinea, they use the biophony as a natural karaoke orchestra with which they perform. In other words, it's their backup band. And they burst into song as a result of what they hear in the soundscape during the course of any day. [soundscape playing] Strainchamps: This is part of your theory, that human music has its roots, its origins in the soundscapes of the natural world? Krause: Exactly right.

Strainchamps: Bernie, what's the saddest vocalization you've ever heard?

Krause: Well, a colleague of mine from Minnesota, a fellow named Curt Olson, sent me this recording, and it was made at a beaver pond that he'd been spending many years at recording, and it was in a very remote spot in Minnesota. And he tells the story of having been recording there one day, and a couple of state fish and wildlife guys came in with a stick of dynamite, and they dropped it down the beaver den, and his was in the spring, and they blew up the dam, killing the female and the offspring. And he stayed there all day, and he was so devastated by seeing this whole habitat destroyed with one explosion. And there was no reason for the guys to do that because the beaver dam wasn't obstructing any farmland, or anything like that, or wasn't impeding any agriculture. But he stayed there, and that night he recorded the male beaver, that he observed was wounded, swimming in these circles around this pond, looking for its mate and its offspring. And I have to tell you, it's the saddest sound I've ever heard in my life.

[soundscape playing]

Strainchamps: Bernie, near the end of your book you write that it is possible for us to learn to listen in a more informed way, that we can learn to listen in a completely involved active, rather than passive way. How can we learn to do that?

Krause: I have only one thing to tell people about that. Just be quiet. They've got to shut up. There was this guy by the name of James Watt, who was Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior. And he made a very profound statement once. He said, noise is power. And the noisier we are as a culture, Americans he was talking about, the more powerful we appear to be to others. Isn't that interesting? So if we shut up a little bit, and be really quiet, and we listen to these sounds of the natural world, we are going to feel better. It's like Richard Louv wrote in "Last Child in the Woods," he said, "We are suffering as a culture from nature-deficit disorder. And part of that nature-deficit disorder, a thing that he's drawn into his own thesis now, is the lack of natural soundscape, which is disappearing very fast. Fifty percent of my archive, I have forty-five hundred hours in my archive, fifty percent of my archive that I've recorded since 1968, forty-four years ago, fifty percent is now gone. It's extinct. You can't hear it anymore. The only place you'll hear it is in my archive.

[soundscape playing]

Fleming: Bernie Krause is the author of  "The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places."  He spoke with Anne Strainchamps. Do you have a favorite sound in nature? We'd love to know what it is. You can let us know via Facebook or Twitter, or you can send us an e-mail through our website, It's always nice to hear from you.

Comments for this interview

The Jaguar and the Beaver (Steve Hamm, 11/16/2012 - 11:32pm)

One overwhelmingly powerful.
The other incredibly sad.
Both hauntingly beautiful.

My favorite sound (ann bitter, 11/14/2012 - 10:28am)

When I moved from a large Midwestern city to Lamy, New Mexico, I was amazed by the blue sky, the dark night, and the sere high desert landscape. But most of all I was awed by the absolute quiet. My favorite sound is that of a raven flying overhead. You see the shadow and hear the sibilant, slow WHOOSH simultaneously. And then it's gone...