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3D Audio Talks: Soundscape Ecologist Bernie Krause

Today we talk about listening with Bernie Krause. Bernie is a professional soundscape artist and audio ecologist. He founded Wild Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to the recording and archiving of natural soundscapes. He is also the author of “The Great Animal Orchestra”. Krause is a musician, soundscape recordist and bio-acoustician, who coined the term biophony (he is also founder of the field). He has collected more than 5,000 hours of natural habitat audio recordings, including more than 15,000 wild species from all around the world for nearly fifty years. Krause holds a Ph.D. in Creative (Sound) Arts with an internship in bioacoustics from Union Institute & University in Cincinnati.

Bernie Krause in a California park. / Ramin Rahimian

Rarely do we ever take time out of our days to stand still and listen to our natural environment. What are the dangers of the iPod culture we live in? How can we listen to our own personal soundscape and also remain aware of the natural one around us?

Well, I guess we’re just gonna have to make a choice. The soundscape of the natural world contains its own rich narrative. That biophonic expression is a vast library of detail that, together, tells stories from many different perspectives. One of those is the degree to which a habitat is thriving. Our level of awareness with regard to that natural world soundscape, depends on how much “noise” we want to exclude in the process of discovery (aka listening). When I go into the field, other than a recorder, I never take another distraction with me. Not a camera of any kind. No smart phone. No music. Nothing. I’m there for one purpose, only. To the extent that anyone would want to hear the voice of the natural world, you’re gonna have to clear that fragmented mind and pay close attention. Honest, no one really gives a shit if you miss 8 hrs of Twitter or Facebook. La vie continue.

What has studying animals and natural soundscapes over the last 40 years taught you about humans?

That many of us supporting the corporate collective destroying our living space are pretty much dicks. However, there are still those filled with a sense of wonder at expressions of the natural world and whose moral compass is calibrated toward a model that posits way less virulent consumerism.

Soundscape ecology sometimes get criticized for having a purist approach – the ideal soundscape is the natural one, not the modern. What’s your thought on that? Any beauty in the cityscape?

I’ve been around for a long time and have rarely heard any critiques of soundscape ecology, per se. That’s because it’s so new that it isn’t on anyone’s radar, yet, neither political or social, or even much from the scientific community. Except for the few hundred folks worldwide who are dedicated to the field, and who critique each others’ publication submissions, I’ve not heard a peep from the hoi polloi. I haven’t a clue what the hell a “purist” in this field would be like since the field is still evolving and being defined. The full definition may not happen for decades. So critics, if they exist, need to hold their fire for a few more years.

That said, there are some fundamentals: The soundscape is all the sound that reaches an organism’s ears from whatever source. The soundscape is divided into three basic sources:

1.   The first and original source on the planet was the geophony – non-biological natural sounds like wind, water, etc.

2.   The second is the biophony – the collective sound that organisms produce in a given habitat at a particular time

3.   The third is the anthropophony – human-generated sound. Some controlled like music or language. The rest non-structured = noise.

I have no idea what defines “beauty” in someone else’s mind. I happen to like natural soundscapes (biophonies) because they make me feel good…the  primary reason I’ve chosen to do this. I have a terrible case of ADHD and no meds or weed ever helped much. Only natural sounds. Therefore I make it a point to get my lardy old ass out there as much as possible. Some get their fix from straight-piping Harleys or the sound of a leaf-blower. That’s probably a contributing factor to why they feel like shit.

 

Walter Murch often said there is an equivalent visual attribute for every sonic attribute (ie. High frequency/low frequency = yellow/brown, a stampede = percussion). Have you found any connection between the sounds animals make to what they look like while making them?

Walter’s palette is film. He’s a key dude in that visually-oriented domain. When I was involved in scoring films, directors would often come to us and describe the feeling they wanted us to convey in a scene by describing it in terms of its color or shading because there was no language, then, to describe sound (other than in classical musical vocabulary…a discipline rarely understood by directors).

When a sea anemone or ant or a fish or a snapping shrimp produces a sound signature it still looks like a sea anemone or ant or fish or snapping shrimp. No change in expression for those wee critters. Different expressions sometimes occur with the higher order mammals when they generate certain kinds of vocalizations. But I have never associated any of those with what we consider as our color-palette.

What industries benefit the most from an education in soundscape ecology?

With soundscape ecology, let’s see… Here are a few: Music, linguistics, biology, environmental sciences, theatre, medicine, anthropology, social sciences, paleontology, resource management, religion, film, politics, zoology, physics (acoustics), literature, botany philosophy, business, natural history, architecture, to name some that are informed or seen through the lens of this new discipline.

Do you have a go to recording rig that you prefer to use? Or does the environment dictate what equipment you’ll use?

Yes. Any Sound Devices recorder, a double-MS system (consisting of MKH 30, MKH 40 & MKH 8040 mics). Sometimes I use DAP 4060 lavs, as well. That’s it.

 

What is the best way to experience your work and why? On headphones? Speakers? Installations?

Speakers, if they’re good ones and placed in a well-calibrated acoustic environment. Also, installations under the same conditions as speakers.

 Bernie’s novel “The Great Animal Orchestra”

When experiencing your work, how important is localization of audio sources to fully understanding the piece? Can the piece be just as effective in mono?

No. Best heard in either 5.1, 7.1 or ambisonic.

Would you say humans listen to more processed sound (music, film, radio, video games) on a daily basis than they do natural? What effects does this have on a civilization over time?

We become more pathological. If you don’t believe that, watch the news!

What’s your favorite sound you’ve ever recorded?

Don’t have one. Depending on the day and mood, I enjoy different soundscapes at different times.

What’s sacred in terms of audio recording? Anything that shouldn’t be captured in your opinion?

Natural soundscapes are the voice of the divine. We need to get that there is no other sermon necessary.

Bernie at his Glen Ellen home studio. (Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

What’s the future for citizen field recording as recording technology becomes more ubiquitous?

It helps folks reorient to the experience of the natural world. Anything that accomplishes that is way cool.

Do you think we are generally getting better or worse at listening and how does recording technology factor into that?

Worse. We have to learn to use the listening tech as a tool. Not a crutch.

Graphic representation of “The Great Animal Orchestra”, with animals arrayed like the instruments in an orchestra by the audio frequency of their sounds. (Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporaine)

Do you think the potential for ubiquitous recording will make us better or worse listeners?

Have no idea.  We just need to shut the fuck up and stop asserting our presence all over the place. We ain’t at the top of the heap like we think.

What’s the most exciting technological development for recording sound that you’ve seen in your lifetime?

The wire recorder.

In the last few years we’ve seen more attention being paid to binaural, ambisonics, HRTFs and head tracking playback thanks to Virtual Reality. What are your thoughts on this new space?

Put it away and get the fuck outside where there are no well marked trails, where you have to walk for a week in any direction before you find a road or a fence, where there are no eager rangers to tell you about the life-cycle of a moose or squirrel, and, best of all, where there’s nothing to buy. (this last bit is a paraphrase from Bill McKibben).

Do you think any of these immersive audio formats could stand out in soundscape ecology?

Depends entirely on the context. The more tethered to the technologies, the more distance there is between ourselves and the natural world.

The rise in popularity of these formats is causing people to wake up and realize we don’t hear the world in mono. Do you think incorporating technology like this into consumer’s hands could help our natural habitats?

All depends, again, on the context and how the tech is applied. I’d advise to travel as light as possible.

A big thank you to Bernie Krause for this opportunity to learn more soundscape ecology, listening and our ever changing planet. Make sure to check out Wild Sanctuary, Bernie’s YouTube Channel and order a copy of The Great Animal Orchestra, a fascinating read.

From One Ear To Another,
Anthony Mattana
Hooke Founder and CEO