Shut Up!

Former musician Bernie Krause has spent 30 years recording the pristine sounds of nature in the remotest corners of the world. Now, after all his travels, he has an important message for the human race: Shut up!

Financially, Krause is still reeling from 2001, when he got few calls for work. But things have turned around this year, and Krause has his hand in several projects at once. Among them, he will provide a soundscape for an 11-acre African exhibit at a Texas zoo (charging between $200,000 and $400,000, including equipment and tech help).

Krause is also spearheading a project for the National Park Service to study sound and its relationship to habitat health. He and three other recordists will go to Sequoia National Park four times a year to record at four different spots, four times a day.

And for the past few weeks, Krause has been immersed in a project for the Canadian Broadcast Channel: He will provide the radio station with one year's worth of constantly looping, never-repeating natural sound -- which is why he's fiddling with the Amazon recordings.

Krause searches for a quiet spot to record at Sugarloaf State Park.
Bernice Yeung
Krause searches for a quiet spot to record at Sugarloaf State Park.
Krause sets up a large zeppelin-shaped microphone for recording.
Bernice Yeung
Krause sets up a large zeppelin-shaped microphone for recording.

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To listen to Bernie Krause's recordings, visit www.wildsanctuary.com

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But half an hour in, Krause is foiled. There is a nearly inaudible hum coming from the mixing board equipment that is driving him absolutely nuts. In a determined frenzy, Krause gets on his hands and knees to maneuver behind his fancy studio equipment to unplug, replug, and wiggle wires to terminate the subtle buzz.

"I don't like that at all," he says, standing up, his hands on his hips. "It shouldn't be there. It makes me mad."

After nearly 40 minutes of frustrated wire-jiggling, Krause tries the controls again.

Finally, silence.

"Yes! The son of a bitch works!" he cries jubilantly.

He continues scanning a DAT tape for usable sound, and as he plays back old recordings titled "Rainstorms in Borneo" or "Sumatra Tundra in Spring," he picks up noises that most people would probably not hear: the low, quick bang of a car door or the crackle of footsteps. He quickly edits out these sounds, creating a seamless recording.

"Nobody would even hear it, but I do," he says. "And that's no good."

Quite consciously, Krause hears things that most people have learned to tune out. The jingle of a cell phone in a restaurant or the zoom of a motorcycle torments him; silence is a jewel to Krause, and listening is a necessity, a skill, and a blessing.

"I learn and experience the world through hearing," he says. "I don't see very well. Now, I can hear things in people's voices, like stress or when people are tired. If you're attuned to the world of listening, then you have a window to the world that is illuminating."

Krause has been immersed in sound since childhood. He began playing violin and guitar at a young age, and during college at the University of Michigan he joined the Folklore Society, a student group that combined music with progressive politics.

After graduating in 1960, Krause held down jobs in all aspects of the music industry, from session artist with Motown Records to folk concert producer to radio disc jockey.

He was thrust into the limelight when he was asked to join the popular folk group the Weavers in 1962. When the group broke up in 1964, after a tumultuous year, Krause left for California, eventually finding himself in San Francisco, where he ventured into electronic sound.

Krause became a pioneer of the Moog synthesizer and found himself in demand to write film scores and TV and radio commercial jingles.

Over the course of his career, Krause has built something of a name for himself, even if most people don't immediately recognize it nowadays. He has written film scores for or provided natural sounds to 135 major motion pictures (including Apocalypse Nowand Cast Away) and penned jingles for companies like Coke, Buick, and Levi's.

Krause's natural sound recordings have also entered the ears of thousands through museum exhibits or as background music at the Nature Company, where his CDs have been sold. And during the Humphrey the Humpback Whale episode in 1985, Krause's name was splashed all over the newspapers when he edited and played feeding sounds underwater to lure the stranded whale to sea.

Krause made the transition to natural sound recordings as a result of the buzz he and his creative partner, Paul Beaver, caused with their synthesizer compositions for films and commercials in the late '60s. Warner Bros. Records offered them a contract to produce a series of albums that Krause says changed his life. One album in the series was titled In a Wild Sanctuary and was the first to incorporate natural sound recordings with music.

When the idea was first proposed to him, Krause says it didn't really strike a chord with him, since it seemed removed from his cosmopolitan life. Still, he took a mike and recorder out to what he perceived to be nature -- the San Francisco Zoo, Muir Woods, and Fisherman's Wharf.

When Krause returned to the studio, he discovered that the tapes contained a lot of hissing and completely failed to capture his audio experience. "I found it was difficult because the airplanes flew over," he says. "And the animal vocalizations seemed lethargic."

The lackluster recordings inspired Krause to listen to the natural world, instead of just hearing it. And that simple distinction, he says, has transformed him. Opening his ears to natural sound has given Krause access to what he describes as a greater, more beautiful world -- and one with fewer materialistic distractions.

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