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!

Suddenly, "as if in a dream," he says, he began to hear the forest sounds as a musical composition, not a random din. A new idea came to him -- the beginnings of a concept he would later dub "biophony," or the idea that animals and insects produce a "creature symphony" by vocalizing not only to their own species but in concert with others, in a "symbiotic relationship."

"I had a dream last night that all the animals were singing together like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," he wrote in his journal. "It was one of those compelling and forceful reveries that washed wave upon wave of interwoven melody and rhythm over me. ... Could it be that we have been missing a key element in the sonic puzzle by taking the sounds of nature apart piece by piece and that nature is calling our attention to an expression of creature symphony we haven't wished to think about?"

When Krause returned to San Francisco, he transferred the recorded samples to a device that graphically displays the samples as a "sonogram." He says the patterns that emerged from these graphs looked like notes on a symphonic score. As time passed, the concept became clearer in his mind, and in 1998 he began calling the idea "biophony," which Krause asserts could help scientists better understand how healthy a habitat is through sound.

When Krause dons a pair of headphones and presses play on his recorder, the world of sound opens up.
Bernice Yeung
When Krause dons a pair of headphones and presses play on his recorder, the world of sound opens up.
When Krause dons a pair of headphones and presses play on his recorder, the world of sound opens up.
Bernice Yeung
When Krause dons a pair of headphones and presses play on his recorder, the world of sound opens up.

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

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Though Krause likes to throw the term "biophony" around in everyday conversation, it is still purely conjecture. Krause acknowledges that scientific work on his theory is "nascent," however some scientists, like Stuart Gage of the University of Michigan, say the concept has great academic potential.

"It's a theory, and a really untested theory," says Gage, an entomology professor. "But it stimulated me, and I think it should be looked into. And you can look at it more broadly, that environmental acoustics is a whole new way of looking at change."

Bioacoustician Peter Marler of UC Davis, however, says that while biophony is not implausible, it is more of an aesthetic theory than a scientific one. "From my point of view, it sounds basically feasible, but it also sounds a little nutty," he says. "It's a grandiose notion that probably is not subject to testing one way or another. I'm speaking as a scientist. If he intends it to be an aesthetic idea, that's another thing altogether."

Clearly, biophony has great aesthetic meaning for Krause, too. The concept of biophony has become something of a religion for Krause, and he has assumed the role of high priest.

"Listening to sounds makes me feel nurtured, relaxed, and gives me a sense of joy that nothing else in the human culture does," he says. "I recognize and enjoy fine art, but the art of listening, to me, and being able to hear, in distinct ways, the voice of the natural world, is the highest art I know as an artist. It's the ultimate form of aesthetics, where you don't need to re-create or redefine something that is already perfect. And to recognize that, and that you are a part of it, is for me the best achievement of my life."

"Bernie has become increasingly spiritual," adds poet Al Young, Krause's college buddy. "He was pretty much driven by intellect when I first met him, and he has become more and more mystical. It comes with working with the natural world."

Indeed, the combination of maturity and exposure to the sounds of the wild has made Krause more mild-mannered, though no less brutally direct or periodically self-aggrandizing. And because natural sound represents so many grand, life-affirming things for Krause, the human trampling of pristine habitats has become an urgent, horrifying concern for him.

"When I started recording in 1968, there was 45 percent undisturbed forest standing. Now there is 2 percent left," he says. "That affects water quality and access to water. We are so resource dependent -- big cars, stuff like that. I drive an SUV, and the reason I can rationalize it is not because I want to show it off, it's because I honestly need it for work. In the meantime, [Secretary of the Interior] Gale Norton wants to open up the Arctic sanctuary for drilling. And why don't we sign the Kyoto Protocol?"

Krause's sense of urgency is heightened by his acknowledgment of age, in the realization that he has limited time to convey his naturalist message to millions of people who cannot -- or refuse to -- hear him.

"I'm 63," the childless recordist says. "It's about time that someone else take over. I bring it to the kids [through classroom presentations]. I throw my legs over the bed in the morning in hopes that things will improve and get better."

As the years advance and humans continue to invade the wild, Krause is compelled to proselytize. He regularly makes the speaking rounds at schools and universities; his latest book, to be published in May, is written like a textbook, with a section on biophony.

"Bernie is a few years from retiring," says his wife, Katherine. "It's important work we do now for what the future of the library will be, so there will be a continuation of his work. His library is his life's work, and it would be nice if the collection could be archived where others could have access to it. I have no idea what kind of information may be found in these recordings in the future. I don't know that the potential is huge, but I know there is potential."


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