By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
The sun rises quickly as Bernie Krause steers his SUV decisively around the corners of a road winding up the Mayacamas Ridge that separates the Sonoma and Napa valleys. It is just after 6 a.m. on a below-freezing morning in March, and Krause has the seat warmers on in the car as he drives higher and higher, until the oak trees give way to redwood conifers.
He passes through the gates of Sugarloaf State Park and stops the car near a trailhead. He removes a blue backpack from the trunk and puts it on. He is careful with the pack -- it contains thousands of dollars of recording equipment that Krause, a renowned sound recordist, will use to capture the music of what he calls the "wild natural."
Immediately, he hits the trail, the dirt crunching underneath his hiking boots. As he walks, he keeps his ears cocked for a good spot to record. He listens for wildlife, and follows the coarse and eerie call of a lone crow perched on a treetop. He hears the chuckling gobble of a wild turkey and stops to appreciate it.
Then, and much to his chagrin, he also hears the low roar of an airplane overhead.
"Hear that jet?" he says, shaking his head. "You just can't get away from it."
By "it" Krause means the ubiquitous and frustrating racket made by humans and their technological inventions. Krause, a trim and photogenic 63-year-old, has made a living and a lifestyle out of capturing unadulterated wild habitats on audiotape, and he is sensitive to even the slightest man-made noise.
Over the years, Krause has spent much of his time searching for quiet, and his quest for silence has taken him to remote areas of Africa, Antarctica, Alaska, and Borneo. Krause's copious recordings from the last 30 years comprise the largest private collection of natural sounds in the world, and excerpts have been used in Hollywood blockbuster movies and museum exhibits worldwide.
But natural sound is not merely a profession for Krause. Aural wonders are Krause's obsession, and he has become a veritable missionary of naturalism and sound. He equates the loss of a vibrant soundscape with the loss of a natural habitat, and he says that nowadays he has to record about 2,000 hours to produce one hour of usable sound; when he first started three decades ago, it only took 15. And, he adds indignantly, 25 percent of the habitat in his audio library no longer exists because of environmental degradation by humans.
So Krause doesn't exactly expect to find spectacular sound at Sugarloaf State Park, but he does hope he'll get something. After trudging past an open meadow and a rushing, melodic stream, Krause stops on a trail thick with scrub oak trees, attracted by the hollow, rapid knocking of a pileated woodpecker banging on a utility pole. He mounts a large, zeppelin-shaped mike to a tripod, connects it to a DAT recorder, presses the record button, and dons a headset.
The world suddenly opens up. The babbling stream and the trills of birds in the distance sound immediate and crisp. The woodpecker's hammering is so sharp and percussive the creature could be sitting on Krause's shoulder.
And then, the drone of an airplane defiles the headphones.
"Do you hear how much noise there is?" he demands. "You don't realize until you put a set of headphones on and listen. I'm amazed. I'll think I've found a place that is sacred, but then it's invaded by this terrible noise. Even between 6:30 and 7 in the morning, there is never a moment without a plane flying by."
But for all his frustration that morning, when the recording is good -- such as in the Amazon or on the Corcovado Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica -- he is transformed. "I select a spot for quiet, away from human noise," he says. "It's quiet, Zen-like. I'm there for hours at a time, no action, there's nothing to see. But I'm never bored. It's life-engaging. You teach yourself to be quiet, shut your mouth, and not do anything. You just be in the present."
A parrot flies by -- whoosh! -- and lets out a series of staccato squawks. The melodic whistle of a screaming piha and the curt shriek of a great potoo erupt one after another as they sit in distant trees. Flies buzz past in a swarm, droning like a chain saw.
Krause is still as he listens to the recordings he made some years ago, sitting in the "sweet spot" of the speakers in his cozy Glen Ellen office just steps from his salmon-colored house. Every buzz and twitter transports him back to the Amazon and reminds him of the intense heat, humidity, and beauty of the Brazilian jungle.
The recordist is often sitting between these speakers, absorbing and manipulating sound, sometimes for 18 hours a day. It is from this office that Krause runs his business, Wild Sanctuary, which provides tailored "soundscapes" to museums, zoos, aquariums, or films, all produced from Krause's natural sound library. Krause estimates that his 3,500-hour, 15,000-species audio archive is worth several million dollars, and he hopes that a benefactor will purchase the archive from him and then donate it to a university.
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.
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.
"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.
"Why was I drawn from the noise of stardom and the stuff that goes with it?" he says. "'Cause [the wild natural] keeps you young and centered. I was doing a lot of radio and TV commercials, and I got to a point where it was very ungratifying. I didn't want to do another 20-second jingle to sell another pair of pants that people don't need.
"As soon as I started doing that [recording], I couldn't believe how magical a moment it was for me. It made me feel good physically, spiritually, emotionally. By just being quiet and sticking a mike out.
"It was a wake-up call to me. What that album [In a Wild Sanctuary] did was engage my curiosity to go a little further every time I went into the field. I would go to rural areas, then deeper into the forest. The more I traveled into the field, the further I would go. There's a rapture to it. It's like a nitrogen narcosis. You want to go deeper, and the quest has never ended."
It was pitch black in the Amazon jungle, dark and murky as ink. Krause couldn't see the moon; the only light came from the flashlights he and his recording companion held in their hands.
They were several kilometers from their camp site, in search of quality night ambience: the shimmer of insect stridulations and the echo of bird twitters and shrieks.
As the recordists hiked through the dense and humid forest, a peculiar smell caught their attention -- the musky scent of a jaguar. Their local guide had told them he had found jaguar prints in the area, but neither Krause nor his recording partner, Ruth Happel of Harvard University, could hear or see any sign of the animal. They continued on.
At about midnight, Krause and Happel went in separate directions to gather as much of the rich jungle harmony as they could. Krause walked for about 15 minutes before he sat down on the trampled path to record. But as soon as he slipped on his headphones, he heard the ominous growl of a powerful jungle cat as it sniffed into his microphones some 30 feet away. Then, the jaguar emitted a ferocious roar. Krause clutched his recorder and tried to remain calm so the animal would not sense his fear.
"My heart was pounding so loud that I thought the sound alone would startle the animal," he wrote in his journal, portions of which were published in his autobiography, Into a Wild Sanctuary. "An event that lasted no more than a minute seemed like a couple hours as I sat there mesmerized by the power of the animal's voice, its breath, and the sounds of rumbles in its stomach."
Krause rarely recounts his animal adventures -- he's sick of retelling them. But in his frequent travels to all corners of the Earth -- from the steamy jungles of Indonesia to the heat of the high plains in Kenya to the deep chill and stark visual simplicity of Alaska -- he has had quite a few. He has been thrown 15 feet by a male gorilla in Rwanda, and was nearly mistaken for a meal of emperor penguin by a killer whale because he was wearing a black wet suit in Antarctica.
On the north slope of Alaska, where Krause was roughing it solo for a few weeks, he almost became a polar bear's breakfast. As Krause emerged from his tent one memorable morning, he was greeted by a hungry bear that lumbered steadily toward him on its hind legs. Krause grabbed a flare gun he kept in his tent, aimed at the animal's groin, and fired a shot. The bear looked down at its burning fur and hobbled away.
"I knew it needed food, but I also knew it was afraid of almost nothing," Krause says. "So then I needed to make it afraid of something. So when I shot the bear with the flare gun, I knew and was hoping that the smoke from the singed fur would give it pause to reconsider what it was about to do."
And in humid Borneo, Krause had to contend with persistent, inch-long leeches while he recorded. The writhing parasites, attracted to warmth, squirmed onto Krause's recording equipment as he captured the sounds of orangutans, long-tailed macaques, barbets, and rhinos. The leeches also attacked Krause, and according to his journal, "we find them engorged and attached painlessly to the surfaces of our feet and ankles. We remove our shoes carefully so as not to bust them open and spill blood all over the rest of our clothes."
There have been peaceful moments with wild animals, too. One afternoon, while recording silverback gorillas in Rwanda, Krause fell asleep in the group nest. When he woke, someone snapped a picture of him, just as a curious female gorilla began removing one of his shoes.
For a guy who feared poodles and cats as a kid, he's come a long way, Krause acknowledges. "I am aware and respectful of [wild creatures'] presence," he says. "But I understand our own animal nature and how it relates to other animals, so there is no fear. It has to do with becoming very humble in the presence of what we have disparaged for so long."
Though he says he has learned to coexist with animals, tiny bugs are a whole different matter. "There's a bug [the human botfly]," he explains one afternoon, sitting at a picnic table at the edge of his Glen Ellen property. "It lays eggs on the legs of a mosquito when it's in flight. OK. Stop. Think about that. It lays eggs on the legs of a mosquito when it's in flight. Then, when a mosquito bites you, the eggs get deposited in the hole where you were bitten, and then the larva grows and rotates under your skin.
"I got one in the head, on my left temple. I went to the UC Medical Center in San Francisco, and then a dermatologist. I said, "This thing is really hurting me, can you help me get rid of it?' And they would all tell me with authority that it's only a cyst, and I should take antibiotics and it will go away. I took doses and doses, and nothing changed.
"So when I was in Tucson, I was giving a presentation and the pain was so terrible that I started to cry. I told them that I had gotten something from Costa Rica, and I had to go home and go to the doctor. I went to a plastic surgeon in San Francisco, the one who had said it was a cyst, and I said, "Fred, I don't care, I've got to get this off.' He said something like, "I'm in the middle of a boob job or a tummy tuck or whatever,' and I said, "I don't give a shit, you need to deal with this now.' So he cut off the cyst, and in it he took out with a pair of tweezers this spiny thing that was undulating. And he damn near passed out. He couldn't believe I had this thing in my head. That's why it was hurting.
"So it's all the small things, not the large things."
Schoolchildren dash through the African Hall of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park as if it is a playground. Many run straight to the hall's centerpiece, the African water hole exhibit, where taxidermy giraffes, monkeys, zebras, and impalas stand frozen near fake pools of water.
The din makes the exhibit's accompanying sound recording nearly inaudible. Occasionally, a bird squawk or wildebeest snort is heard between the giggles and chatter of children.
Krause recorded a majority of the sounds emanating from the exhibit. The academy commissioned him to capture the sounds of a Kenyan water hole, his first museum assignment, in 1983. The museum provided him with a small budget, a guide, and a list of sounds it wanted. He traveled on the ground, watching and recording leopards and giraffes as they blended into the golden brown grasses, surrounded by what he calls in his journal the "special scent of the dry air of the high plains."
Krause dismisses the water hole recording and says it certainly was not his best work. But the museum is thrilled with it. Biologist Robert Drewes, an African frog expert who was a consultant on the project, says Krause has a special expertise for gathering sound.
"There are few trained like Bernie," Drewes says. "Bernie's bag is that he captures the whole picture. He got amazing stuff. Fine fidelity. He did everything we wanted and more."
But what gets Drewes really excited are the Kassina frog calls Krause recorded while he was there. "He recorded frogs making sounds at a water hole that blew me away," he says, suddenly animated. "He captured a phenomenon that has never been recorded before."
Drewes gets up suddenly and heads toward his basement office. He digs around for a cassette tape and inserts it into a boombox. The sound of chirping crickets fills the room, followed by the hearty "boink" of Kassina frogs calling at random.
He cuts to a different portion of the tape, where the frogs are silent for several seconds as a forest hog snarls in the background. Then, unexpectedly, one frog emits a "boink," followed by a rapid succession of calls, creating an amphibian glissando.
"The first time I heard it I went nuts," Drewes says. "Only males call, but there's a price to calling. It's a potential risk. There's a potential predator nearby, so the frogs stopped calling, but sometimes the hormones are still raging and one of them busts out with a call. So the rest jump on that call so the predator can't pick out the individual. When I heard it, Bernie and I started talking about it. We were hooting and hollering at each other. I plan to write a paper about it someday."
The Kenya trip led to a remarkable realization for Krause, too. While on a 36-hour recording jag to capture the melancholy, echoing calls of hyenas in the forest, Krause set up his microphone outside his tent and lay on a cot with his headphones on. He was exhausted and somewhat delirious, listening to elephants nearby as they pulled up grass and ripped apart tree branches.
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.
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."
The sun rises higher, blessing the hillsides and open meadows at Sugarloaf State Park with golden light. Krause begins his hike back to his car, still frustrated by the continued onslaught of jet noise.
As he drives back to Glen Ellen, he pops in a cassette of his favorite band -- the Austin Lounge Lizards, a satirical country band with sharp, witty lyrics. As he rips around corners in his SUV, he laughs aloud at some of the songs, and sings along.
He pulls over at a roadside cafe in Glen Ellen and orders waffles and a cup of coffee while he waits for his wife Kat to arrive.
A few minutes later, Kat comes hurrying in, wearing her standard uniform of jean overalls and a T-shirt. But on top of her overalls this morning, she wears a blazer that seems to betray her former life as a city slicker who worked in advertising. Kat says that just like Krause, she has been transformed by her exposure to natural sound recording. As time has passed, she has developed her own sensibility about sound, creating an organization dedicated specifically to preserving silence called Quiet Down America.
After Kat settles in and orders coffee, she and her husband begin philosophizing about the importance of listening instead of hearing, as they often have during their 10 years together.
"When I lead trips to Alaska, people always come away with something transforming," Krause says. "Whatever they hear transforms them, it never fails to be an epiphany. I have never seen anyone put on the headphones [to listen to natural sound] and [failed to] see their face light up."
"The idea is that sound seems to offer physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits," Kat adds.
"How has it impacted you?" Krause asks Kat, suddenly.
"It's changed the way I make choices in my daily life," she says, slowly choosing her words. "I have a stronger and more profound sense of what is divine about life. It has restored my sense of responsibility for others. I don't feel as separated from others. Exposure to a heightened perception of the living, breathing world has done that.
"What do you think, Bernie? You used to be a cigar-smoking, hip-suit-wearing producer. Now you're a mild-mannered musician."
"Natural sound is all I need to feel good, to feel alive, to feel connected," Krause responds. "It doesn't help me with human beings. It pisses me off to be part of a race that diminishes the world and makes it less vital. It doesn't make me proud of who we are. The noise of the human world diminishes me because I feel stressed within it. It drains me of life, and yet the natural world is full of great surprises. We have no reverence for it. I do."
Krause, the pope of biophony, takes the pulpit: "I can't imagine a religion that humans have put together in its infinite wisdom that comes close to the experience I feel when I'm in the natural world."
"But the idea isn't that I want to hush everyone up," Kat says, thinking aloud. "I just want people to have choices and access quiet if they want to."
"Well, I want them to shut the fuck up," Krause interjects, as Kat laughs.
"Don't you think it should be more gentle?" she asks kindly.
"Cut to the chase," Krause responds, turning to look at her wryly. "Don't pussyfoot around those jerks. In four words, I have put it where it needs to be: Shut the fuck up."