Apocalypse Here: Bernie Krause’s field recordings sound the alarm

By in Exhibitions, Features





A pivotal figure in early electronic music, Bernie Krause has dedicated his life to recording the Earth’s natural habitats. Dorothy Feaver traces Krause’s journey from Moog sales rep to the mastermind behind the urgent audio-visual artwork, The Great Animal Orchestra.

From Dzanga-Sangha National Park in Central African Republic to Kings Canyon, California, Bernie Krause has drawn on his collection of 5,000 hours of field recordings, painstakingly gathered in remote landscapes over the course of 50 years, to create an epic audio-visual work for the Anthropocene. Shown in the UK for the first time in collaboration with Fondation Cartier Pour L’art Contemporain as part of Other Spaces at 180 The Strand, The Great Animal Orchestra (2016) is interpreted as digital spectrograms by United Visual Artists – the studio known for large-scale light installations, headed by British artist Matthew Clark.

Lush soundscapes of ocean, rainforest and wetlands thrum and build, as visuals creep around the darkened walls of the exhibition space. Psychedelic tints of acid green, blue or red reflect in a pool of water that vibrates at floor level from the sound waves or the slightest of visitors’ movements. The ripples gesture towards Krause’s bigger project as both scientist and sound artist: unlocking the acoustic organisation of numerous ecosystems, in which each animal has a part to play.

A creature of the West Coast, Krause played a pivotal part in shaping the soundtrack for the Summer of Love. As a sales rep for the Moog Synthesiser in the ’60s, he and his business partner, the avant-garde jazz musician Paul Beaver, demonstrated the power of the futuristic instrument to express far-out inner worlds, and influenced a new wave of experimental pop, including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, The Monkees and The Byrds, among many others. Having started with a spot at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Beaver and Krause then released The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music (1968), one of the earliest electronic music compilations, showcasing the Moog as an instrument in its own right by using the modules and the outputs either individually or in unison. Krause went on to use the Moog to create effects for hundreds of film and TV scores, perhaps most memorably with the indelible judder of the helicopters in Apocalypse Now (1976). However, by the end of the seventies, he turned his back on studio work and headed outdoors to focus on field recording.

With the UN’s 2019 warning that there are just 11 years left to limit irreversible damage from climate change, Krause’s commitment to preserving the sounds of nature feels extraordinarily prescient. The archive is a scientific, as much as an artistic, resource. Incrementally, it documents devastating ecological loss, and in doing so has opened up a new field of research – soundscape ecology. He has also devised a theory of sonic creativity, positing that the layered sounds produced by multiple organisms in a natural habitat chime together like an orchestra, and thereby trace the roots of human composition.

Natural soundscapes first appeared in Krause’s music on the album, In A Wild Sanctuary (with Beaver, 1970), where animal sounds and field recordings are mixed with man-made instruments, including the Hammond organ and the Moog. The collaging gives a sense of expanded consciousness, within which snatches of nature commentary drop a bitter hint: “Orangutans are now rare in the wild because of persecution by man…”. Since then, the climate crisis has burned hotter and closer, and Krause’s sound art has grown bigger, more urgent, more poignant.

In 2017, the wildfires in California destroyed his base in Sonoma County (known as ‘Wild Sanctuary’ to the scores of artists and scientists who’d stayed there), along with his notebooks and analogue recordings. Krause and his wife escaped, and so did his archive, digitised and deposited in the Fondation Cartier in Paris just months prior. If the context to The Great Animal Orchestra is desperate, the immersive nature of the installation encourages visitors to take a meditative trip.

Photo: Zhonghai, Orangeimage Studio

The Great Animal Orchestra has been shown in Paris, Milan, Shanghai, Seoul and now London. Have you noticed different reactions on each stage of the tour?

What I have found is how universal this language of the natural world is; it is a narrative that speaks to everybody, whether you are six years old or 86 years old. It crosses cultures. Because there is not much written material in the programme, the only things that people are engaged with are the natural soundscapes and the spectrograms, which are a graphic illustration of what people are hearing. They illustrate what a healthy habitat looks like when the biophony of the habitat – the collective sound produced by all its organisms – is stable. Six of the seven segments in the programme are from extinct habitats. We are not talking about creatures that are extinct, but habitats. They are altogether silent.

Which one of the seven segments represents a surviving habitat?

The oceans, although that’s not representative of a particular habitat. I put together a group of sounds that represent fish, whales, crustaceans, waves at the surface. It is a spectrum of sounds from the ocean when it is healthy. It hasn’t got anything to do with a habitat like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The recordings are from all over – Hawaii, Caribbean, California, Alaska.

Photo: Jack Fulton / insidewildsanctuary.blogspot.com

You have a sweeping perspective on sounds from the natural world, going back decades and spanning continents. How has your appreciation of the urgency of your endeavour changed over that time?

I started recording in 1968. I didn’t realise that I had before-and-after examples of habitats being destroyed until the turn of the millennium. I had something valuable because the baseline material was part of that archive, a point of comparison. Now we can’t get a baseline because things are changing so rapidly. Habitats are under such stress that we cannot go out in the field and expect that what we are hearing is representative of a baseline. Three billion birds have disappeared in North America in the last 50 years. Think about that for a minute. That is a result of habitat loss and global warming.

The renowned primatologist Jane Goodall has said that “The Great Animal Orchestra speaks to us of an ancient music to which so many of us are deaf.” Your work draws attention to these sounds that for the most part we can’t hear in the original any more.

We can hear it in a few remote places, but nowhere is untouched. Humans have been everywhere. These soundscapes represent a proto orchestra: where a habitat is healthy the collective sound – the biophony – is represented with each species of the animal finding its own acoustic territory for bandwidth. In a healthy habitat the insects are at one frequency, the birds at another, and the mammals, the reptiles, the amphibians – they all find their own niche. That is clear from the spectrograms in the show; you can see they are healthy.

As a field recordist, why did you move away from trying to isolate and categorise individual sounds?

Most of the great collections of wildlife sounds are of individual species. There are great collections at Cornell University and the British Library. These represent what I call an abstraction of sound from the natural world, they don’t represent reality. They have categories, which is fine, except when you take them out of context you lose a relationship that is really significant. In The Great Animal Orchestra, we have put them back in a context again. If we want to study the sound of the bird, the software allows us to circle that bird and listen to it by itself from the spectrogram. You don’t have to go out into the field and record individual birds by themselves. It’s way cool.

The spectrograms by United Visual Artists help reveal the natural world as interconnected. How were you involved in the visualisation?

Originally I wanted to do a small format. I imagined a screen at one end of the room and the spectrograms streaming from the technology I have, but it didn’t work for the vision that Matt [Clarke] had, in a much larger format. I resisted it in the beginning. I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, but I learned. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

Did you conceive The Great Animal Orchestra as a work of wonder or of warning?

It evolved from my 2012 book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding The Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. It posits that animals taught us to dance and sing. When we lived closely connected to the natural world, we heard the sounds as an organised collection. We mimicked the ways in which animals organise themselves in relation to one another. We imitated the chimpanzees beating out rhythms on the buttresses of fig trees; we learned melody from birds just as we learned about the organisation of sound from the collective sound produced in any given habitat. Finally, as humans, because we are egotistical, we became so-called composers and musicians, but groups that still live in the rainforest, like the Byaka in the central African republics or the Kakoli in Papua New Guinea, don’t have words for ‘music’, ‘composer’, ‘musician’. They live in harmony with their environment in a way that we don’t even begin to understand.

Do you think that the message about the climate crisis is sinking in?

Not in the US. Ask yourself how much time on the news is devoted to the environment and what Greta Thunberg is talking about. I saved a copy of my archive in the Fondation Cartier, six months before the fires in California in 2017, because the anti-science climate in the US, with our government, is really scary. A lot of colleagues – at the Environmental Protection Agency, at NASA – are getting their data offshore to protect it.

What was the perceived threat?

That it would be attacked and denied funding. That they would change documents. Science is under siege. I got my stuff offshore to protect it because a lot of material was funded by government agencies and I didn’t want it compromised.

Where is your favourite place to record? How has it changed?

My favourite place to record and travel is the Yukon Delta, Alaska, because it’s an area about three times the size of France and there are just 750,000 people there. It has a large coastline. It has fabulous interior habitats. It has subarctic rainforest, boreal forest, tundra, mountain habitats. But Alaska has changed radically. The temperature has gone up by 4 or 5 degrees Celsius, whereas in most places in the world it’s around half a degree. The tundra is melting, certain species of birds are flying way north of Fairbanks, which is smack bang in the middle of Alaska. The indigenous first peoples of Alaska have no name for the bird in their language as the bird is so new.

You’ve been recording the escalating crisis in detail over decades. What keeps you going in the face of it?

I just love doing this. Natural sound and being out in the field is the one thing that makes me feel good and healthy – that’s the reason I’ve done it since the beginning. I have a terrible case of ADHD and the one thing that’s made a difference for me is being out in the field and recording natural sound. If you’re recording you have to be very quiet for long periods of time to capture what’s there. You need to learn patience to be quiet. When I began I could stand for maybe a minute: I was moving around, slapping at mosquitoes, so I had to do a lot of editing, and the editing wasn’t very good. I learned gradually to record for three minutes, then five, then ten, then when digital came along, we were able to record 90 minutes and any number of hours with digital recorders. I learned to be quiet, and be still, and be patient. It made a difference to my health.

The experience of being in the cacophony of the city is over-stimulating. What advice do you have for people to become better listeners?

When we lived closer to the natural world, we sang as part of that animal chorus. We found a niche for ourselves that fitted within that chorus. We imitated rhythms that connected within that chorus. Now we have a disconnect, we are not quite as healthy, vibrant or aware of the world around us. We have to shut the fuck up!

The Great Animal Orchestra is showing as part of Other Spaces at The Store X, 180 The Strand, London WC2R 1EA. Head here for visitor information.

Photos courtesy of Fondation Cartier.