For his first nature recording, back in 1967, Bernie Krause took a couple of microphones and a reel-to-reel recorder into Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco, expecting to hear a few birds. “I turned on that recorder, and the soundscape opened up for me,” he told an audience of Dolby employees in San Francisco during a recent visit.
“The sound impact on me was so great and I felt so relaxed and so calmed by it that I decided somehow or other I was going to try to figure out a way to do this for the rest of my life.”
Krause was no stranger to the power of sound. He had worked as a jazz guitarist in Motown and replaced Pete Seeger when the folksinger left the Weavers. In addition, with fellow musician Paul Beaver, he had helped pioneer the use of the Moog synthesizer, playing on albums by Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, the Byrds, and the Doors, among others.
Beaver and Krause’s 1968 album, The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, helped introduce new sounds to the public. The pair recorded In a Wild Sanctuary for Warner Bros. in 1968 and 1969, creating what Krause calls “the first album on the theme of ecology and also the first album ever to use natural sound as a component of orchestration.”
Since then, Krause has worked on films, earned a PhD in marine bioacoustics, recorded dozens of albums, and written several books, including The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. “In any habitat that’s still wild,” he explained, “the animals are vocalizing in relation to one another like instruments in an orchestra—some of it cooperative, some of it competitive—but those relationships are always there.”
Describing himself as a person with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, he said, “one of the things that really centered me was being able to sit there for long periods of time and record and really be quiet and just listen to the sounds around.”
Krause revisits some locations over time, capturing changes in the soundscape. For more than 25 years, he has recorded at Lincoln Meadow in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, a site where a company planned to do some selective logging in 1988. During his Dolby presentation, Krause played a recording of the meadow’s sounds before the logging, illustrating the 15-second audio clip with a spectrogram that showed birdsong in higher frequencies and stream movement in lower frequencies.
A photo of the meadow in 1989 shows little change after the logging—“not a stick or tree out of place,” he said—but that year’s recording and spectrogram tell a different story: the bursts of birdsong from the “before” clip are gone, though the gurgling of the stream remains, and the rat-tat-tat of a woodpecker. “Immediately, in 15 seconds, you can tell whether a habitat is doing well or is under stress or dying.”
“Our ear doesn’t lie,” Krause explained. “I like to say to my students, ‘While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.’”
Field recording has changed a lot since Krause made his first foray into Muir Woods. “In 1967, I would have to take 180 to 190 pounds of equipment into the field.” That equipment might include a Nagra IVS reel-to-reel recorder, magnetic tape (at 1 pound per reel), and 12 D-cell batteries for every 5 hours of recording time.
“I can go into the field for a month now with 10 pounds of equipment,” he said. Current favorites are a pair of Sennheiser MS MKH 30/40 or Schoeps Double MS mics, a hydrophone for underwater recording, a portable digital recorder, and 30 meters of cable.
His current project is to provide soundscapes for The Great Animal Orchestra, an orchestral work in collaboration with composer Richard Blackford (inspired by Bernie’s recent book of the same name) to premiere at the Cheltenham Music Festival on July 12.