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'The First Sounds Ever Heard on Earth': A Conversation With Soundscape Artist Bernie Krause

07/04/2013 09:17 pm ET | Updated Sep 03, 2013

Like most pioneers, both literal and figurative, cutting-edge soundscape artist Bernie Krause spent a long time laying the groundwork for what has become widespread success. In the case of this sound engineer, coming to mainstream recognition has involved extensive time spent experimenting with technology and listening to nature. While we might not automatically consider these two activities to be complementary, the resulting work is fascinating. Timely and interdisciplinary, simultaneously bold and intricate, Bernie's work exists at an intersection of technology, design, and nature that he has energetically fashioned himself.

Bernie has long been an innovator in the field of music and sound recording. He began his career in the 1960s as an electronic musician and synthesizer player with the likes of The Doors and Stevie Wonder. In the late '60s and onward, his focus shifted to recording and researching natural soundscapes throughout the world in a technologically advanced and thoughtful way. In 1968, Bernie founded Wild Sanctuary, an organization that exists to archive the sounds of pristine environments globally.

In June, I had the opportunity to hear Bernie speak at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh, and after the conference, we had a wide-ranging conversation regarding our mutual interests in education, technology, and the artistic process. Specifically, we discussed his evolution as an avant-garde artist, as well as the human evolution as both listeners and music makers.

Laura Cococcia: You responded to and began creating music at a very early age. What are some of your first memories of playing music and of the joys of creating sound?

Bernie Krause: Because I don't see very well, my world is primarily informed through what I hear. There was always some limited kind of classical music on the radio in the house when I was growing up in the 1940s in the Midwest. And, most importantly, there were the bird, insect and frog soundscapes coming from the fields outside my bedroom window, the fields that surrounded our house before the Detroit building boom late into the Second World War destroyed them. Those were the signature ambient sounds I heard passively. Then I discovered that I could create my own acoustic environment, beginning with violin early in my life. Composition followed, and later, as a teenager, guitar. It was always fun to elicit a positive listener response from a well-played musical line.

Cococcia: The 1960s were an incredible time to be making avant-garde music, and you were at the forefront of electronic music during its formative years. Was there anything you learned about the artistic process then that was ahead of its time?

Krause: The synthesizer, which my late music partner, Paul Beaver, and I helped introduce to the fields of pop music and film, freed composers and musicians to explore beyond Western academic and popular musical genres. The synthesizer brought us back to the roots of sonic structure. Synthesizers, like the Moog, required programmers and performers to have at least a passing understanding of audio building block fundamentals, especially if we wanted to create, say, a violin, trumpet, clarinet, a percussive or even a helicopter sound. Once we had that knowledge, we learned to organize our material more organically, kind of like things happen in natural world environments. We reinstated structures that had been lost in our effort to be more culturally avant-garde. In fact, we needed to be more derrière-garde to actually move forward.

Cococcia: Much of your recent work has centered on soundscapes. Can you expand on the soundscape concept and talk about what goes into creating one?

Krause: The soundscape concept, and the word, was brought into the lexicon in the late 1970s by a Canadian composer and naturalist, R. Murray Schafer. When he first proposed it, the word meant all of the sound that reaches our ears -- from whatever source. In my field, soundscape ecology, the definition needed to be a bit more precise, so I, with the help of colleague Stuart Gage, divided Schafer's idea into three basic sources. The first is the geophony, the non-biological sources that spring from naturally wild habitats, such as the effect of wind in the trees, water in a stream, waves at the ocean shore, movement of the Earth. Geophonic sounds are likely the first sounds ever heard on Earth. The second component is the biophony, the collective and organized sounds produced by organisms in a given habitat at a given time of day, night, or season. And the third is made up of all the sounds we humans produce; it's called anthrophony. Some of this is controlled sound, like music, theater, or language. But a far larger percentage of human-produced sound is chaotic or incoherent, referred to by many of us as "noise." The special and quantifiable relationships between all of these sources gives us wonderful tools by which to measure the health of habitats in very efficient and precise ways across the entire spectrum of life.

Cococcia: What is your favorite natural setting to record in, and why?

Krause: That would be a location that is relatively noise-free and as far away from human endeavor as possible. That said, my wife and I live an hour north of San Francisco, in a rural area. Twenty minutes from our house there are habitats where I can record for an hour or more without interruption, and a dozen or more habitats within a 90-minute drive.

Cococcia: Figuratively and literally, what do you think the relationship is between music created by humans and the sounds we hear in nature?

Krause: Originally, when humans lived much more closely connected to the natural world around them, there was an explicit and direct connection between the forest sounds and music. As we became more isolated from the natural sources of our lives, though, our music (along with language and other cultural expressions) reflected that shift by becoming more insular and self-referential. A few remaining groups, however, like the Ba'Aka from the Central African Republic, actually consider the biophonies of the rain forests around them as a natural karaoke orchestra with which they sing and dance. No distinction is made between the music of the forest and that which they perform. The link is direct and profound.