Eighty-three-year-old Bernie Krause – a pivotal force in early electronic music, and an acclaimed bioacoustician – has been recording soundscapes in the natural world since 1968; 5000 hours of differing and distinctive cacophonies of animal voices captured from the subarctic peaks of south-western Alaska to the depths of the Amazon.
But with the consequences of global warming having a profound effect on both natural habitats and wildlife, a lot of the recordings captured by the soundscape ecologist in earlier years sound vastly different today – a sonic measure of the impact of human endeavour.
“Over 50 percent of my archive comes from habitats now either altogether quiet, or so radically altered that the biophonies can no longer be heard in any of their original condition,” says Krause.
In 2016, Krause’s recordings became part of an immersive seven- part exhibition The Great Animal Orchestra – a name inspired by the bioacoustician’s 2012 book of the same name. UK-based collective United Visuals jumped on board to transpose Krause’s audio data into three-dimensional neon spectographs, which dance before visitors inside a blacked-out theatre.
“It plays like a fast-action movie and, at the same time, expresses the wonder of seven different marine and terrestrial habitats at the moment they were at their most robust and vibrant states,” says Krause.
Commissioned by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, the exhibition has made its Australian debut at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, titled rīvus, where it will remain until 13 June 2022.
As we go to print, prodigious and unrelenting rainfall is battering Australia’s eastern states at a magnitude never experienced in record keeping times (and just two years since the country experienced catastrophic fires with an estimated 1.25 billion animals – mammals, birds and reptiles – impacted.) Yes, life on the land in this country has always been challenging, but the last few years have delivered one state of emergency after another, have tested the resilience of our people, and have pointed to the rising costs of a warming planet.
Krause’s time machine back to the natural world we’re choosing to part with couldn’t be timelier.
GRAZIA: Can you describe one of the most interesting, remote locations you’ve recorded in? What did it sound like, and what made this spot so special?
BERNIE KRAUSE: Alaska has always been my totem place to explore and to record natural sound. A state three times the size of France, it has a population of just under 750,000. Its coastline covers 10,686 kilometres with an interior that embraces temperate to arctic climates including coastal rainforest regions to tundra. It’s really a remarkable segment of the Earth where, in places, it’s still truly wild. By wild, I’m reminded of ecologist Bill McKibben’s definition: It’s a place where one can walk for a week in any direction and never hit a road or a fence. It’s a place void of rangers eager to tell visitors about the lifecycle of a caribou. And, best of all, it’s a place where there’s nothing to buy. But climate change and global heating is having a profound affect on both habitats and wildlife.
GRAZIA: Why did you decide to move from working as a musician and acoustician in studio, to soundscape ecology?
KRAUSE: With music, I was always working in enclosed studios – places without windows and links to the outside world. At first it was a fantastic ego trip, contributing synth tracks to the work of many well-known artists. But something was wrong; the whole process felt claustrophobic and limited to me. I was suffering from what American author, Richard Louv calls, “Nature
Deficit Disorder.” In 1979, after being fired eight times from the Apocalypse Now sound stage (I synthesised the helicopter effects and programmed about one-third of the score), I quit music, went back to school, and earned my PhD in Creative Sound Arts with an internship in marine bioacoustics (the study of captive and wild orca vocalisations), and never looked back.
GRAZIA: Tell us about The Great Animal Orchestra – what inspired you to begin this project?
KRAUSE: Originally a book which went on to be translated into seven languages, a French anthropologist had read the book and passed it onto his friend, Hervé Chandès, the Director of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. He, in turn, reached out to me with the idea of creating a large format work of sound art supported by streaming spectrograms (graphic illustrations of sound). Working closely with Chandés’ team over the course of 18 months, we produced a 90-minute work that plays like a fast-action movie and, at the same time, expresses the wonder of seven different marine and terrestrial habitats at the moment they were at their most robust and vibrant states.
The work’s Paris debut was in the spring of 2016. It has since been shown at the Triennale di Milano in Milan, the 180 The Strand Gallery in London, the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, and the Museum of Art in Seoul. In November of 2021, it opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts.
GRAZIA: What can Australians expect when they get to experience the exhibition?
KRAUSE: My idea of art is to create performances of wonder, ones I most want others to hear and see manifest in this world. These biophonies are narratives of place and time without cultural bias. They’re the original life-affirming stories open to all. Everyone who attends and truly listens will feel somehow blessed by these voices of the divine. Being in their presence is always magical to me.
GRAZIA: Interestingly, the collective sound of all the organisms in the majority of the seven segments in The Great Animal Orchestra don’t exist all together anymore. What has been the response from people when they’ve realised this?
KRAUSE: What is radically changing as a result of human endeavour is the density and diversity of biophonic expression. Since 1970, in North America, for example, the avian population has dropped by an estimated three billion. That’s a huge shift, one that is prominently and measurably reflected in soundscape expression.
Here’s another statistic: over 50 percent of my archive, begun in 1968, comes from habitats now either altogether quiet, or so radically altered that the biophonies can no longer be heard in any of their original condition.
GRAZIA: You’ve been doing this for 54 years now, which is so incredible. What’s one poignant lesson you have learnt?
KRAUSE: I’ve learned to shut the hell up, put the smart phones and computer screens away, and get out into spaces where I can explore the power of tranquility. (The Power of Tranquility in a Very Noisy World, LittleBrown/Hachette 2021 is the title of my most recent book!) Keep in mind that the further we draw away from the natural world as a culture, the more pathological we become. Don’t believe that? Just watch the news.
GRAZIA: As a young man starting out, you’ve said you found it difficult to stand still for longer than a minute. For people entering the installation (and subsequently going back out into the world), what’s your advice for them in being better listeners?
KRAUSE: When I was first consciously challenged with the effects of my ADHD, I found that I could only stand still recording for very short periods of time. I desperately wanted to change that behaviour because otherwise I had a lot of editing to do; cutting out shuffling feet, slapping at mosquitos, sniffling and coughing. Little by little, I learned to moderate those actions to the point that when digital recorders appeared in the early aughts, I had learned to sit still without anxiety or stress for hours at a time.
As for advice for others, I’m reminded of a David Bowie aphorism: Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.
GRAZIA: What’s one of the most surprising things readers might not know about what you do?
KRAUSE: The most surprising effect of this work on me is how enriching being in the field recording makes me feel. Because of my lingering ADHD, the experience has been both transformative and restorative. I find the soundscapes instantly relieve the stress and anxiety I carry as a result of life in the urban or rural areas where my wife and I spend a lot of our time. As I’ve aged, I rarely think of the unusual organisms that produce sound. It’s pretty much axiomatic that they all do. So, none of that is shocking, whether its ants singing or viruses generating acoustic signatures.