The Sound of Extinction without the Sound of Humans? Bernie Krause, Soundscape Ecology, and "Natural" Soundscapes in the Anthropocene

B. Ricardo Brown

February 07, 2020

"A picture is worth a thousand words, but a natural soundscape is worth a thousand pictures"

—Bernie Krause, Voices of the Wild

Not so very long ago, when I was studying ecology the sounds of a habitat or ecosystem were considered to be relatively unimportant. Unless one was studying birds or mammals, sound was something less than an afterthought. It was literally noise, something that interfered with or distracted from one's work and so mostly ignored. Almost all of the field methods we learned were based on visual observation.

Around the same time, friends were listening to In a Wild Sanctuary by Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause. Krause had begun his career as a member of the folk band the Weavers, and soon made an unlikely transformation into an experimental electronic musician, popularizing the new Moog synthesizer while making his own field recordings. In 1967, Beaver and Krause released The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music and soon after released In a Wild Sanctuary which was one of the first serious albums of synthesizer based electronic music and field recordings, most of which had been recorded by Krause.1 The reaction to these tracks was mixed, with some friends finding the sound of nature – which, ironically, were ever present in the Berkshire hills – to be annoying. When the natural sounds came through the stereo speakers, we either like or disliked it, but in our everyday life we often ignored these sounds of the Berkshire forest just as we ignored the rumble, dust and pops of a favorite LP, or the hiss of the cassette tape.2

Krause has been central to the emergence of soundscape studies and soundscape ecology. Aided by changes in technology, especially miniaturization and digital recording, field work became less physically demanding. Improvements in microphones and recording techniques, the reemergence of amateur or "citizen science" and concerns about environmental and climate change all contributed to interest in soundscape ecology and to the recognition of the potential contributions of soundscape to understanding biodiversity and documenting environmental change.

Every place in the world sounds unique. These soundscapes tell us a story about that place. They tell us the ways in which global warming is beginning to change the natural soundscape…. We are beginning to lose these soundscapes because the habitats are just changing to radically and we are partly to blame for that.3

Krause's soundscape studies often focused on pristine or wild habitats, recording the effects as they are disturbed or disrupted by human activity. Krause is deeply critical of the early ornithologists who sought to isolate the sound of a single bird or species from the soundscape itself, thus giving us no historical knowledge of their habitats, only "fractured and incongruous acoustic signatures – distorted snapshots of solo animals in a kind of bioacoustic zoo."4

Beaver & Krause, “In A Wild Sanctuary,” Warner Bros. Records, WS 1850, 1970.

It was important to go beyond the focus on single individuals or species without falling into the error of taking the bioacoustic signature of a habitat as chaos or mere noise. Soundscape ecology introduces us to new ways of thinking about and listening to the environment. With Stuart Gage, Krause developed a scheme to describe soundscapes using "the three primary acoustic sources that make up a typical soundscape":

Geophony or the sounds produced by the earth that do not have a direct biological origin, such as "water in a stream, waves on a beach."
Biophony or "the collective sounds produced by all living organisms in a particular biome."
And appropriately for our time, the Anthropophony or "all the sounds we humans generate."

To sort out this tangle of sounds, Ruth Happel and Krause introduced the concept of "acoustic niche": species occupy physical niches in an ecosystem and the acoustic qualities of that niche are crucially important to understanding their relations. What had been chaotic background noise now emerges as an organized and highly structured soundscape, with each species occupying or vying for a unique "acoustic niche" often against a background of constant human generated sound. Listening to soundscape in terms of "acoustic niches" allows us to understand how each species having "evolved to vocalize within a specific bandwidth – based on either frequency or time…. so that their utterances are not buried by other sounds."5 This allows us to use sound to map a habitat's biodiversity and ecological relationships.

We are getting far beyond the old "distorted snapshots of solo animals in a kind of bioacoustic zoo."

For Krause, biophony and geophony constitute the natural soundscape. His ten year study of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is a stark documentation of environmental change. Listening to his archive, one can hear the disappearance of species after species and the forest growing more quiet each year.6 As one commentator put it, "listen for yourself, the rising silence speaks volumes." Other examples drawn from Krause's several long term studies of soundscapes charting the acoustic signatures of environmental change and disruption can be found on the site for Voices of the Wild or heard on the several videos of talks he has given in recent years in his efforts to raise awareness of the importance of soundscape ecology and preservation of natural soundscapes.7

Krause's concerns are also driven by the fact that his own work confronts the same disruptions by anthropophony and climate change as the soundscapes he has sought to document and preserve.

Krause notes that is it increasingly difficult to record natural soundscapes because the anthopophony is everywhere. He has estimated that half of his vast archive of field recordings and soundscapes are of extinct soundscapes and devastated landscapes. His 1998 record Distant Thunder, of the approach of a thunderstorm in the forests of Belize, would now be impossible to record without the intrusion of the anthropophonic sounds of aircraft.

Moreover, he and his wife Katherine experienced the effects of climate change when they lost their home, cats, possessions, and almost their lives in the climate-change fueled October 2017 California wildfires:

The whole hillside near our house had burst into flames, almost like spontaneous combustion. I only had time to make sure my wife could make it to the car…. The road was completely on fire. We drove through a wall of flames and were lucky enough to get out…. I lost all my recording equipment and my guitar, which I used when I replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers…."8

Also lost was the entire archive of original soundscapes that he had collected over sixty years. Fortunately, Krause had the forethought and resources to preserve backups of all of his recordings in storage in off-site locations in the US and Europe.

There are critics, too. Within the expanding world of soundscape ecology and soundscape studies, his work has been subject to critiques around distinctions between sound and noise, and even the idea of a pristine soundscapes. His rejection of anthropophony as both "unnatural" and something to be excluded from field recordings has brought Krause criticism from other recordists. The "sound of extinction" and the "soundscape of the anthropocene" are one and the same, these critics contend. Much as Krause criticized the early ornothologists for isolating the single sound from the soundscape, so too do these critics argue that Krause's exclusion of anthropophonic sounds no longer captures what has become our "natural" soundscape.19 Just as it is impossible to escape plastic, so to is there no refuge from the sound of human society.10

Bernie Krause and Paul Beaver using a Moog synthesizer in the late 1960s.

Of course, the complexity and depth of Krause's work and the dialog with his critics will certainly move the field in new directions as the effects of the Anthropocene are now obvious in everyday life. One should not overstate the significance of this dispute, since it is a normal aspect of inquiry and critique. Ironically, Beaver and Krause's In a Wild Sanctuary was not only important in the history of electronic music, but anticipates the soundscape of the Anthropocene by purposely blending natural soundscapes and anthropophony.

In a Wild Sanctuary was the first album, or, for that matter, piece of music, that included the natural soundscape as a component of orchestration. Also, its theme was ecology. The only challenging aspect was going out into the natural world to record. It was a place completely foreign to me and one in which Paul would not even deign to venture. So I was both terrified and exhilarated at the same time. But it was an epiphany for me in that the experience transformed my life to what I'm doing now – recording and archiving natural soundscapes from both terrestrial and marine habitats worldwide…. We spent a month walking around the San Francisco area with a portable stereo tape recorder taking in sounds of streams, birds, people and animals at the zoo, and machinery'….late one night, while hunched over the cable car tracks in the middle of a Telegraph Hill street recording the rhythmic 'clicks' of the cable under the roadbed, a man came up from behind and scared me nearly to death. 'What are you doing?,' he inquired. I told him I was collecting sounds for an album in process and might use the cable clicks as a rhythm or effects track… Turned out he was Frank Oppenheimer, brother of the late J. Robert, and founder of… the Exploratorium. He was famous for wandering around the hills of SF late at night smoking and cogitating. As a result, I was invited to create one of the first sound exhibits at the new facility.11

There is also a profound sense of loss that pervades Krause's work. Those who know only the present soundscape cannot know the experience of living through the transformation. The difficulty of recording natural soundscapes means that we cannot avoid recording the effects of the Anthropocene. The soundscape of a natural world may be something that only exists on recordings and in the memories of those who remain from that time – an archive of the sounds of a lost world.12 The ruins of his own home are a starkly moving monument to the Anthropocene.

Concerns about soundscapes and soundscape ecology are appearing in politics. A proposal to allow offshore drilling along the South Carolina coast has brought together a broad coalition in opposition. At the center of the controversy has been the effects of seismic cannons on marine life. The issue helped propel Democrat and marine engineer Joe Cunningham into the House of Representatives, where he recently used a 120-decibel airhorn to demonstrate how "extremely disruptive and loud" seismic testing would be for marine mammals after an administration official testified that its effects would be minimal, asking the dismayed official, "Does that sound disruptive to you?" and noting that "seismic air guns were 16,000 times louder than his air-horn"13

Krause advocacy for the preservation of natural soundscapes is supported by a recent field study. Researchers detected substantial behavioral changes in a variety of animals in response to fear induced by the presence of human sounds in natural habitats: the sound of the human voice alone is disruptive to natural habitats. "Human speech, in areas rarely visited by people, were terrifying to even mountain lions, the state's apex predator."14 The justified "pervasive fear of humans" and the responses of wildlife to the sound of our voices suggests that even when we think of ourselves as retuning or communing with Nature, we may also be contributing to "widespread restructuring of wildlife communities."15 A reminder that one should consider keeping a respectful "tumultuous silence for all sound"16 on the next hike, camping trip to the Adirondacks, or in the management of public and private wilderness lands.

Krause often ends his talks by reminding us that soundscapes give us a means to experience nature that is more than just visual observation, and one that is vital to our efforts to preserve biodiversity and natural physical and acoustic spaces.

"Where environmental sciences have typically tried to understand the world from what we see, a much fuller understanding can be got from what we hear. Biophonie and geophonie are the signature voices of the natural world, and as we hear them we're endowed with a sense of place, the true story of the world we live in. In a matter of seconds, a soundscape reveals much more information from many perspectives, from quantifiable data to cultural inspiration. Visual capture implicitly frames a limited frontal perspective of a given spatial context, while soundscapes widen that scope to a full 360 degrees, completely enveloping us.17

B. Ricardo Brown is a sociologist and Professor of Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute.

  1. As distinct from, for example Brian Eno's Lantern Marsh or Late Anthropocene 2, which are entirely electronic. Jon Hassell's Dream Theory in Malaysia, with Eno as a collaborator, follows Breaver and Krause in blending natural and electronic sounds. The use of water as percussion can be heard in later works like Mercan Dede's Dreams of the Sufi Saints, Walking on the Red Sea

  2. And we will not dwell on the then already extinct mechanical sounds of the 8-track tape decks, which was impossible to ignore. 

  3. Recording The Sound of Extinction https://youtu.be/KnpsMG0PWRY 

  4. Bernie Krause. 2015. Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes. Yale University Press, 36-37. 

  5. Krause, Voices, 39-40. Happel's own recording Loons of Echo Pond is an excellent example of her applying this concept in the field to describe the soundscape of Echo pond in the Adirondacks. Ruth Happel. 1998. Loons of Echo Pond. Wild Sanctuary/Miramar. https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/products/loons-of-echo-pond 

  6. Allen-Price, Olivia. October 24, 2014. "Listen Closely As This California Forest Falls Eerily Quiet Over 10 Years." WQED. https://www.kqed.org/news/10344190/where-have-all-the-birds-gone-listen-as-a-california-forest-grows-quiet-over-time 

  7. Bernie Krause. Recordings for Voices of the Wild. https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300206319/voices-wild. Recent video talks: For example, "Bernie Krause: The Voice of the Natural World." https://youtu.be/uTbA-mxo858 See also: "Surrounded by Soundscapes: Charles Amirkhanian, Bernie Krause, Walter Murch. Composer Charles Amirkhanian, soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause, and film editor and sound designer Walter Murch consider the environmental implications and artistic possibilities of aural landscapes and ambient sounds." https://youtu.be/_kXunfOQ_A0 

  8. Jones, Kevin L. 11 October 2017. "Bernie Krause's Equipment, Decades of Musical Memorabilia Lost in Fires." KQED Arts. https://www.kqed.org/arts/13811269/bernie-krauses-equipment-decades-of-musical-memorabilia-lost-in-fires 

  9. For example: van Horne, Paulus. "Soundscapes In Crisis: A Love/Break-up Letter to Acoustic Ecology." https://soundcloud.com/paulus-van-horne/soundscapes-in-crisis-a-lovebreak-up-letter-to-acoustic-ecology ; "Costing The Earth: Acoustic Ecology" https://soundcloud.com/bbcr4costingtheearth/acoustic-ecology; Camara Miller. "Documentary - A Short History Of Acoustic Ecology." https://soundcloud.com/camaramiller/a-short-history-of-acoustic-ecology 

  10. "Microplastics 'significantly contaminating the air', scientists warn." The Guardian. 14 Aug 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/microplastics-found-at-profuse-levels-in-snow-from-arctic-to-alps-contamination 

  11. Unterberger, Richie. "Liner Notes for Beaver & Krause In A Wild Sanctuary." http://www.richieunterberger.com/sanctuary.html 

  12. Krause's call to preserve natural soundscapes has echoes of E. O. Wilson's Half-Earth proposal, see https://www.half-earthproject.org/ 

  13. Washington Post_. March 8, 2019. "Rep. Cunningham blows airhorn in seismic testing hearing…. to demonstrate the 'extremely disruptive and loud' nature of seismic air gun testing to whales." https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/rep-cunningham-blows-airhorn-in-seismic-testing-hearing/2019/03/08/87741c95-bc90-402b-ac1e-82c8d69c89ea_video.html Guardian News. March 9, 2019. "Congressman blasts Trump official with air-horn in committee hearing." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnvSM3WAwdg 

  14. Housman, Justin. August 13, 2019. "Our Voices Alone Can Frighten Animals and Change Entire Ecosystems." Adventure Journal. https://www.adventure-journal.com/2019/08/how-simply-talking-while-can-disturb-animals-and-change-entire-ecosystems/ See also: Shannon, Graeme. December 17, 2015. See also: "How noise pollution is changing animal behaviour. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-noise-pollution-is-changing-animal-behaviour-52339 

  15. Suraci, Justin P. Michael Clinchy, Liana Y. Zanette, and Christopher C. Wilmers. 2019. "Fear of humans as apex predators has landscape-scale impacts from mountain lions to mice." _ Ecology Letters. _ https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ele.13344 

  16. Thoreau, Henry David. 1863. "A Walk to Wachusett." Excursions. Boston: Ticknor and Fields. https://archive.org/details/excursions1863thor2/page/72 

  17. "Bernie Krause: The Voice of the Natural World." TED. https://youtu.be/uTbA-mxo858 


B. Ricardo Brown, "The Sound of Extinction without the Sound of Humans? Bernie Krause, Soundscape Ecology, and "Natural" Soundscapes in the Anthropocene," Enviro-History.com, February 07, 2020, http://Enviro-History.com/sound-of-extinction.html.