Listening skills

Bernie Krause champions the voice of the natural world

"The hills are alive," the old song goes, "with the sound of music." For soundscape ecologist, musician and author Bernie Krause, discovering, preserving and sharing the music of the earth is the work of a lifetime.

On Jan. 17, Krause will give a presentation at Stanford University on sound, from its earliest earthly evolutions to its impact on human culture, and how nature's unique soundscapes are under threat in the modern world.

"I don't see very well. So, my world has been mostly informed by what I hear. When I first became interested in the sonic world nearly eight decades ago, the only outlet and accepted form of expression was through music," Krause said.

He began studying violin at age 3 1/2, switched to guitar in his early teens, served as Pete Seeger's replacement in the seminal folk group the Weavers in the early 1960s, then, with his late musical partner Paul Beaver, helped introduce the synthesizer to pop music and film. He's worked with musical luminaries including Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, George Harrison, David Byrne, Brian Eno and the Doors and contributed to 135 feature films, including "Rosemary's Baby" and "Apocalypse Now."

But it's the call of the wild, and the soundscapes of nature, that truly resonate.

"I felt more fulfilled working in the natural world with animals and sound than any other space," he said.

He's traveled the globe to record, research and archive sounds (his Wild Sanctuary Audio Archive represents more than 5,000 hours of wild soundscapes and 15,000 identified life forms), written several books and released numerous albums. He's also worked with the U.S. National Parks Service and created symphonies, ballet scores and a sound-led fine art exhibition currently on tour in Europe.

Through his fieldwork, Krause developed the Acoustic Niche Hypothesis (ANH), which posits that "in a healthy habitat, organisms vocalize in unique temporal or acoustic relationships to one another, competitively and cooperatively, just like instruments in an orchestra." This natural organization of sounds, he said, was the inspiration for the way humans organize music around the world.

"The structure of music mimics nature. Great apes pounding out rhythms on the buttresses of fig trees, we mimic them. Birds singing melodies in the forest, we mimic them," he said. "That's how we got our music. We didn't learn it at Stanford; we didn't learn it at Juilliard. When we lived more closely to that natural world experience, we had to live in sync with it," he said, adding that the movements of animals also inspired the creation of dance.

"My guess is that when we see things that are magical and wondrous we try to emulate them in ways that we can."

With humans now often disconnected from the natural world, "music today is self-reflected," he said. "We're living in different versions of these huge cathedrals we built in the 12th century in Europe. The only thing we hear back is our own echo off of the stone walls. That's what music is today."

Krause's favorite place to record is Alaska, where a low human population density means there are still wild areas unaffected by human noise and a beautiful range of terrestrial and marine environments.

An ecosystem's soundscapes, he said, are a sign of its health. Distressingly, humankind's continued negative impact on the natural world, including through pollution, habitat destruction and climate change, means many of the soundscapes he's recorded in the past are now lost. Many others are endangered.

Krause has witnessed this firsthand, and on a personal level, with global warming touching most parts of California. In 2015, he said, after years of drought, he experienced his first "silent spring" in his Sonoma County neighborhood, in which the animals ceased their normal songs. "Let me tell you, it's weird," he said. Last year, he and his wife lost their home, beloved cats and all their possessions in the devastating fires that plagued the region.

"We are giving new meaning to the term PTSD," he said, when asked how they are carrying on after the disaster. "Badly, and struggling each day with consequences of the loss."

The Trump administration's apparent lack of interest in protecting the environment -- and often downright hostility to arts and sciences -- has been especially disheartening to Krause and those with whom he works. "It's like 'Fahrenheit 451,'" he said. "That's where we're at. It's been pretty daunting."

What message does he hope others, including his audience at Stanford, will get from his efforts?

"To learn to listen -- to each other and the voice of the natural world, which is crying out for us to pay some attention as the wild habitats become more quiet with each passing day. The further we draw away from the natural world, the more pathological we become as a culture."

What: "Tomorrow Belongs to Those Who Can Hear It Coming: An Evening with Bernie Krause"

Where: CEMEX Auditorium at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, 655 Knight Way, Stanford.

When: Thursday, Jan. 17, at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to Stanford Events.

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