The Biophilic Cities team recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Bernie Krause, former composer/musician and author of The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. Dr. Krause is an author, naturalist & public speaker exploring the world of soundscape ecology, bioacoustics & natural sound. Known as one of the world’s leading experts on natural sound, E.O. Wilson says of Dr. Krause: “…his originality, research and above all basic knowledge of the sound environments in nature are impressive.” Learn more (and hear some nature sounds!) on Dr. Krause’s Wild Sanctuary Website: http://www.wildsanctuary.com.

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Bernie Krause
Image Source: KALW Local Public Radio

What first drew you to “natural” or “wild” sounds?

I don’t see very well. So my world is mostly informed by what I hear. Hence an early professional music career, later – after 1979 – focused entirely on bioacoustics, and now, the new field of soundscape ecology. More concise detail can be found between pages 13 – 17 in my recent book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places.

In your book, you describe how when first recording natural sounds in San Francisco, you discovered that an audio recording device is a tool for learning to listen. How might this lesson influence connections between people and nature in cities?

When I speak with urban 3rd and 4th grader students, I give them an assignment to record the American robin because it is so ubiquitous. They go out recording and bring back the sounds of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, straight-piping cycles, aircraft, and almost no robins. We listen to what’s been recorded and they’re astonished at how much noise there is in their environments. I tell them to go out, again, until they find and record just the robin’s voice. Given the hint that they probably have to get up early to do that, they begin to get the idea of what’s acoustically present in their environment. Then they’re asked what they would do to make the voice of the robin more accessible. All part of a critical thinking course.

What sort of wild/natural sounds are you able to capture in cities?

Well, there is an element of natural soundscapes that occurs within cities because, for example, there are birds that are able to adjust to the noise that is present in those environments, and occasionally a frog and some insects. But for the most part, from my perspective anyway, and in particular in North American cities, where there is no control over the sound and noise levels, and I’d say that we’re faced with a real problem. In terms of sounds you are able to capture, it depends on the season and the time of day or night. Sometimes you can capture birds or a cricket, but mostly, it’s too noisy. Something else to consider when seeking natural sounds is time of day; there are windows of opportunity, what a colleague of mine calls “noise-free intervals” that you can get to. I’m just writing an article for the New York Times on that very subject, where if it’s early enough in the day and a remote enough habitat, I know that I’m going to be able to record there with maybe one interruption in an hour.

What do you think we might be able to do to protect and enhance natural sounds in cities?

We have to shut the hell up. We have to be much more quiet. And then we’ll hear the lovely acoustic fabric that we dream about. There are locations in North America that I know that are beginning to incorporate that noise-free model a little bit. One of them is Vancouver, because they have made Stanley Park a place where one can actually visit and hear moments of natural sound. The EU has a proactive model for regulating noise levels. Whether or not they are successful is a matter of opinion. But for me, at least there is a model there that addresses the issue and many cities in Europe tend to be quieter. In Germany and France, for example, the EU has implemented regulations that enforce “not to exceed” levels at night and during the day. Germany is also trying to quiet down their parks, urban parks in particular.

Just as every city has its own particular flora, fauna, natural ecosystems – is it possible that we might be able to identify unique urban natural soundscapes, that might be something that people could celebrate and be proud of?

The short answer is yes. And the reason for that is that every place, because of its geography and the layout of the landscape, vegetation, and physical structures has its own unique sound signature. And every block or so is going to have a different kind of acoustic signature depending on the multiple permutations of weather. Every place on the planet has its own soundscape signature. 

What do you think about natural sounds, bird sounds, being used as recorded sounds as they are sometimes in airports and in urban built environments. Is that productive?

It depends on two things. The most important issue is the environment in which these installations are created. A successful sound design will be in consonance with the environment that surrounds us. If these installations are competing with lots of other noise, such as PA announcements, or other human noise, then they will just add to the complex noise level. However, if the acoustics of the space can be controlled, then these programs can be installed beneficially. Natural soundscapes can be really healing. But it would have to be a really good delivery system and the right kind of environment. Otherwise there will just be a cognitive disconnect. A few years ago we proposed a study, which was never completed, with Harvard’s Institute for Music and Brain Science. It was predicated on the assumption that natural sound could be utilized as an effective palliative. We were looking at weaning people off of heavy pain medication and asthmatics. If all of those elements are balanced and in place, the early indications were that it could be really really helpful.

How can recording and disseminating wild/natural sounds stimulate and enhance the lives and imaginations of city dwellers of all ages?

By truly helping to reduce the stress in our lives through re-connection to aspects of the natural world. Because sound is physical, natural soundscapes are the best place to begin that process.

Post by Julia Triman