Bernie Krause is a musician and a naturalist. During the 1950s and 60s, he devoted himself to music and replaced Pete Seeger as the guitarist for the Weavers. Along with his music partner, Paul Beaver, he introduced the Moog synthesizer to pop music and film. They performed on over 135 major film scores along with artists such as George Harrison, Van Morrison, and The Doors. For more than forty years, Krause has traveled the world recording and archiving the sounds of over 15,000 species, from creatures and environments. He’s the author of The Great Animal Orchestra (Amazon, Bookshop) and his new book, The Power of Tranquility in a Very Noisy World (Amazon, Bookshop).
Especially because I have a deep love for silence, I couldn’t wait to talk to Bernie about habits, happiness, and the sense of hearing.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Bernie: Saddled with a terrible case of ADHD, the only remedy that’s worked for me over the past 5 decades is heading off into some wild habitat and listening to natural soundscapes, the magical atavistic resonances that those environments provide. They are calming. They are restorative. And they’re life-affirming and energizing—all at the same time.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Even if the answer was singular, it would take too long to express here. But, whatever it is, the answer lies in the conundrum: It’s not so much what we choose to do that makes a difference and leads one to a feeling of happiness. It’s what we choose not to do.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
The most surprising discovery was that it’s the animals who taught us to dance and sing. That we learned melody, rhythm, and the organization of sound (composition)—from the animal world, not from music courses in school or with private tutors. And mainly, it’s from natural soundscapes—those biophonies—that we have begun to re-discover ancient ways to heal from the stresses and anxiety that we’ve let into our lives. Take your choice.
Rid yourself of the noise in your life. You’ll feel better. Learn to welcome the might of peacefulness. In my new book, The Power of Tranquility in a Very Noisy World, I address all of these issues in great detail.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I learned to be quiet and simply listen—especially in natural (or wild) settings. Those are the most healing and spiritual acoustic signals I know of. To me, those are the most sacred spaces of all.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
None of the above. Having learned to thrive with some measure of balance with the rest of the living world, I’ve left the world of fierce human ambition and compartmentalizing far behind and try to just be a good listener, a quiet person—one who has no need to generate much noise about my presence.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Noise. It’s distracting and profoundly unhealthful. (Noise, or chaotic or incoherent signals in whatever medium, provides no useful information. Only interference. When present, our brains exhaust themselves trying to sort out the fragmented, meaningless signals from those that are life-affirming.)
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Yes. The first Warner Brothers album (1968-1970) my late music partner, Paul Beaver, and I were asked to do, was titled In a Wild Sanctuary. It was the first music album on the theme of ecology and, also the first to incorporate natural soundscapes as a component of the orchestration. It meant that I had to go into the woods, somewhere, to record. I was terrified but wanted to get over my fear of the wild. The moment I switched on the recorder and heard the awesome beauty of the natural world in my headphones on that warm October afternoon some 53 years ago the trajectory of my life changed. In an instant, I made the determination to follow that path for the rest of my time on this planet. To me, it was my first experience hearing the true voice of the divine.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Lots of aphorisms.
- “I stand for what I stand on.” (Ed Abbey)
- “The further we draw away from the natural world, the more pathological we become as a culture. Don’t believe that? Just watch the news, or Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, or Snapchat, etc.”
- “Who speaks of victory? To endure is everything.” (Friedrich Nietzsche paraphrase)
- “While a picture is worth a thousand words, a natural soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.”
- “The quieter we are on the outside, the more peaceful we become inside.”
- “The future belongs to those who can hear it coming.” (David Bowie paraphrase)
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Four books, actually: Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring (Amazon, Bookshop), Paul Shepard’s The Others: How Animals Made Us Human (Amazon, Bookshop), R. Murray Schafer’s Tuning of the World (Amazon), and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake (Amazon, Bookshop).
All four (and many, many others) emphasize our humble place within a universe of living organisms. They reflect on what we do to embrace life, and caution us about the devastating course we’re on to completely obliterate it.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
No. When most wisdom-seeking folks get into their 9th decade, hopefully they’ve learned that they pretty much need to stop correcting and expend whatever energies he/she/it/they/them have left by figuring out what not to do.