Bernie Krause’s Great Animal Orchestra

The natural sound expert has been travelling the planet to record and archive the cacophony of the natural world since 1968. Listen to – and get the story behind – seven of his unique recordings.

Bernie Krause knows sound. While he has been in the soundscape ecology field for the last 50 years, the trained musician previously contributed to albums for Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and David Byrne, George Harrison and the Doors. He was even instrumental in bringing the synthesizer to pop music in the 1960s.

So when Krause came to bioacoustics in the late 1960s – he counts Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer as an inspiration – he took a different approach than others. Rather than recording the sounds of birds, insects and amphibians individually, he records the “whole symphony of sounds.” “I was one of the few people who established the idea of recording an entire natural soundscape – a whole habitat – because there’s more information there,” Krause says. The information he records is vital in conservation and scientific study; in communicating how habitats are changing. “More than 50 percent of my archive comes from habitats that no longer exist,” he says.

August 27, 2019
Black and white photo of Bernie Krause

Bernie Krause

Through his organization Wild Sanctuary, Krause has recorded more than 5,000 hours of natural habitats, from the Azores to Alaska, picking up at least 15,000 different species. In addition to research, he showcases these sounds through works like The Great Animal Orchestra, Symphony for Orchestra and Wild Soundscapes, which was commissioned by the BBC and premiered in 2014 at the U.K.’s Cheltenham Music Festival, and a 2019 exhibition at the Triennale di Milano, which paired Krause’s sounds with visuals by London-based studio United Visual Artists.

For Krause, there’s nothing like being completely immersed in a sound-filled natural environment: “It’s magic,” he says. “I kind of think of these places that are remote, and still intact, as a church or a mosque or a synagogue – they’re really sacred and holy to me. I can’t imagine any human construct that comes close.”

  1. Humpback whales in Maui, Hawaii “The humpback population of Alaska and Maui spend the winters singing and breeding in Maui, and the summers feeding in Alaska. As part of my PhD in marine bioacoustics in the early 1980s, I went to Maui to learn to record and analyze them. There are probably four or five males in this recording, which was taken with a hydrophone. The songs are very loud – as a matter of fact, they’re so loud that the low frequency sound that some whales produce could travel around the world three or four times if unimpeded by landmass or human noise.”

Humpback whales - Maui, Hawaii 
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  1. Wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario “These recordings are from 2008, in Haliburton Forest at the southern edge of Algonquin. There was a pack of wolves in front of us and a pack of wolves behind us and they were each moving toward the other and we were in the centre. The person I was with was very frightened – ‘Are we okay? Are we okay?’ he said, grabbing my arm, kind of tearing it out of its socket. And I said, ‘Just be cool, we’re fine.’ I couldn’t have been happier: I was getting great sound and it was one of the most exciting moments of my life. There had to be two dozen wolves around us.”

Wolves - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario 
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A mother humpback whale swims with her baby
A wolf howling
   Photos: Guille Pozzi (left); Michael Mazzon (right)
  1. Finches on the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador “We went in 2005 as tourists, not scientists. I really wanted to get away from people and record, so we hired our own guide and I was able to get some good recordings. This one was taken in Scalesia forest. It’s completely inundated by tourists now and there’s never a minute that you can be there without hearing, “Oh look at that, a bird! A tortoise!” In this recording you can hear all kinds of finches: medium and small ground finches, tree finches, Darwin’s finches, cactus finches, as well as yellow warblers.”

Finches - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador 
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  1. Seals in Antarctica “I have been in the Antarctic twice and got blown out by the weather both times, so this recording was done by a colleague of mine named Doug Quin, in 1997. What you’re hearing in this one are two kinds of seals. One is a Weddell seal and the other is a crabeater seal, and they both sound very nonbiological – they sound electronic, like it’s synthesizers creating these noises. The sounds that are long glissandos are from the Weddell seal, while the sounds that are more punctuated are from the crabeater seal.”

Seals - Antarctica 
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A seal sleeps on its back in the snow
The Carpathian Mountains of Romania
   Photos: Henrique Setim (left); Sergiu Gabriel (right)
  1. Birds at dawn on New Zealand’s South Island “These recordings are from the Peel Forest between Christchurch and Dunedin in 1995. It’s a short snippet of a dawn chorus: There are bellbirds, magpies, sparrows, finches and tui.”

Birds at dawn - New Zealand’s South Island 
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  1. An old-growth forest in the Carpathian Mountains, Romania “Two colleagues of mine, Jack Hines and Tom Hull, recorded this in June 2018. They went to the Carpathians as part of a program that my team at Wild Sanctuary is doing in collaboration with the EU environment ministers and the World Wildlife Fund, to try and record the old-growth forests that are left in Europe. In this recording you can hear wood pigeons, nuthatches, chaffinches, great tits, coal tits, tree pipits, wrens, woodlarks, common blackbirds and European nightjars.”

Carpathian Mountains - Romania 
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  1. Frogs and more in the Amazon Basin, Brazil “These recordings were made in 1990, when there was still a lot of Amazon Basin left – it’s changed radically now because of the glut of palm oil [plantations] and mining. In the recording we’ve got probably 30 species of birds: caciques, great potoos, Amazon parrots, toucans, screaming pihas, pauraques, tinamous, tropical screech owls, not to mention bats, jaguars and frog species. And frogs are my favourite by the way, they are the most musical of all.”

Frogs and more - Amazon Basin, Brazil 
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