Bernie Krause: Recording the Sound of Extinction

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endangered kirkland warbler

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It should come as no surprise that, with our current energy and consumption trends, biodiversity on Earth has taken an extreme turn for the worst. Studies the world over have found empirical evidence that species extinction is increasing at an exponential rate; this year alone, an estimated 30,000 species are expected to breathe their last. And we’re seeing the effect of this mass extinction with our own eyes – rainforests are less vibrant, less vigorous, and, for those listening, less noisy.

Bernie Krause, a musician and naturalist, has spent the last four decades recording the ambient sounds of many of earth’s natural habitats. With his collection of sound, he is able to compare the different qualities of an ecosystem across the decades; the results of his research are as silencing as the music. In total, Krause has recorded 15,000 species and compiled 4,500 hours of background noise, all in an effort to remember the squawks and clicks and roars of nature before they become forever silenced by mankind’s development. Across this vast library, he estimates that almost half of his recordings are mere archives – unrepeatable symphonies of sound due to a startling lack of nature’s animal instrumentalists.

Of course, Krause can also use his recording methods to compare across present ecosystems as well. Recording a healthy section of a reef, Krause hears a healthy chaos of sound: the gnashing of teeth, the swishing of tails, the belching of guts and bladders. Animals compete with one another for bandwidth in an attempt to woo mates, scare predators, and find allies. Dead reefs yield a completely different sound – without the presence of life, all Krause hears is the steady beating of the waves and the sparse clicking of snapping shrimp. If sound follows life, then a thorough silence means a thorough lack of life.

As mentioned, some of this silence can be attributed to rapid species extinction. However, it can also be because of our loud societies – the hum and whir and screech of our manmade machines is drowning out the natural sounds of the natural world. This drowned-out silence out is also an indicator of a lack of life. After all, the sounds that animals emit are not created due to some wild and random urge – they are emitted as a method of survival, of finding mates and enemies and allies. Without this method of communication, many animals are left confused, alone, or vulnerable, thus making them more prone to death.

With these sounds (or lack thereof), we can reach the wider public. After all, iPhones and other mp3 players have permeated popular culture, allowing more people than ever to indulge in their favourite sounds wherever they go. As a result, this generation has seen a complete explosion of the music industry; people are able to relate to each other through their favourite bands and their favourite sounds. With Krause’s work with nature’s sounds, perhaps these natural sounds can be used as a medium to reach this music-heavy generation.

  • Jerico Espinas

    Jerico is an English and Creative Writing student at the University of Toronto. He believes strongly in technology’s potential to reverse the damage that’s been done to the environment – if we can only cooperate as a global community! He hopes that, by writing progressive and informed articles, he too can make a difference in his community.

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