Environmental sound recording appears to look back on a short history: until the late 1960s is was only practiced by some biologists doing reasearch in acoustic interaction in nature. Understandably enough recording equipment at that time was heavy and prone to technical failure in the field. This changed not only due to developments in sound recording devices but to the release of a comercial record album featuring the „songs“ of humpack whales recorded by researchers Roger and Katy Payne that caught the attention of the wider public. Roger Payne himself wrote the foreword to this introduction into wildlife recording by well known american bioacoustician Bernie Krause who early after Payne’s ground breaking release set the standards in environmental sound recording. Since those days Krause has produced countless high quality albums collecting acoustic environments from around the globe. He claims to have the biggest private library of natural sound recordings counting up to thousands of hours of which the best parts can be purchased through his webpage at Wild Sanctuary.
Krause found his early inspiration in the writing of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” in the 1960s and explored the impact of changes in the soundscape — like urbanization and industrialization — on our perception of the environment. From the necessity to preserve the acoustic diversity of ecosystems the idea of acoustic ecology derived. The trouble is, says Krause, nature’s symphonies are being drowned out by manmade din. “It used to take me 10 to 15 hours to record one hour of useful material,” he says. “Now it takes me 2,000.” Even in remote regions, it has become nearly impossible to hear nature uninterrupted. “I get all sorts of noise. Chain saws. Snowmobiles. Aircraft.”
Krause synthesized two words to express his acoustic concept of the „wild natural“ (he doesn’t like the term nature which is to him an overused and abstract word, intertwined with a tradition that has created an „it/us“ dichotomy): While biophony is a type of soundscape confined to the sounds that organisms generate in a particular habitat, geophony is a soundscape of non-living phenomena, for instance, the sound of streams, storms, wind through trees or across sands, eruptions and earthquakes, and a myriad of other natural causes. In this concept every human-induced disturbance is considered as noise or din, that is to be avoided. It is interesting to compare this concept with the thinking of another outstanding environmental sound recordist, the british Chris Watson, who worked a lot with David Attenborough on his BBC nature documentaries and released highly acclaimed CDs with the label Touch. Chris Watson introduces three layers of sound: atmospheres, habitats and species. Atmosphere is the unobtrusive bed of sound – perhaps the gentle noise of distant traffic, the hum of air conditioning, wind in the trees. A habitat could be the general sound of a location, be it the texture of cicadas or the traffic noise and undistinguishable chatter of people in the city. The species therefore is the specific animal (or car, or voice) you want to feature. In Watson’s thinking there is no judgement on the quality of the soundscape (of course we all don’t like the chain saw when we go for a hike in the woods…), he includes man-made sounds in his concept, Krause tries to avoid them. Watsons practical approach is focusing on certain sound sources, making decisions on the perspective, the selectivness of his recordings, while Krause goes for the general atmosphere, the pristine and integral experience of a place. Along with the ideas of Paul Shepard, Krause states that „natural sound patterns are highly musical but require a sensitivity to the aural world on the listener’s part which I believe we no longer possess in Western culture, even though it may have been active at some point in our species development and still remains so in some remote forest-dwelling groups or as a distant hidden mark somewhere in our chromosome material.“ And further more: „I retreated increasingly to places where I could record in the wild natural, locations where serenity and peace existed in an otherwise tumultuous world. Gradually, I ventured further and further away from human noise into habitats completely filled with creature song. Only there did I feel relaxed and more complete. I began to feel a sense of the divine I had never experienced within the walls of a church or synagogue or mosque. It was a place filled with the innocence of exquisite chaos. No definition of sin, guilt, or redemption and yet it was part of the community of life to which I was beginning to feel essentially re-attached, a feeling our pre-historic ancestors must have known long ago. I felt alert and connected to all of the organisms around me even though I didn’t completely understand – then or now – how it all works. The natural world taught me that I didn’t need to understand its permutations to know that it’s the source of my life.“
In Wild Soundscapes Bernie Krause teaches all the fundamentals of listening, acoustics and the technical requirements for sound recording in nature. It is a good guide book to the beginner in this area, even though one might think of if this idea goes mainstream Krause will promote a movement towards the wild that will even cause more intrusion to the places he would like to have protected. In the end when we go to remote places to record some pristine natural sounds, we have already used airplanes and cars and other noise-making vehicles to get there. Apart from a slight romanticism towards the nature the book is – nevertheless – worth reading if one seeks a good introduciton into the basics of field recording.