Interview: Bernie Krause
Left: Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause, 1967
Right: Bernie Krause now
(Courtesy Bernie Krause)
From 1967, Bernie Krause rose to prominence with Paul Beaver as the music production/Moog programming team Beaver and Krause. They introduced the Moog synthesizer to dozens of musicians including The Beatles, The Doors, The Byrds and The Monkees; created the seminal album 'The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music', and performed on hundreds of sessions until Beaver's untimely death in 1975. Since 1979, Krause has devoted himself to recording and archiving sound environments from animal habitats around the world. His Natural Soundscape Collection now consists of more than 4,500 hours of recordings of over 15,000 species.
Bernie Krause interviewed by James Gardner, 30 March 2010. Updated and edited by Bernie Krause and James Gardner in February 2012.
James Gardner: You mentioned that the Buchla sequencer cut on The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music was done on the Buchla at Mills College, and that the San Francisco Tape Music Center was “one of the first and more vital sound labs on the West coast featuring composers like Pauline Oliveros and Karlheinz Stockhausen (who was lecturing there at the time I was on campus between 1965-66)”. How important was SFTMC/Mills to you and do you have any recollections of your time there?
Bernie Krause: Well my time at Mills College in Oakland, California goes back about 47 years so the brain isn’t as functional as it used to be. But let’s see...
Basically, I was not officially a student, but just auditing classes and using the Center’s facilities. I do recall my first synth lesson with Pauline Oliveros—she was the only person there, by the way, who actually helped. I was sitting alone in the lab during my scheduled hour, and I was staring at the Buchla synthesizer and all the patch cords trying to figure out what went where, when Pauline came into the room. She didn’t say anything, but she kinda looked around and began to head toward the door at which point I overcame my shyness long enough to ask her how to generate a sound. She looked a little puzzled and walked over to where I was sitting and picked up a patch cord. “Just remember—”, she said, holding a wire in her hand, “outputs go to inputs.” And then she left! That was my first and only lesson at Mills.
The frustrating thing was that the damned Buchla almost never worked! It was always in a state of partial malfunction, or being repaired. So no one ever knew what they’d encounter when they arrived for their appointed hour at the lab. For some this was a blessing. But I needed a bit more control over the parameters of the sound I was hoping to create.
Did the ‘counterculture’ around San Francisco at the time have much effect on your thinking/music and are the links between SFTMC, the counterculture and the surge in interest in synthesizers broadly as described in Pinch and Trocco and the recent book on the SFTMC?
The Pinch/Trocco account of those analogue days bears little resemblance to what happened from my perspective. For me it represented a triumph of mind over inspiration. In fact, what the authors described in their narrative is hardly recognizable in terms of the feeling of excitement and anticipation of the moment and the various goings-on I experienced. I was only peripherally involved with what was called the ‘San Francisco Scene’. I will say, though, that the city's unfolding cultural turbulence of the 1960s had very little to do with the synthesizer and its subsequent place in music production. Because it appeared to be so arcane and formidable, it just wasn’t central to the sound signatures of most of the local groups, at least not initially. To me, the music of San Francisco more closely evolved from more of a folk tradition, only amplified—an extension of what Bob Dylan did at Newport when he went electric. Also: one condition the synthesizer required was a clear, unfettered mind to program and play—which was certainly not the case with most Bay Area groups at that stage.
During that period, I was working with Paul [Beaver] trying to get some traction with the synthesizer from producers and film directors in Hollywood as long as our funds held out. By the time we got to the Monterey Pops festival in 1967 and set up the synthesizer for all to see, we were really pretty broke. Even though we sold several instruments to various groups, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the inmates were mostly too stoned to figure out how to play the damned thing, we probably would have disappeared unheard of.
Instead, the groups and artists we sold the instrument to hired us for their sessions and we ended up performing on many LA, New York and London dates as a result. What was really surprising to us was that in many cases the synthesizers that these groups bought at great expense never saw the light of day and remained stored in the cases in which they were shipped.
Why and how did you and Paul Beaver end up buying a Moog rather than a Buchla?
While there were a few who loved the idea of machines spitting out sequences of sound they could later edit, and depending on one’s definition of “music,” the Buchla, in the end, was not a very music-friendly instrument. The idea—even at Mills—was to patch a couple of sounds, set the sequencer going (assuming that it was working at the time), and hit a couple of touch-sensitive triggers on the control pad, run the sound through a spring reverb unit, and whatever you came up with was “music” much like Mort Subotnick’s work with Silver Apples of The Moon. The process conveniently fell in line with John Cage's modernist maxim that ‘all sound is music’. Paul and I preferred the Moog because the combination of the keyboards, the ribbon controller and the sequencers gave us much more control over the ideas floating around in our respective heads and the result wasn’t so stochastically machine-led. Also, because of my experience with the Buchla at Mills that almost never worked—we could not get a guarantee of support from the Buchla factory—the machine was almost never completely functional at any time I worked there over the course of an entire year! So other than the Moog, there really weren’t a lot of other options at the time. Which brings to mind Moog's famous bench test...Before we bought the synthesizer, we wanted to be sure we had something that would work more or less reliably, so Paul and I travelled to the factory, then in upstate New York, to see how Moog’s instruments were built. He was just about to test an early beta Model III before shipping it out. “You wanna see my bench test?” he asked. As Paul and I stood there, astonished, Bob set the instrument on the edge of a table and shoved it tumbling to the floor. Because it still worked when he booted it up again, then and there, we handed him a cheque for one of the first off the line.
Do you have any recollections of Eric Siday?
During 1963 I replaced Pete Seeger in a well-known American folk group called The Weavers for what was to be their last year together. After they broke up in early 1964 I worked for a while in New York and LA as a studio guitarist getting occasional dates and earning very little money. One day in late 1966 I think, I happened to come across an article in Time magazine that featured a story about a New York musician, Eric Siday, who had just done a musical signature logo for American Express. And he’d done it with an instrument I’d never heard of before called a Moog synthesizer. Well, that caught my attention. Just at that time, I was looking for alternatives to studio work as a guitarist. But what really caught my eye was that the one-and-a half-second seven-note ID he had created that earned him $35,000. And here I was, barely making 21 bucks an hour playing guitar on boring music sessions I totally hated. I called Eric on the phone and asked if I could pay a short visit to see how he had done the sound. Reluctant at first, he finally relented and invited me to come. I took a red-eye overnight flight from San Francisco to New York and met him at his apartment the next day and he showed me the Moog, apparently one of the first beta versions Moog had supplied. That's all I remember at the moment other than it piqued my interest enough to try to find a location in the Bay Area that had one. And since none existed, Mills with the Buchla was the only remaining option for anyone wanting access to modular synthesizers until Paul and I amassed enough money to buy a Moog of our own.
What was the first project you worked on with Paul Beaver?
Aside from a few initial recording sessions for other clients, the first project that Paul and I worked on together was an album called Ragnarök-Electronic Funk, recorded for Limelight Records in 1967. If you can find a copy it’s probably worth a lot of money, although I can tell you Paul and I never saw a dime from it.
What was the usual division of labour on your sessions, and on the Beaver and Krause albums?Do you have a copy of the Beaver and Krause demo Moog version of California Dreamin’ or anything else from that time?
Good grief—California Dreamin’... well, there we were, in LA, with a $15,000 synthesizer, and no one would hire us. They wouldn’t even answer our phone calls. And you gotta understand this instrument represented our collective life savings. We put everything we had into that synth. We’d go around to various record companies, at a time when there were literally hundreds in LA, to try to sell our services as session players or producers. And everyone we visited just looked at us like we were nuts. One finally said, when I refused to leave his office without a commitment to use us, he said “OK, for hell’s sake, do a cover of California Dreamin’ or something.” So Paul and I dutifully went back to the studio, copied the Mamas and Papas version across to one of the eight tracks of our 3M machine and began to reproduce the tune on the Moog. When you hear it, you can understand why we didn’t get too much traction from that disaster...
Paul was a fine keyboardist and Moog programmer; I was kind of a concept person who came up with many of the musical themes, textures and orchestration ideas. It was really a great team in that we supplied what the other lacked without a great deal of ego and compulsion dominating our decisions in any way. That's why it worked so well for so long.
It seems pretty clear that the Monterey Pops Festival was something of a turning point in the Moog being sought/accepted by rock musicians, especially West Coast ones; could you talk a little about the Moog booth you set up there and your thoughts on why the synthesizer touched a nerve.
You know, I don’t actually remember much about the Monterey Pops Festival, except that it was quite hot that weekend, we had exhausted the last of our money, and we were kind of desperate. If it hadn’t been for the fact that so many groups were being signed to such generous contracts, that moment would have been an end game for us. It was amusing – and gratifying – to see the newly-signed artists skulk into the booth, stand around the table for a few minutes, tentatively approaching the keyboards where we had set up a percussion or a Hammond B3 sound and then place an order for an instrument. Boy, we were happy!
The Pinch and Trocco book suggests that you and Paul were involved in The Zodiac Cosmic Sounds sessions, but the liner notes (and other sources) mention only Paul. And was it only Paul who was involved on Emil Richards’ Stones ?
On the ‘Zodiac’ date, the synthesizer had just been delivered to our LA studio, so I had almost no experience with it. And since Paul was both a tech genius and a fine keyboardist—two things I truly was not—and since he knew infinitely more about the techniques of sound synthesis than I did, he did most of the playing and got the credit. As I became more proficient, some dates Paul and I did jointly and many we did separately but took joint credit. Because there were so many, I can’t remember now which ones qualify for which category. Rather than recast who worked on what, we just shared recognition wherever possible. And by 1968, we were each in session sometimes 80 hours a week and we just went from studio to studio, often without a break. So many of the sessions then just fused together in a kind of timeless Möbius strip.
I know you and Paul did dozens of sessions as synthesists with many well-known bands in the late ‘60s and I'm certainly not about to ask you for a detailed account of each of those, but if you could set down some of the more memorable/amusing sessions, and give a sense of the times, I’d appreciate it very much.
Thank you, Jim, for sparing me the recounting of an inventory. I’m truly grateful. Most of that time is a haze for me, not because I was stoned, necessarily, but because I was so bloody overworked and tired. However, I do remember one session that completely and finally liberated me from drugs. We were doing a record date with The Doors—Strange Days, I think it was. The date was scheduled at Sunset Sound, a recording studio in LA, for around nine in the evening. I showed up—with earplugs of course, primarily because they monitored playbacks painfully loud. I set up my gear and got ready to do our overdubs, and the members showed up one by one—one of them with a serious stash. And they had a couple of tracks to lay down before we were to play, and at first things were going pretty well. Then, as they began to work through their stash, I noticed that the session began to deteriorate more and more to the point where we never got to play at all that evening, although we did eventually. It got to the point—I never took anything that night—but it just got to the point where I had too much respect for the craft and art of music, and saw what happened when the body and spirit was so bent that the output failed to coalesce. Thus inspired, I never touched another funny herb or chemical again. I’m grateful to The Doors, but am sure saddened by the outcome.
Mostly though, it was a fun time. There was lots of ego-gratification, finally a fair amount of money for our efforts, but something for me was always missing. I suppose one element was that we were spending so much time in the studio replicating what we had done initially on our own albums. In nearly every session we did for others we were asked to repeat earlier sounds all the time, and let me tell you—that quickly became tedious.
Would you share some recollections of working on the Performance Soundtrack? I'm particularly interested in the tracks Performance and Turner’s Murder with Merry Clayton, which seem to prefigure Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky.
As Performance was a Warner Brothers product, and we were part of the stable of artists there, we were hired to play on the Performance sessions. And I gotta tell you—this is one of my favourite films of all time. The score, by Jack Nitzsche, was really pretty exciting to work on because he was one of the few great talents who longed to push the limits of the synthesizer and had spent quite a bit of time at our studio experimenting with the possibilities. He had us synthesize a sequence of breaths, in anticipation of one scene near the opening. Not entirely happy where he was leading us, we did what he asked, but we developed the idea further in our album Gandharva, released in 1971, with a piece called Nine Moons in Alaska. Pink Floyd later copped the idea, as many groups copied us.
Would you talk through the origins of The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music?
The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music came about because I just happened to be sitting next to Jac Holzman, then president of Elektra/Nonesuch records, on a plane going from LA to Monterey, actually for the Pops festival. I was describing to Jac my Moog sessions with Paul, as I tried to master the instrument. Suddenly Holzman’s face lit up: “Why don't you do an instructional album about electronic music?”, he asked, sounding like it was already a done deal. “Tell you what”, he said. “I’ll give you $2000 for the master and I also want a written text; a storyline that describes what’s going on. And I want the finished product in six months.” Well, Paul and I certainly delivered on time, and the album went viral—at least for a time—and remained on the classical charts for 26 weeks. We never saw a royalty statement, and other than the $2000 advance, we never saw another dime from that project, either.
What are your recollections of making the album, and do you have any thoughts on what made it a chart album?
The only clear recollection I have on the Nonesuch Guide process was that it was the first discipline I learned thoroughly—with Paul’s great tutoring, of course—and the first project that I had ever completed on my own. It was from our learning sessions in LA that I had, by the way, recorded on cassette tape, that I wrote the narrative for the guide. At the end, when the script was finally finished, I was so emotionally drained that I sat down and cried.
You and/or Paul gave synthesizer lessons to many rock musicians, but you said that “The only one who really gravitated to its potential was the late Frank Zappa.” Could you elaborate on this?
When anyone teaches a subject they love, a few students stand out, mostly because they somehow manage to digest what you’ve conveyed before giving it their own voice. In the process they explode the boundaries, taking all that information to a more profound level. While most of those musicians we taught at our sessions came away with ways to reduce the synthesizer’s potential to the creative limits of their respective imaginations, Frank Zappa was different. Paul and I always felt that here was a special individual. His work ultimately proved that he was indeed especially gifted. Of course, LA was filled with great talent. But Zappa stands out because working with him energized us rather than leaving us feeling drained at the end of a session.
How did Ragnarök-Electronic Funk come about? Any recollections of making it, particularly the track Fountains of the Dept. of Water & Power?
I think of Ragnarök as an album we needed to do to get our techniques established and out of the way before we could do anything else. It was our first attempt at anything, and the track Fountains of the Dept. of Water & Power was the first thing we ever tried with a sequencer. I have no recollection of how the album came about except that it was a default move because we were unable to get the attention of any of the major labels in early 1967—certainly before Monterey. It was a chance to do something and we jumped although musically it’s pretty dysfunctional.
Could you talk about In A Wild Sanctuary and how it relates to your current work?
In A Wild Sanctuary evolved because Van Dyke Parks suggested we do an album on the theme of ecology. And of course that meant to us that we needed to record some sounds of the natural world to incorporate into the score. Because Paul refused to spend much time outside, I managed to gather up a small recorder and a couple of mics, and I ventured out alone, terrified. And anyway, I collected a few samples, and when I switched on the recorder and heard the sounds of the forest through my headphones, the feeling of space and natural sound was so powerful that I was immediately hooked. It was a life-changing moment that was so vivid and compelling that I never looked back.
Could you also talk about how the track Spaced came about?
The cut Spaced came about because we were looking for a vehicle to do a piece that began on a single note and spread into a giant glissando with four notes ascending and four descending, ending on a major resolving chord. We wanted to do something musically that was technically impossible with traditional instruments. It ended up being copied on Mazda ads and as the THX audio signature that ran for many years…a virtual lift of our work. It even begins and resolves on the same note and chord.
In their book, Pinch and Trocco suggest that over time there was a gradual reduction in the scope and complexity of the Moog sounds you were required to produce, and that by the early ‘70s you would just take a Minimoog or Model 10 to a session. Could you talk a little about that?
Again...you know, Pinch and Trocco suffered from a bit of academic hyperbole coupled with a dose of constipation. Paul and I used all of our technologies at most times, whatever was appropriate. If Pinch and Trocco were correct—that we used smaller and smaller instruments as time progressed into the ‘70s—then they’ll need to explain why it was that the Moog III played such a prominent role in the scoring of Apocalypse Now in 1979, one of the last features I worked on before returning to university at 40 to earn my doctorate in bioacoustics.
What are your thoughts on the current analogue synthesizer fetishism and the exorbitant prices that are sought for Moogs on eBay?
You know, I’m really happy that analogue synthesis is re-establishing itself as a musical voice and that the value of these instruments is being realized for what they’re worth. And I was never a big fan of FM synthesis sounds.
How was it that you moved away from the music business and into recording/working with natural sounds?
By the time In A Wild Sanctuary was completed, and I had a taste of what the world outside the confining walls of studios sounded like, I made the determination that that was where I wanted to spend my life because that’s where the real music was. Since Paul died in early 1975, every spare moment since then has been spent exploring those possibilities.
Do you have any thoughts on the current state of electronic music (in the very broadest sense)? How do you see your current work in general and its importance in raising the awareness of species extinction/depletion?
You know, I know this really important to a lot of people, but the older I get, the less impressed I am with the distractions of technology. I hardly use my cellphone and I’m loath to take a GPS with me into the field—although I do it for the necessary metadata. So I don't much follow trends in electronic music because after a certain point it just begins to circle back on itself like a snake swallowing its own tail. I’ve completed writing a book called The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, connecting the true origins of our music—it’s much more engaging to me. It’ll be released in March in the U.S. and April in the UK. Natural soundscapes, with all of their holistic characteristics, can serve, as they once did, as the greatest source of musical inspiration, assuming one can move away from the single-species signature creatures and a few birds, whales and wolves. The deconstruction of the natural world in that way has been reflected traditionally in our culture, and certainly in our music so far. It’s clear that when they think they’re inspired by sounds of the wild composers conveniently choose only the critter voices that happen to fit the musical paradigms they've come to know and they discard all the rest of the animal voices and the lovely sonic patterns expressed through natural frequency and temporal bandwidth. I approach the idea of musical origins from a much more inclusive perspective, incorporating the natural structure of soundscapes just as they appear in the wild. I mean, the insects have frequency niches that they claim; the birds establish signal-clear bandwidth; the mammals, the reptiles and amphibians have theirs. And each critter, when you look at a spectrogram or a graphic display of what sound is like, each critter finds its own frequency or temporal slot, just like music written out on a score. It’s amazing!