Can We Play Live Music with Whales?
This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (http://www.thousandmilesong.com). To hear David Rothenberg's live jazz duets with whales, visit the CD Baby page for his new CD, Whale Music (http://cdbaby.com/cd/davidrothenberg2).
[Terra Nova] • Can humans make live music together with whales? Modern technology brought us the whale song, and it can send our music down into their depths. You already know that hydrophones can record the strange behavior of sound under water, but here's the rest of how it's done: Sit on the deck of a boat, or on shore if the water adjacent is deep enough to welcome whales. Play your instrument, say a clarinet, into a small microphone on a stand. Plug that microphone into a preamp. Send the output to a small battery-powered amplifier. Send the output of that amplifier to an underwater speaker, something that used to be expensive but is now of course cheaply available from China. [i] Send that clarinet sound deep underwater, where even with low power it can travel quite far. Record the output from the hydrophone and you will hear your underwater self, along with any whales that happen to be singing.
It's not as easy as jamming with birds, because I will not usually be able to see who I'm singing with. I'll play by ear, and whatever music I make with the whales will not sound entirely human. Some whale sounds are so low or so high that we cannot hear them. Reaching beyond species lines always means extending the boundaries of what counts as music. You will hear things that surprise you, and play sounds that you would never play otherwise. A strange beauty emerges even if the message cannot be decoded.
After dolphins, the whales we know best are orcas, or killer whales, so named because they will attack and eat almost anything that lives in the sea. But they also have a gentle side. They're curious about people, and for decades whale watchers, scientists, and musicians have felt a special connection with these animals. Some have been watched so closely in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island that each individual whale is known by name, family, and lineage. The whales can be identified by their unique tail and fin patterns, and since they are black and white, they are much easier to see than any other whale species. Orcas are social animals and use sound to keep the pod together as they zoom through the sea. They use song in a way that more closely resembles the laughing thrush than the humpback whale. The guidebooks published to help visitors identify each whale emphasize their appearance, but the original difference between pods and clans of orcas was discovered through sound; first by listening, and later by interacting with them.
Who has played music to killer whales? Paul Winter, for all the great photos of him and his soprano sax standing in rafts playing pure tones out to leaping orcas, says he just tried it once, thirty years ago, blowing the sax into a big metal tube that stuck into the water. He heard the whales, the whales heard him. "At one point it seemed like they were responding," he says, but this live interaction never made it onto his records the way the sax/wolf duets did.
A few scientists in the sixties and seventies played music to orcas, but they don't much like to talk about it today-seems a bit "new agey" by today's standards of rigor, or at least beyond the limits of experimental control. Paul Spong, the guardian of the orcas of North Vancouver Island, and leader of several decades of research into their habits and behavior, began his work on the sensory systems of orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium in the mid-1960s. Getting food in exchange for tricks did not interest the captive whales, so Spong tried playing a whale back a tape of his own sounds. Not interested. He tried the sound of another whale. A faint glimmer of curiosity, but that didn't last. The aquarium whales seemed bored. Spong wanted to make the whales happier in their confinement, and got interested in what animal trainers call enrichment, making the lives of their charges just a bit more interesting.
When a whale named Haida lost his mate, he sat despondent in the pool as if she too wanted to die, refusing to eat anything for a month. Spong invited jazz flutist Paul Horn, known for his solo recordings inside the Great Pyramid and in the Taj Mahal, to offer some gentle music to cheer up the bereaved whale. For a week he played mournful elegies for the whale's lost love, but Haida showed no interest. One of the trainers urged Horn to try a more positive approach.
"I get the feeling you are playing rather sad music," she said, "reinforcing Haida's unhappiness. Maybe you should try providing some positive energy to bring him out of his depression."
Horn leaned over the water and talked to Haida eye to eye: "Look, I've been coming here for three days now and you have totally ignored me. I get no response from you, and I'm getting bugged."[ii]
The whale said nothing. Horn continued. "We know you've suffered a great loss, and we sympathize with you. But thousands of people come to see you, they respect and admire you, but you're letting yourself down. Not only that, you are letting yourself down and you're letting life down. Life is a very precious thing, Haida, so get your act together and snap out of it. I'll come back one more time. If you don't respond tomorrow, then I won't come back again."
The next day Paul Horn was back at the pool, playing the same mournful music he always played. But right away Haida moved his head, the first movement he'd made in weeks. Horn walked around the pool, playing his flute with conviction, just like he'd famously done walking around the Taj Mahal. For the rest of that week the whale followed the flutist, and after five days, Paul put his flute down and dangled a herring over the water. Haida hesitated a moment, but then decided to scarf it down. It was the first food he had taken in a month, and the first time a whale was known to have been brought out of depression through music therapy.
Haida recovered enough to be brought a new mate from another oceanarium. The next time Paul came to play, the female whale seemed more interested in the music than Haida, who disappeared to the other end of the pool. After a few minutes hiding deep down, he suddenly leaped out of the water at high speed and smacked down on the water as hard as he could, spraying a huge wave all over Horn and his precious flute. "It seemed clear he was either jealous of me or annoyed that his girlfriend was more interested in the flute than she was in him. Whatever the reason, he was pissed off and got me soaking wet. This was the last time I saw Haida." Music later became part of the general enrichment program for captive whales all over the world.
But Paul Spong was not satisfied. He had grown confident enough to touch the huge beasts. A whale named Skana seemed to enjoy being touched and rubbed, especially by Spong's bare feet. One morning her behavior changed. Spong was sitting with his feet in the water of the pool. Skana approached very cautiously, then opened her mouth wide and dragged her teeth quickly across the top of his feet. He pulled his toes out as quickly as he could. After a moment, he put his feet back in. The whale came back, again flashing her teeth. The feet came out again in an instant. They did this many times in a row, until finally Spong was able to control the urge to flinch. When he stopped reacting, Skana stopped with the teeth.
Spong's attitude to these animals suddenly changed. It seemed to him they were conducting their own experiments on him. [iii] How could he condone keeping animals with such intelligence in captivity? Much of what we have learned about whale bodies and brains could only be found out with captive animals, but Spong could do this work no longer. The more he learned of these animals, the more he wanted to offer them freedom. He made preparations to leave the aquarium. He believed the whales should be in the wild, and so should he.
In 1970 Spong headed to Johnstone Strait to set up a field center for the study of wild killer whales. It is still going strong on Hansen Island at the end of the strait, the longest continuously running whale field research center in the world. Since these animals live so close to human habitation in clear social groups, they are much easier to study than the humpbacks who migrate far across wide oceans, who have the longer, more epic songs. But orca songs are equally interesting because they are so interactive-these whales use a distinct sonic repertoire to stay in constant communication with each other. So it's more likely that a killer whale will respond to a new human sound than the staid, solo performing humpbacks.
In the beginning, Spong played all kinds of recorded human music through underwater speakers to see if the wild, free-ranging orcas showed any interest like their cousins in captivity. They didn't seem to care. Then, he tried live music, with a Vancouver rock band called Fireweed jamming from a fifty-foot sailboat. One pod assembled around the boat and followed along for several miles, something that hardly ever happened. The younger whales especially seemed to have an ear for rock and roll, and stayed close to the boat as long as the music was blaring.
The next summer Spong wanted to get closer. He took a solo kayak out to be in the midst of the pod, and, perhaps inspired by Horn, brought along a wooden flute. Playing soft tones above water, he sensed the whales could hear the sound under the surface, even though he couldn't hear them. After building a sense of trust with the orcas, he began to swim and dive among them. In Mind In the Waters, Spong writes his most moving words on why music must matter to killer whales: "Sometimes, particularly on a still night, a pod or part of a pod, or perhaps just a single whale, will hover offshore for an hour or more, apparently tuning in to the music. Sometimes they seem to join in the celebration with the chorus of their voices and the dance of their bodies, visible to us from the bubbling phosphorescent wakes they leave behind. [iv]
Others were drawn to the area by such testimony. Erich Hoyt came to Johnstone Strait in 1973 to make one of the first documentary films about orcas. He got a hold of some of Spong's tapes of orca whistles, and started learning the repertoire on his Arp Odyssey synthesizer, an early electronic analog instrument the size of a portmanteau suitcase with a several octave keyboard and about forty sliders. It was particularly adept at making loud, strange whoops and pure sine-tone whistles.
Hoyt moved the faders up and down, twiddling knobs, adjusting timbres. When he first got out in the field to hear the actual whales, he felt he was in the hall of nature listening to a grand new piece: "I've just walked into the opera house, I have no program. Strange new players are premiering a piece by a flamboyant new composer." [v] Swelling, dischordant strings morphing into rusty saxophones. Pizzicato trumpets? Impossible echoes? The reverberations carried for miles.
Hoyt sat at the Odyssey's controls, waiting for his cue. Suddenly he heard a familiar phrase, one he thought came from a whale named Wavy he had heard a few days before. Other whales answered the same phrase, always with slight variation. The accent switched from the first to the third note. It was an ensemble piece, with hardly any space for him. Finally the moment came, he played the phrase he had prepared, but he changed the beat just a bit. A few seconds, then he heard it, "A perfect imitation of what I had just played to them--in harmony! They did not repeat their own sound; rather, they duplicated my human accent." The first time was the best time. When Hoyt repeated his experiment, the whales had lost interest. Perhaps they don't care that much for our music after all.
Almost as quickly as it sprang up, the idea of playing music to orcas began to fade away. As Spong became more of a scientist, and Hoyt became more of an activist, they were cautioned by their peers against doing things so risqué as jamming along with whales. It didn't look like serious work. It wasn't research, because it was never done in a controlled manner. Animal behavior science is hard enough to control as it is, and with music in the mix, could a scientist be taken seriously? The standards of whale science were getting more rigorous, especially as the formerly flourishing orcas became increasingly threatened, even in the apparently pristine environment of Johnstone Strait. Shipping traffic was increasing, pollution was on the rise, loggers would happily clearcut every one of these verdant islands. It was time to focus on conservation.
Both these guys worked hard to set up marine sanctuaries for these animals, Spong putting roots down on Hansen Island, Hoyt working all over the world to save the whales. The two men have remained committed to the cause more than anyone. But in the beginning they were both motivated by simple wonder. As Spong puts it, "The whales sang and called to us and we returned their voices with everything we could manage-flute sounds, imitation orca sounds, singing and laughing-in the joy that only free creatures and free people can create together."[vi]
Photo by Alanna@VanIsle, courtesy Creative Commons license.
[i] Now available cheaply from China: You can get reasonable underwater speakers from www.esunpride.com
[ii] I get no response from you and I'm getting bugged": Paul Horn, Inside Paul Horn (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990), p. 179.
[iii] The whales were conducting their own experiments on him: Erich Hoyt, Orca: The Whale Called Killer, (Tonawanda, NY: Firefly Books, 1990), p. 43.
[iv] Sometimes they seem to join in the celebration": Paul Spong, "The Whale Show," in Joan McIntyre, ed. Mind in the Waters (New York: Scrinbner's, 1974), p. 180.
[v] I've just walked into the opera house, I have no program": Erich Hoyt, Orca, p. 53.
[iv] "The joy that only free creatures and free people can create together": Paul Spong, Ibid, p. 185.