Rothenberg vs. The Scientists: Round 1
[Terra Nova] • I’m in the middle of writing a book on making music with whales, a project which has taken me to Russia, Canada, and Hawaii, in search of giant sea creatures who want to jam. Sometimes they actually do. But some scientists I run across are more difficult than the whales themselves.
“What do you expect to accomplish with this?” Mark Johnson says, glaring at me. He’s a grizzled New Zealand engineer with a ponytail who works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Why would it surprise you that you got a response? These are acoustically active creatures. I don’t see the point of fucking with animals just for the hell of it. I don’t believe in diving or swimming with whales either.”
I fumble with an answer. “I… just want to see what happens.”
He shakes his head and squints at me. “If you’re trying to learn something about whales which could then translate into a tool for conservation, that’s worth doing. But simply trying to enjoy an event in which the animal doesn’t even know he’s participating, to be honest, I don’t see the point. It doesn’t really yield anything except a gratuitous level of self-satisfaction.”
“Well, Mark, I’m trying not to congratulate myself or pat myself on the back. Music is knowledge, too. I want to learn something and make some interesting sounds, sounds that can’t be made by one species alone.”
“What’s the point if you haven’t got a hypothesis?” he shouts back.
“I do have a hypothesis,” I tell him. “But it’s a musical, not a scientific one. My idea is that there’s more to music than humans can make on their own. A wandering jazz musician could enter a club in Tokyo or Istanbul, climb on stage, and right away join the band. You listen for a familiar sound, some rhythm or chord changes, and try to join in, finding a way to a common music. This is how you make music together with those with whom you cannot speak.”
"Through music you can cross cultural lines, not because music is a universal language, but because musics are fluid languages: they warp, they twist, they open up to foreign sounds. Something new can be produced together by people from different sides of the world. If you are open-minded enough, you might try the same thing with other species."
Johnson still looks skeptical. I quote from the history of science to him. “Other species have other senses of beauty and form. Even Charles Darwin knew that, although biologists seem sometimes to have forgotten. He wrote in The Descent of Man that the beauty in nature was effectively chosen by the animals themselves, over generations of female preference. They liked certain traits, and those were passed on. Each species has its own aesthetic. The particulars of bird music may be some of them. Sound in whales may work the same way. But it is so alien that we really must stretch our ears to get a grasp of it. Besides, showing people how beautiful whale songs are is what really got us interested in saving them.”
“Sure enough,” he still glares back, “but no one had to play a guitar to a humpback to do that. I have every respect imaginable for passive techniques. But the only reason to fuck with something is if you have a well-worked out hypothesis, and a good measurement technique, so you would be able to reasonably conclude that the animal is responding. But a musician might say their expression would be inhibited. So perhaps these approaches are incompatible. For God’s sake leave them alone unless you have a really good reason to bother them. Imagine poking an animal with a stick!”
“Jamming with a whale is not the same as a spear in the ass.”
“Well, how do you know that?” Mark fires back.
“Scientists are the ones who shoot darts into the backs of great baleens, not musicians.” I remind him.
“Sure, most scientists do a terrible job when designing experiments. They’re mutants!” The engineer is a bit agitated.
“So you don’t feel qualified to comment on whether or not whales are intelligent?” I try to change the subject.
“What’s misguided is when we call animals unintelligent. The trouble is that our idea of intelligent is so damn limited that we can only see it when the animal has some great acuity, or if it interacts. Would you call an autistic person interactive? Some are brilliant, but we often don’t understand them because they keep to themselves. One could argue that it is a misguided or dopy animal who interacts with us. Not a smart move to play music with you or get too close to a whale-watching boat. You could end up being chopped up by the motor like that poor orca, Luna.”
“Come on, Mark! Making music with whales is not the same as running over them with a powerboat.”
“Who gave you the right to mess with these animals? If you can’t explain it, you shouldn’t be doing it. Don’t go telling everyone to go out and play music with the whales to share their own interspecies communication fantasies.”
The scientist gets up, ready to leave, but he suddenly smiles. “Right, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s go get a pint.”
Next time: Out on the water trying to play along with humpback whales.