Monday, September 08, 2008

To accompany the BIG guys

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, whales, music

Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound by David Rothenberg is not about whale sounds per se, but about whale-human musical collaborations. Or, at least, attempted collaborations. The book includes twelve tracks on a CD. Two of the tracks include no whale (or other nonhuman-animal) sounds at all; one is a riff by two musicians on the feelings inspired by a few months of listening to whales, and the other is a whalesque accompaniment to a song Pete Seeger wrote but never recorded, "The World's Last Whale." Seeger, being 87 at the time, declined to record it this time also, so Rothenberg's voice is heard instead.

As well as I can infer, the author was occupied for two or three years with planning and carrying out three major field expeditions. Recordings from these and from material placed at his disposal by others was used to produce the CD.

Throughout the book, Rotherberg recounts the stories of whale sounds and the surprisingly short time that they have been acknowledged by Westerners, though other peoples have records and legends of whales singing that go back centuries, at least. Whale song mby be behind the legends of Sirens. Considering that a singing humpback whale can literally shake a dory with its song, it is amazing that nearly no Europeans listened or even seemed to notice until the 1940s.

A characteristic attitude is displayed by many who now study Sperm Whale sounds, which are strings of clicks, both steady and syncopated. They consider that louder, steadier clicks are for echolocation ('sonar'), and quieter, more amorphous click strings are social in intent. However, the former are heard most often in social settings! Scientific training seems to predispose the mind to "either-or" thinking, but more inclusive thinking is called for here.

Humans use sight much more than sound for gathering information. Imagine someone saying that the glances we take in social settings are mostly for keeping our physical balance and finding our way around. True, some are, but most are socially motivated: checking out another's feelings towards us, leering or ogling, flirting or connecting, or looking for agreement. I have read that a whale or dolphin can see the insides of another; it is hard to keep secrets when your heart rate can be counted! If you hop into the water in an angry frame of mind, a dolphin will know it by the shape of your viscera.

Anyway, the author's interest is primarily to play ensemble music with whales. Listening to the CD, I can't be sure if he succeeded, and while he feels he did, just a little, he is not totally certain. A whale's emotions seem to be as unfathomable as its thinking. That hasn't changed, but the music is pleasant, and it is probably a bit more collaborative than playing a clarinet along with the moaning of the wind in the trees.

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