You Need to Hear This

This Guy Jams With Humpback Whales

We interviewed a music professor who plays clarinets to whales. Honestly.

Dan Wilkinson

Imagine how crazy it would be to make music with some of the biggest musicians around. Not like Young Thug or Katy Perry big, but literally massive, as in metric tons. I’m talking about making music with the humpback whales. With the ability to produce loud groans that are up to seventy decibels and can last for up to twenty-three hours, the song of the humpback is considered by some as the most beautiful music on the planet. Though there are certain American Maritime laws that forbid people from being close to whales and from disturbing them, certain lucky people have gone above the law and decided they just want to jam with the whales.

Music professor David Rothenberg is one of those lucky people, having made music with whales for six years now. He uses a process which involves dropping a microphone to receive and send out the sounds produced by the whales and humans. Thus, allowing David to perform music on his clarinet to whale colonies all around the world from Russia to Hawaii. He's even making an album with them, snappily titled New Songs of the Humpback Whale. The music itself? Well, it kinda sounds like underwater prog rock made by a smack addict.

I talked to David about aquatic jam sessions, breaking the law and whether humpbacks understand EDM more than me.

Noisey: So, David, could you tell me a bit more about the history of whales and music?
David: It was only at the end of the sixties that humans learned of the existence of the song of the humpback whale, the longest song in the animal world. When word got out, there were responses from all kinds of music: classical works from George Crumb and Alan Hovhaness, in jazz from Charlie Haden and Hamiett Bluett, and in popular music from Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Lou Reed, and even the Partridge Family.

That's more collaborators than a Calvin Harris album! What about the whales themselves, how have they featured on albums?
The first recording of pure whale songs, Songs of the Humpback Whale is the best-selling nature recording of all time. It went multi-platinum.

Wow. Why was it so popular?
People who heard the record were moved to tears. It changed their life. It was the single impetus for the global "Save the Whales" movement, which I have written about extensively in my book Thousand Mile Song.

How would you describe the sound?
There are groans, moans, grunts, scratches, howls, beats, whistles and screams. More importantly, it's got a whole rich and complex structure. It's not just the individual sounds that are remarkable, it’s all about the structure of the whole album, which Roger Payne and Scott McVay first released in 1971.

Where did you first hear about the whale song?
Probably when I was a teenager, in high school. Shortly after I heard about Paul Winter, who made a recording called “Common Ground” with whales.

When did you decide to play music with them?
The first of these projects I did musically with animals was the book and CD called Why Birds Sing. After that I knew I wanted to do something with whales, but it was hard to convince the publisher to do it. I had to go into the office and howl and screech.

And how did that work out for you?
They agreed. And the journey began. I travelled the world looking for people who would help me play live with whales. I started in the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, then went to the White Sea in Arctic Russia to hang out with ex-communist whale scientists. Then to Vancouver Island with Jim Nollmann, who played electric guitar with killer whales for years. But Maui is the best place to jam with humpbacks. So many whales, so little time!

Aren't there some laws against playing with whales?
That's right, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, put into law by Richard Nixon I believe, says it is illegal to harass marine mammals and that includes playing music to, or with them. So don't try this at home, or on vacation, unless you are prepared to suffer the consequences.

What are the consequences?
I suppose you might be fined or put in jail, but it hasn't happened yet.

So you were willing to risk jail time?
All for the cause of interspecies art!

Weren’t you worried though?
No. I didn't think I would really be harming the whales and if they seemed agitated I would just stop. Other human activities, which are legal, do them far more harm. Loud boat engines and especially Navy sonar tests, which make the heads of certain species of beaked whales explode. The California circuit court ruled such tests illegal, but the Supreme Court overturned their ruling. Justice Steven Breyer even said, "Why is there a case here? Isn’t it the business of the military to destroy the environment?"

What's an average day in the life of jamming with whales?
Usually me on a boat, wearing headphones, playing my clarinet into a microphone, broadcasting it through an underwater speaker, listening to the whales through an underwater microphone called a hydrophone, and trying to play along to make music with them.

What's the typical outcome?
Most of the time nothing happens. They sing, I play, maybe it fits together. But there are these rare moments, where the whale is definitely reacting. Hearing this is truly amazing as one plays, it seems as if I'm bridging some musical gap between air and sea. Hawaii is one of the best places to hear humpback whales singing, from November until April. And this is where my most successful clarinet/whale duets were recorded.

How would you describe playing with them?
Like jamming with an alien creature the size of a city bus.

Why should people listen to whale music?
Well, the more we expand our reach of what counts as music, especially in the natural world, the more we will value that world as something intrinsically beautiful, and thus work harder to value and to save it.

Are you ever tempted to play them pop music?
I don't really play them my music, but I interact with them. So I play a phrase, then I stop. Then I wait. I listen to what they do, I join in, as I would if improvising with a human musician who doesn't speak my language.

So you're never tempted to see how they react to EDM or Ariana Grande?
I have played with an electronic musician and nightingales in Berlin parks at midnight. My friend Korhan Erel was live sampling the birds and remixing them back to themselves they seemed to like it but nothing fazes a nightingale, they just love sound.

What music would you play to whales then?
Well I’d play fast electronic beats to dolphins or beluga whales, their whole sound world is at the edge of fast screechy beats and dubstep. Whereas humpback whales are grave, heavy, howling and slow, at least most of the time.

So dolphins = dubstep? Whales = black metal?
I'll let you be the judge of that.

Okay. Cheers David!