September 11, 2015

Vox Balaenae

As a result of doing this project, I now know far more about whales and whaling than I ever wanted to know. It's a tough subject because I am a whale-loving environmentalist, fundamentally opposed to commercial whaling — which, to be clear, is a brutal, ugly business that has pushed many species to the edge of extinction. And yet, whaling is a crucial part of my family history and how I came to be here. I can talk about Azoreans "following whales around the world," but the truth is they were hunting the whales to supply a market demand.

Oil painting by an anonymous artist dated 1876, showing a scene of sperm whale hunting in the Azores, with subtitle: “On the 30th of March of the year 1876, thanks to the Lord, this whale on my harpoon was struck”. Photograph: Cristina Picanço
In the Azores, I found that there is not such a harsh ideological divide between reverence for whales and reverence for the old whaling culture. Whaling is seen as something noble and dangerous that poor, brave, hard-working men did out of necessity to survive in a place with limited resources. Almost everyone has an ex-whaler in their family, and many of them died at their work. And many others, like my great-great grandfather, left the islands as whalers and never saw their families again. The retired whalers who are still alive are respected as folk heroes, and their knowledge is valued; whale watching companies hire them as spotters, and at least one cetacean researcher I met said he goes to them for advice about how to get up close enough to whales to tag them. I'm sure it's more complex than that, but I found this apparent equanimity refreshing in comparison to the polarization that exists in the US between environmentalists and, say, ranchers, or fishermen, or loggers.

Harpooner Antonio Viera Soares with sperm whale, 1965
So I knew whales would be central to this project, but that presents another set of issues. Ever since biologist Roger Payne and his colleagues Scott McVay and Katharine Payne brought the songs of humpback whales to the attention of the world (thus doing more than anyone to bring about the International Whaling Ban), humpback sounds have become ubiquitous. In fact, Payne made it a point to share his recordings with musicians of all kinds, encouraging people to write music using whale sounds, or inspired by them. This resulted in whale-themed music by (among many others) Paul Horn, Judy Collins, Charlie Haden, Alan Hovhaness, Toru Takemitsu, George Crumb, John Cage, and a thousand new age and ambient techno tracks. To say nothing of Star Trek...

Those sounds truly are beautiful and haunting and easy to love, but they are also easy to anthropomorphize and turn into a cliché. By now there is a ton of music made with whale sounds or imitating them; it's been done. So how to do it yet again, in a way that isn't trite?

I decided to focus on other species of whales whose calls sound less "human," many of which are almost electronic-sounding. I finally chose to use only the sounds of sperm whales, because they were so commonly hunted in the Azores, and because their varied clicks and buzzes were interesting to me — very minimal, and not at all anthropomorphic. I did go whale watching in the Azores and saw sperm whales (yay!), but unfortunately I was not able to record my own whale sounds on this trip, so I had to rely on some online archives and assistance from Kate Stafford at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Lab. I have hopefully used these sounds respectfully, with no attempt to turn them into "music," no electronic effects or manipulation other than volume and placement in the timeline. The musicians have been specifically instructed to avoid overtly imitating these or other whale sounds. We'll soon hear how they approach that!

Close-up of sperm whale's eye; photo: Bryant Austin/studio: cosmos