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    Singing with the whales: Using music to reach across the species barrier

    Reprinted from Island Times, June 30, 1999.


    Whales haven’t often seen humans at their best.

    Much of the history of human-whale interaction has consisted of them getting shot, harpooned or captured to spend their lives jumping through hoops in swimming pools.

    Even in recent years, as the public imagination has transformed whales from monsters to teddy bears, noisy boat engines and the occasional scientist’s biopsy dart are all about all we show them.

    So what happens when a human choir decides to expose their cetacean neighbors to the finer points of human culture; to extend to creatures who live in a world of sound a sample of the most pleasant sounds our race is capable of making?

    Meeting the Artist

    It’s 6:20 on Saturday evening, and Lynn Danaher is getting antsy.

    A sound crew is futzing with wires and mixers and duct tape and such, while singers from Seattle’s City Cantabile Choir warm up their voices and discuss the evening’s program. The MV Odyssey was supposed to leave the dock at Friday Harbor twenty minutes ago and her owner is concerned about keeping the audience waiting. If the show starts too late, the concert-goers may just go home.

    “We’re outta here at 6:30, no matter what,” Danaher declares.

    At 6:40, with the evening sun occasionally peeking from behind stringy grey clouds, the 64-foot-long classic motor yacht finally casts off from its moorings and chugs south towards Cattle Point. The Odyssey is accompanied by the Shelmar, a smaller boat equipped with a wireless microphone receiver and underwater loudspeakers that play into the ocean, rather than into the air.

    What’s afoot is an interesting experiment in cultural exchange. Fred West, director of the City Cantabile Choir, puts it this way.

    “What would make us appear to be intelligent to another species? Would it be engine noises? Or might it be showing we had culture, showing that we’ve got organized sound with a history that goes back 5,000 years?”

    So what West and his singers plan to do this evening is sing to the whales.

    “We’re making a gesture from the artist,” he explains. “I just feel they ought to meet the artist.” He grins. “Don’t you?”

    Mother, May I?

    Another long-standing aspect of human culture — bureaucracy –nearly scuttled that meeting of artist and whale before it left the dock. Federal officials in charge of enforcing whale-protection laws had to be persuaded that singing to the whales wasn’t a form of harassment.

    “They asked us if we expected what we did to affect the whales’ behavior,” says Mike Sato of People for Puget Sound, one of the event’s organizers. “We said, ‘Well, we hope they’ll stop and listen.’ They said we’d need to get a permit.”

    After several conversations between the environmental group and officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Washington, D.C., common sense prevailed and the project was finally given the green light.


    Of course, right now, it’s technical glitches that are threatening to scotch the performance. The wireless microphone setup — necessary since the choir and the underwater speakers are on separate boats — is acting finicky. No one seems ready to stake their reputation on the cobbled-together setup working properly.

    Meanwhile, voices crackling on the radio in the Odyssey’s wheelhouse report there are orca whales off the west side of San Juan Island. The expedition plows through the chop, northwest past Eagle Point and False Bay to Deadman Bay.

    Both boats cut engines, and they bob silently in the small swells of Haro Strait. The singers get in place at the front of the Odyssey’s roomy cabin, readying their sheet music. The sound-tech guys cross their fingers. The 40-odd observers who’ve come to witness this experiment line the rails and wait for the audience to arrive.

    It’s showtime.

    “There!” someone shouts, pointing along the shore to the south. Sure enough, several black dorsal fins slowly approach the waiting boats, rhythmically diving and surfacing.

    The choir kicks into a rich old hymn, and after one false start, the Shelmar reports the music is coming in loud and clear over the underwater sound system. Cheers from the crowd … “It’s happening, it’s happening!”

    For the next 60 minutes, the City Cantabile Choir regales more than a dozen members of the local orca whale pods with Mozart, gospel songs and folk tunes from several continents.

    After a while, the singers get impatient with performing from the cabin; they want to get out on the deck and see their cetacean audience. So they gather on the bow in the fading evening sunlight, singing “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Soon, the on-board observers join in, and the Odyssey reverberates with song.

    “It was totally blessed”

    Did the whales enjoy it? Was contact made? It’s hard to say; after all, what human knows the minds of whales?

    Some passed by the boats without showing any sign of interest. Others slowed down, or even doubled back for another pass.

    While the singers didn’t expect a standing ovation, they do hope the whales found their sounds pleasing.

    “It’s kind of a shot in the dark, y’know,” says singer Joanne Koonce, “but it seems so intriguing that something might actually happen, that you just have to try it.”

    As far as Fred West is concerned, the evening was a big success, regardless of what the whales made of it all.

    “It went great. The whole planet unfolded out there. We had the most unbelievably gorgeous sunset, and there was this moment when we’re all out on the bow singing “Amazing Grace” and an orca came right out of the water. It was like he was saying, ‘Thanks, guys.’ It was totally blessed.”

    Not a stretch

    Friday Harbor artist and author Jim Nollman, who’s been on the Shelmar handling the underwater electronics, has made a life’s work of communicating with whales and dolphins, especially with music. He has no doubt the animals can and sometimes do respond.

    “Once, I was playing a reggae rhythm with a blues progression, and the orcas made all the chord changes. One of these orcas was doing a lead line over it. It was sparse, but no more sparse than Miles Davis in his “Bitch’s Brew” period. There was definitely consciousness displayed in that five-minute piece.”

    To Nollman, the proposition that cetaceans might join in when humans make music is just common sense.

    “Most of the species I work with are audio-oriented; sound is their main perception of the world. They have big brains and everybody knows they’re playful. So they’re just being playful with sound. That doesn’t seem such a stretch to me.”

    So, what does he think happened on Haro Straight tonight?

    Aside from the fact that a group of humans made an earnest effort to reach out to another species — a positive sign in itself — Nollman says several whales seemed interested in the human sounds. And that, he says, is good enough for him.

    “Somebody may say, ‘How do you know that they did anything?’ Well, I don’t know, I just know what I feel. And I’m not a scientist, I’m an artist, so feelings have power and they carry weight. And it felt like they showed interest. And that’s great. That’s all that anybody expected.”

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