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Thousand-Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound by David Rothenberg, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®
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- THOUSAND MILE SONG by David Rothenberg | Kirkus Reviews?
- September 2014;
Club Free Time. Read More September 24, But if they all sing the same song, why do they need to change it? Some believe the change is made for the sake of change alone, like our constant need for a new hit song. Maybe the whales, like us, just get bored with the old tunes. So just how different from the glory days is the whale song of today? Roger Payne has repeatedly said that the whale song of the 60s is deeper and far more beautiful than anything the whales are singing these days, but people usually feel that way about the pop music of their youth. Where are the hit humpback tunes of today?
Have they evolved away from melody and harmony into grit and noise and weirdness just like human pop music? The increased human openness to hearing all sounds as music should mean that whale song sounds far more musical to us today than it ever did, even in the trippy 60s.
ISBN 13: 9780465018895
I asked Jon Carroll if he remembered how he felt the first time he heard humpback whale song before he wrote that Rolling Stone review. A desire to go beyond memory and into the sounds of reality has led John Brien of Important Records and I to plan a release called New Songs Of The Humpback Whale , which aims to gather the best recent recordings of scientists and whale listeners the globe over, so we can assess what has happened to whale song during the last few decades. One can hear gradual changes in humpback song from year to year, with some phrases lengthening, others shortening, others disappearing altogether as new variations appear.
The change can be heard month to month, and even week to week within a single season. But is their musical culture going downhill? These work for scientists and musicians because many of the sounds made by animals have a distinct form and structure, but not the usual tones and rhythms of human music, which are the only sounds musical notation can translate into images. A flat horizontal line in a sonogram means a steady clear pitch, a vertical line means a clap or a rhythmic hit, and a busy, beautiful image of many layers and patterns means a sound with complex overtones and a noisy character — just the kind of thing that eludes easy description.
But even these sonograms can look daunting to the uninitiated. I asked the digital designer and data visualizer Michael Deal to try his hand at simplifying these instantly generated images, colour-coding them in order to reveal the alien but organised structure of humpback whale song. Already in Roger Payne and Scott McVay realised the song had a hierarchical structure, but since their initial publication of this fact, no one has really tried to improve upon their visualisation using the dynamic and interactive techniques now available to us.
Such complex animal songs are actually quite rare in nature, but at such levels of beauty, there are strange parallels. Speed up a humpback whale song and it sounds surprisingly like the song of a thrush nightingale, with a similar balance between rhythms, jumps and long clear tones. In neither case can we accurately explain why such a song needed to evolve so extensively.
But aesthetically, there are definite parallels. Does such a parallel mean anything? Perhaps there are basic principles at the root of what different species understand to be beautiful.
Thousand-Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound
Evolution, as Charles Darwin knew well, is much more than survival of the fittest, but it also includes survival of the beautiful, through sexual selection, which is supposed to explain why whale songs are so long and moving, even though we have yet to see a female whale show any reaction to it. Though humpback whale song did not evolve for humans to appreciate, it may be no accident that we are its best audience. The beautiful has evolved in the same world we have evolved, and this may be one reason we are always drawn to nature.
But what does it take to record the best whale songs? One must have time a lot of it to go out on the water, drop your hydrophone deep down, get ready to listen, and to wait. Film crews rarely have the time to get the best, and scientists often have too much to do and not enough days in the field. Some of the best recordings have been made by Paul Knapp , who spends winter and spring in the Caribbean, camping on a beach in Tortola and quietly taking visitors out to listen to humpback whales. I went slowly and with respect to the spot I always go to listen at the mouth of the bay. I think he was used to me by then and used to the sound of my engine.
The whole moment made sense. But I keep coming back — waiting, listening. People all over the world are taking whale songs apart in the laboratory, but only Paul goes out every day just to listen. He has no desire to get too close to the whales he is hearing.
Those whales sound pretty stressed out to me.
No one who hears these darkly beautiful tones for themselves can easily forget them. Far fewer scientists are now studying humpback whale song than in the heyday of its popularity in the s. The beauty of the song helped galvanise worldwide support for a global moratorium on whale hunting passed by the International Whaling Commission in , but since then the population of humpback whales has rebound to a fairly healthy level.
A researcher working in the spirit of Payne and McVay, Adam appreciates the beauty of the song and has worked for years in the muddy waters off Madagascar to make the best possible recordings. When not working on whales he is also researches the indigenous music of this island nation, and he is not afraid to tackle some of the toughest problems in humpback song research, such as: exactly how do humpbacks make such tremendous songs?
It turns out that no one really knows. No humpback has survived in captivity long enough for anyone to examine the process closely. But Olivier and his team have just published the first attempt at a model of the song production process that might explain how the whales do it. Crucially, no air leaves the whale while he sings. This might make the humpback whale the greatest circular breather the Earth has ever known. He also believes that he might be able to solve the mystery of how whales can change their songs so rapidly, all together, across a single vast ocean over a rapid period of time.
They move and sing much farther and faster than anyone previously thought. The selection of songs on our Important Records compilation will come from many places.
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Glen Edney, formerly a whale watching tour operator in Tonga, contributed one beautiful hour long song. Paul Knapp, my favourite recordist, declined to let us use his song, which I personally still consider the best, although you can get it from his web page. I offer my own recording made unusually in Hawaii in very shallow, muddy water, just after a storm, when one lone male was singing close to the shore in Kihei. These conditions explain why there is very little background noise on this recording, and what little there was I took out.
Underwater can be a noisy place, especially from the perspective of a hydrophone, which can pick up the ubiquitious crackling noise of snapping shrimp, the thrum of boat engines up to ten kilometers away, and the rubbing of cables and anchors against the boat itself.