Lake and trees in Finland

The WhaleKit Machine: On Tour with the Karelian Magicians of Glitch

By David Rothenberg

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Blue Hill: A Series on the Music of Place 

When my old friend Rauno, who once talked me into traveling up to the Arctic Circle in Russia to try to make some music with beluga whales, told me that he had already signed me up to play four concerts all across Arctic Finland, Sweden, and Norway with four Russian DJs on a trip that would require 3,000 miles of driving in one week, I tried to back out of it.

“I’m not spending my summer in some vodka-induced haze in the back seat of a diesel van with no air conditioning,” I protested. “No way, I’m just going to sit peacefully by this lake in the forest for that whole week.”

“You are coming on this trip. You are needed to find the signal in the noise. You must make the connection between our work with Russian whales and those dastardly Norwegians who keep killing the innocent members of the cetacean nation. You speak their language. It is up to you to stop this slaughter.”

“I’m sure four DJs can make enough noise on their own to set those Vikings straight. They don’t need me.”

“Don’t think you can back out of this one. The Finnish Cultural Foundation is bankrolling the trip.”

“In that case…” I relented.


Karelian Magicians of Glitch
David Rothenberg (in green) and the Karelian Magicians of Glitch.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.
Seven hours north of Helsinki we rattle along an under-construction gravel road to the Russian border. There we meet our band, exactly the opposite of my primitive Russian stereotypes. They are an urbane mix, all whose main instrument is the laptop computer: Cycle Hiccups, a young professor of Swedish at the University of Petrozavodsk, who favors smooth jazz with a bit of beluga sonar mixed in. ADD, a duo composed of a former record store owner together with a Tae Kwan Do trainer of some of Russia’s highest ranked martial arts athletes. “I used to compete myself, but I decided to take this job so I’d have enough money to buy a computer to make music with.” Third, a one-man band Artificial Intelligence, who by day is a developer of housing projects and hotels, by night a master of the Rubik’s cube and also of carefully worked-out electronic symphonies, born of a necessity to invent. He compared his working methods to those of Leonardo da Vinci: “You should take your time making it, trying to verify every note and every sound.  Don’t make too much music, just be sure of what you put forth. Only then might it approach genius.”

My four musical compatriots are from Karelia, a somewhat autonomous republic of Russia so remote that no one can be bothered to remove the big statue of Lenin that graces the main drag, Pravda Street, in the capital city of Petrozavodsk, on the shores on Onega, Europe’s second largest lake. Half the state was once part of Finland, until the Soviets took it at the close of World War I.

Electronic music is perfect for modern day post-Soviet Russia, since it can be made on laptops with software easily obtained illegally at little cost, important in a nation where most musicians have hardly a way to make a living from their art. Of course we know it’s hard enough in the entrenched marketplace of the capitalist West!

This crew of musical futurists got wind of my Whale Music Remixed project of last year, since one of them, Cycle Hiccups, contributed a piece. They produced their own remix of beluga sounds with electronic beats, and so the idea of the WhaleKit Tour was born.

roth crew
The whole crew.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

Heading west across Finland’s narrowest part, our first stop is the bustling northern Finnish city of Oulu, where we are to play at a reggae club called Never Grow Old. We check into a strangely musty hotel with a name that sounded like “The Devil’s Helmet”, and the lady at the counter says that breakfast would be served from 6:30 to 8. “So early?” I gasp, knowing we are supposed to play until 3 a.m. “What time is the next meal.” She stares at me coldly. “Somewhere else.”

Somehow we manage to fit all our different computers, blinking-light controllers, and audio connectors on the stage, and unleash a wall of whale-tinged noise. Belugas make all possible scratches, squeals, and echolocation creaks, and only the Russians have worked hard at studying them. Some reports say their sounds may present a complex, interactive language of sound-pictures, even more involved than the vocalizations of dolphins. Each of these DJs has a copy of Roman Belikov’s three-minute collage of all the sounds made by the belugas of the White Sea, and they stretch, slow down, re-pitch and massage all this noise to pull out of it some brand new music.

Our second show is at high noon in the empty square of Haparanda, just across the Finnish border into Sweden. It is here that people speak Swedish with a Finnish accent, or Finnish with a Swedish accent, 1,000 kilometers north of Stockholm. Hearing all our curious whale sounds broadcast at high volume across an empty town square in the middle of a bright midsummer Arctic day is quite surreal, but a small number of local residents gather and wonder what it is all about.

One more day, ten hours drive, and we are at the Stetind Hotel at the base of the Norwegian national mountain Stetind for a performance as part of a conference put on by the Council for Ecophilosophy, an organization descended form the ideas of ecophilosopher Arne Næss and Sigmund Kvaløy, people I spent a few years with 25 years ago when I first came to Norway. It is amazing to see Sigmund alive and walking, slowly up from the ferry, since last year he spent two months in a coma after a stroke and no one thought he would ever get up again.


Sigmund Kvaløy
Sigmund Kvaløy: mountaineer,
ecophilosopher, Buddhist, and art and improvisation
Photo by Tore Hugubakken,
courtesy Gemini.
Before he became a great ecophilosopher and activist, Kvaløy went to New York City on a scholarship to study electronic music at Columbia in the 1960s. He only lasted a month, since the city seemed so grungy and dirty, far from the pristine beauty of nature. Famous for making the distinction between a sustainable “Life Necessities Society” and a mechanized “Industrial Growth Society,” Kvaløy often gave lectures together with jazz musicians, suggesting that improvisation is natural and ecological, where each player finds his own natural part in the mix, while playing a preset part in an orchestra is like being a regimented cog in the machine, purely dehumanizing. And that too is why he gave up on electronic music.

“Ah, Sigmund,” I give him a hug. “So nice to see you’re up and arguing again, like the old days. And it’s so great to bring electronic music back into the eco-activist world.”

“I’m not sure about that,” he frowns. “It’s still the voice of the machine. Cold, calculated, artificial. What are you guys doing with all these computers?”

“The reason we can be here, Sigmund, is the idea of the glitch. It’s what allows us to surprise ourselves with the creative possibility of the machine. When we make them do things they were never designed to do…” I tweak some knobs and turn the shriek of a whale into a melodius, thrumming tone. I play my clarinet into a microphone and it swirls around, ascending, peaking, all into a surround-sound cetacean imitation.

What exactly is glitch? It is the ghost in the machine, the uncertainty when the mistake becomes the random mutation that changes the game as a new form of life suddenly appears. The error that becomes unexpectedly beautiful, when the digital no longer mirrors analog but releases its own chaotic beauty when you least expect to hear it.

Roth bands
Cycle Hiccups, Karelian Magicians of Glitch, and
Artificial Intelligence.
Photo by David Rothenberg.

Kvaløy smiles, the man who logic says should not even be alive… he has been plugged into all manner of devices on a hospital bed and come back to the world of the living. He has tilled the soil, he has sung the world of life necessities. But he is a jazzman, and now the machine may warm us, there is no longer any East and West, there are no more evil empires on our shores or theirs, there is a common humanity and it is a world of bytes and noises, bleeps and hums. It never leads where we expect it to. In that it is almost alive, and ends up enhancing rather than overcoming our world. I have no reason to be optimistic as we plunder the planet except in this melange of sounds from the undersea to the mountaintop.

The stark, raving form of Stetind looms above our performance in the shining midsummer arctic night. It is “the anvil on which the Gods hammer in vain,” said that old mountaineer-philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. It is a picture of visual music that cuts through the clouds. No peak of so weird a shape has a right to be there! No sound is unmusical, no borders keep music from singing far and wide from east across the tundra to the west. No sound is ugly, no rhythm is impossible. At their best machines can help us become ever more alive.



David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing, Thousand Mile Song, Survival of the Beautiful, and his latest, Bug Music. He has 12 CDs out, including One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, a duet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, (ECM, 2010). His latest CD, with Pauline Oliveros, is Cicada Dream Band. Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at NJIT and is currently editing a book on improvisation called Vs Interpretation and will release a new CD of live performances with nightingales next spring.

Photo by Leslin Liu, courtesy Pixabay. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.