Terrain.org Columns.
View Terrain.org Blog.





Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

To Wail with a Whale: Clarinet Meets Humpback Whale in Island Paradise

Listen to David play clarinet with humpback whales:


Singing on whale boat.
Singing to the whales on the "Spirit Sailing Journey to the Cetacean Nation" in Hawaii.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

“Come Join the Spirit Sailing Journey to the Cetacean Nation,” says the email invite, full of tiny print listing all the fabulous love and music that will be on board. “Leave your shoes on the beach, swim out to our catamaran, drums, and shakers will be on board. Our guest musicians will play cellos, harps, and guitars. We’ll have flippers, you can dive in with our giant friends.” As soon as we leave the harbor on the island of Maui, clothes tend to come off. A woman named Mahana, who was once called Lauren, waves and shouts the old Hawaiian word for humpback out to the sea. “Kohola, koholaaa, we love you, come close to us, we’re waiting.” The passengers start to sing and dance, the warm sun beats down on us, and we see the first great humpbacks cavorting in the bay. It’s prime mating and calving season, and they’re everywhere. A few hundred yards offshore and we’re all mostly naked, trying to tune in to that great whale energy.

The old Hawaiians called the humpback kohola, and they even named a nearby island Kahoolawe, because it looks so much like the back of a whale. But there are no ancient myths about whales, and the islanders never hunted them or talked much about them. Revisionist island history has come up with lots of tales about whales, but where were they long ago? Some say there just weren’t as many humpbacks cavorting in these waters until recently, because whalers were plying these waters as early as the 1700s. Others say there were plenty of Hawaiian myths about the animals, but they are too secret to let us haole find out about them.

David Rothenberg playing clarinet on boat.
David Rothenberg plays clarinet aboard ship for the whales. Click image to hear clarinet/whale song.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

I believe it is a question of attention—nobody noticed. They may have been diving, but they didn’t think to listen while under water. Yet when our catamaran drifts so close above a singing male that the hull is shaking with the low ‘i’i tones easily audible above water with no amplification at all, I have to wonder. Surely someone detected this in centuries past, when we humans were either pursuing the beasts in tiny boats armed with long harpoons, or telling stories about how our ancestors traveled across the deep blue seas?

 “Ooh, beautiful man. Relax bro. He can hear you, the whales are telepathic, dude!”  A naked woman starts to blow a didgeridoo toward the water right next to my ear. I’m playing high, detached notes, basking in the sun up on deck, leaving space for that whole whale song. Is he grooving on the didg and the reed? We don’t know what they hear, what they sense.

Some people are listening to the music, some are ignoring it. Like your average jazz club, except the sun is shining, we’re out in the waves, it’s the middle of the day, everyone’s all smiles and no clothes. A guy with a long gray beard comes up to me and says, “You know, I’ve been on these boats before, and usually everyone just chants and sings their own shit. But you’re actually listening. The clarinet is one of few instruments that merges with these whale sounds. Your music does fit in with them.”

I have no idea if he is right or not. The encouragement counts a lot, because I’m often doubting what I’m doing here. Why would the whales want to listen to me? It’s a crazy hope, to make music with animals with whom we cannot speak. Easy to agree with my critics who say I’m just full of myself, tooting my own horn. Somehow I just have to keep doing this. It interests me. On the course of this journey it has become what I do. Maybe I’m finally learning how to do it.

How to play clarinet along with a humpback whale.
How to play clarinet along with a humpback whale.

Click image to hear clarinet/whale song.
Graphic courtesy David Rothenberg.

After several weeks of waiting, the master arrives from Vancouver. Finally I get to go out on the water with Jim Darling, the one man who has spent year after year watching what whales do while they sing. It’s early on a clear morning, we’re washing off his boat the Never Satisfied before we head out.

I ask him if he was surprised by the results of his latest study, which, at fifty-odd printed pages, is the longest, most involved paper on whale songs ever published. “Well, by the time we got to this most recent phase we knew the songs were being sung by males for males. But we thought it would be some kind of dominance-hierarchy thing, not the apparently non-agonistic cooperative behavior we ended up seeing. I hardly trust my own view of this, but I just can’t think of anything better.” He also comes from the school of cetacean humility.

Jim Darling.
Whale watcher (and listener) extraordinaire Jim Darling.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

“But Jim, you’ve been going out every day you can during breeding season for nearly a decade. What have you found out so far?” I ask.

“Well, we know we can get them to stop singing, but we don’t know how to get them to start.” He points to starboard. “Look, there’s a fluke, a whale just went down. Maybe he’ll start singing.” We speed right over to where the tail appeared. I take my clarinet out and we toss the hydrophone and speaker overboard.

Once again there seems to be a brief link between clarinet and whale, mostly heard in the spacing between sounds and the tendency of the whale to jump to a full range from booming low to squeaky high when I play. But for much of the time he ignores me. Do the whales get accustomed to my music and then lose interest? Or are they genuinely in love with novelty—enough so that we could introduce a new sound unit and have it quickly spread through a whole ocean of whales?

“I doubt we could get a permit to do it, but it would be interesting to see if we could specifically introduce a change in the humpback sound,” wonders Jim. “My first thought is that it would be really easy. But if it’s not easy, and they don’t sort of adopt any sound they hear, then it’s probably much more complicated than we think. There just aren’t that many people looking at this stuff. It’s just a huge amount of work, that’s why people don’t do it. But it’s also fairly addictive. You really want to hear what phrase comes next. Every year I give a talk to the locals here about how the song has changed in the current season. Usually it’s clear enough, comparing the old and the new, but last year it changed so much, so rapidly, that the whole theory wasn’t convincing at all. There is probably much more variation in these songs than most of us are willing to admit.”

Just then a whale wing appears in the waves right next to the boat, encrusted in barnacles, and then it swings down. Splash! Splurf!I back away, just in time to keep the clarinet dry. “Hmm...  there’s a reaction,” smiles Jim. “I wish I really knew what was going on out there.” He shakes his head now.

Humpback whale, jumping.
A humpback whale jumps in the waters off of Maui.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

I drop my speaker and microphone underwater and get out my horn.  I’m screaming, wailing, screeching too, trying to pack as much emotion as I can into one moment when a whale wants to listen. It roars through the seas, only for a few minutes, this music neither human nor humpback could create alone. Yet each musician makes space for the other, our duet an overlap of themes from different worlds, human and cetacean. Undersea and above, it is music with no beginning or end.

The whale sounds amazingly close. Right under the boat. The hull itself is buzzing. How is it possible that no one noticed this level of sound before the sixties? I play along for thirty minutes or so, and the whale never stops. Two minutes in, he really seems to get louder in response to the spaces I leave in between my notes. He’s alternating with me, not interrupting, like nightingales who compare each other’s riffs in the dark. Then I play a high wail, and he seems to add a whoop to his bruup. He’s adding resonance to his tones, making them richer, louder. Suddenly he leaps from a real low growl to a super high squeak.  We pause only to back away from the possible sounds that still remain. Then we stop paying attention to one another, back in our separate worlds. Neither human nor whale has forgotten the song we made together, just off the coast of the most isolated islands in the world.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



This column is an excerpt from David Rothenberg's forthcoming book, Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (Basic Books), due out April 2008.


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.