Interspecies Communications

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Our CD, Orcas Greatest Hits, includes recorded selections from the field project described in this essay.

Here's one of our favorite interactions. It clearly demonstrates an orca calling and drawing closer, as we humans continue playing a simple rhythm into the water.

Playing Music with Orcas: 1

From The Charged Border (Henry Holt)

Resident orcas talk among one another in two distinct modes: the frequency modulated whistle and the pulsed click train. "Frequency modulated" means melodic. The pulsed click train is rhythmical. In other words, the orcas use musical concepts to communicate among their own kind. To hear orcas call back and forth to one another, and then interact with them, Orcananda's sponsoring organization, Interspecies.com has assembled a sound system with underwater recording and transmitting capabilities built inside our trawler which is anchored in seventy feet of water just inside a cove along the northeast shore of Vancouver Island.

A single switch powers up a keyboard, a few microphones, an electric guitar all of which are plugged into a mixer then run through a fifty watt amplifier and outputted to the underwater speakers. This sound system is basically a telephone line to the whales. To optimize stereo separation, hydrophones (underwater microphones) dangle forty feet apart off the bow and the stern. The underwater speakers suspend starboard and port at midship. If we like the conversations we hear, we tape them for posterity.

If it's little children using the orca telephone, the whale's innate loudness and edgy abruptness can breed either excitement or fear, and sometimes both simultaneously. A few children bang on the synthesizer with their tongues hanging out, consumed by the pose rather than by any sounds they make. When a whale vocalizes, they bang more often. When the whales turn silent, the banging turns frenetic as if fury can communicate the children's need for interaction. Neither the notes they play, nor their choice of rhythm correlates much to what the whales vocalize.

"Do you think that's what the whales like?" I ask.

"Yes," a little voice pipes in, "the whales like it when we play music with them."

When I demonstrate various ways to synchronize their sounds to the whale's vocalizations, the children try it once or twice, then fall back to banging. How could I expect any different? These young children already reside in a world where animals are aware, communicative, and possessed of rich emotional lives. The results they find playing to Orca don't sound the least bit like Bambi harmonizing with Thumper. When the offshore pod of resident Keikos fails to join in singing "chopsticks", the children's attention wanders. They gaze longingly out the window at their beloved tidepools and rocks---even at their beloved orcas rolling through the waves right next to the boat.
Some parents who come aboard presume that the orcas will naturally be drawn to young children. They invoke a naive view of the charged border as a Peaceable Kingdom where innocence is always celebrated and hard work disdained. Whales are compassionate and wise; they love us and they love our children even more. When the orcas fail to respond, these parents wonder what could possibly be wrong. Maybe the studio isn't child friendly? They turn up the thermostat, hide the synthesizer, and lead the kid's in a rendition of "row, row, row, your boat". The children sing enthusiastically. Who can deny it's cuteness? But it makes no difference. The whales' rubbery, bone-jarring screams remain child-unfriendly and aloof.

 

Performance art or Science or New Music or Eco-activism?

Playing music with orcas may be best understood as an expression of conceptual art rather than a variation on an Edward Hicks painting. To keep going at this work, a musician must revel in counterintuitive phrasing, dissonance, and nearly unbearable stretches of silence. The slightest hints of synchronized rhythm become the pen and paper of our correspondence. Those of us who persevere for more than an hour, more than a week until, finally, we visit Orcananda every summer for more than a decade, celebrate a radical paradigm that insists animals are sentient beings both capable and amenable to an aesthetic interaction. Most people feel no such motivation. Most musicians find the sonic rewards too few and far between and the intellectual rewards too unmusical.

A few children become interested in the details of the charged border at about age nine. One day a boy asks to use the keyboard to work out a phrase he heard an orca singing the night before. A girl spends the day composing a song to sing after dark through the underwater speakers. These children are often as naive as the younger children in their choice of music, but now they have acquired the essential trait of perseverance. They realize an interaction may not take place the first time or even the tenth time they try. They have inkling of what it means to honor the process of close listening. An adult is delegated to gather up these initiates just after dark, row them out to the big boat, where the sound engineer sits them down in front of a microphone. Everyone on board waits, makes small talk and popcorn. An hour or two may pass. But the orcas will come. They swim past our cove between nine and midnight. It's happened that way almost every single night for eight summers in a row.

We hear them vocalizing through the speakers, sounding like a cross between an elephant and an soprano sax. They are still a mile or two up the strait. I turn on the mike switch. The child starts singing, concentrating hard to draw the whale closer, getting into a mutual groove. The rest of us keep our mouths shut, offering no cues about what the whales "might like to hear instead". To limit the player's experience, not to mention the orcas experience, seems prejudicial and pompous. We have uncovered no evidence---at least in the vast realm of Western music---that a whale responds better to Bach played perfectly by a virtuoso than to some determined girl singing "Come little orca won't you play with me, sha-lalalalala-la-la". We've tried it both ways. Sometimes one gets a response. Sometimes the other. No matter what transpires, adults who attend these sessions agree that the experience is both touching and profound, displaying the formative human mind engaged in the creative process of reaching out to another species for the first time.

 

Getting In the Groove

My rationale to permit both children and non-musicians access to the sound system is sometimes judged "unprofessional" by those who insist we attach scientific rigor to this longterm study. They recommend we focus the sound transmissions to a few pure tones spawned on a sine wave generator, monitored on an oscilloscope, prehaps modulated in accord with the pods specific direction of travel, and activated to coincide with the turning of the tide. They tell us to combine these controlled transmissions with visual cues such as a flashlight turned on and off in synchrony with certain notes. It all seems worthy, and I would gladly fit any valid experiment into our schedule if someone would simply administer it, and agree not to interfere with the music-making regimen. There lies the problem. Scientific control is like virginity. You either have it or you don't. That our work prospers without control is an important reason Orcananda attracts artists and musicians, not cognitive scientists and behavioral biologists. We are laypeople whose relationship with the whales is more an affair of the heart, the ear, and the gut, than of the mind and the spreadsheet.

Those of us who have observed many people play with the whales over several years times have reached an admittedly unprovable conclusion about the orca's response. These whales are attracted primarily to music-makers who are having a good time. While the orcas display no special interest in compositional virtuosity---for example, a soloist rendering Mozart with great precision--they seem highly attuned to soloists and ensembles who play with soulfulness. Musician's call this expression of a smooth path that guides movement effortlessly: getting into the groove. The mechanics of rhythm, harmony, and timing take on substance greater than the sum of its parts. It carries the players aloft on the flow of the music even as they perform it. What affects the players likewise affects the audience, turning the sensuous experience communal. George Will has written that, "to be in a groove is not to be mechanical, it is to be an animal, with the grace that only something living can have. It is for this reason that the groove seems as capable of mitigating the species barrier as easily as it cuts through the performer/audience barrier.

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