Interspecies Communications

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Playing Music with Orcas: 2

From The Charged Border (Henry Holt)

It is not only the Vancouver Island orcas who respond to human music. Offshore at Peninsula Valdez National Park in Argentina lives a pod of orcas who have developed a dramatic feeding protocol, cruising the shallows and then literally beaching themselves to grab young elephant seals sunning on the gravel shore. The orcas then roll back into the water with the seals clamped tightly in their jaws.

It was with these reputed "bloodthirsty" orcas, that national park warden, Roberto Bubas, spent several months sitting along the same shore playing his harmonica. The orcas gravitated to him, finally drawing close to listen attentively to the musical offering. Bubas' was fascinated by the response, and concluded that the orcas possessed an awareness of his musical aesthetic. Spectacular photographs were eventually published by a Spanish magazine that showed the orcas lying in the shallows so close to the harmonica-playing Bubas that he might have reached out and touched them.

In a classic example of paradigms in collision, his supervisor censured him for "taming" the wild orcas and banished him to a remote inland area of the park. The rebuke begs the question of what, if any, positive relationship between species his supervisor would have permitted.

At Orcananda, we impose a few rules to guide interspecies etiquette. First, we conduct our musical experiment only after dark. One does not presume to play and record underwater music with orcas during daylight without contending with considerable noise pollution from boat motors rumbling and whining along the freeway of the Strait. Biologists and whalewatching boats tag behind the pods from sun up to sundown and, as the Bubas' example forewarns, we do well to avoid their scrutiny. Second, we never chase the whales and, instead play our music from a boat anchored at the same spot year after year. If they don't come to us, the interaction doesn't happen. Third, our objective is interspecies communication, so we never transmit recorded music into the water. Although a whale may certainly respond to a recording, a recording can not respond to a whale. Fourth, we never re-transmit whale sounds, for instance using a digital delay unit to reflect an orca vocalization back into the water again. Such technology offers nothing vital to the communal ground we nurture.

Too Close

Flautist Gene Groeschel visited Orcananda one summer bearing an elk call made from a round paper membrane stretched across an aluminum lozenge and played by placing it against the roof of one's mouth. Humming vibrates the membrane which is modulated by moving the tongue. In the mouth of a virtuoso like Gene, the elk call bore such an uncanny resemblance to the local orcas that other musicians were incapable of discerning between a whale and the elk call. Although the orcas never showed any special interest in the elk call, I asked Gene to retire it for the same reason I reject electronic echoes. It was the only time I ever made such a request.

Over the years, musicians have discovered various techniques to facilitate interspecies music-making. Foremost is the routine of adding rhythmical silent spaces to an improvisation as an invitation for a whale to fill in the hole. If the orca vocalizes only in the allotted space most people regard it as a response. Some times it is, although congruency is not always what it seems. For instance, a player may hear an orca call a phrase, E-D-E, and respond by repeating the same notes. The orca vocalizes the pattern a second time, the player likewise mirrors the phrase again. Back and forth it goes. Then the whale turns silent. A waiting game ensues. Usually, the musician loses patience, repeats the phrase again, first slowly, then faster as if a concerted rush of sound is what it takes to get the orca back on track.

Except the whale was never off-track. It was never responding to the music, and would have made the same sounds if the musician hadn't played anything. This simultaneity of response is of the same basic ilk as Paul Winter's affable studio compositions that include animal calls as overdubbed elements. However, a lack of correspondence does not necessarily mean the player made a "mistake". We are musicians not cognitive scientists. To use another example, acccompanying the wind can be a worthwhile musical endeavor even though none of us considers it communication. If it sounds good, we like to hear it, record it, and encourage other musicians to try it. But it is not interspecies communication.

Too Far

Pointing this out to a newcomer often leads to dispute. "What do you mean I wasn't communicating? I heard it! The whales were talking to me!" One may well ask why so many players persist in confusing orca Karaoke with real-time communication. The mistake is partly a function of a charged playing environment. Our studio is a rocking boat anchored in a wilderness cove. The sessions occur late at night, often with a hard rain pounding on the roof. The candlelight we favor to conserve electricity casts an eery glow over the proceedings, contorting shadows. When the wind blows, the waves come up, the boat rocks, the floor moves, sometimes enough to knock a musician from one wall to the other. The underwater audio system displays innumerable pinprick lights flashing on and off. The speakers resound with colossal gurgles, oddball kerplunks, the banging of a dinghy, the glissando whoosh of an anchor line flexing against the hull, the obscure croaking of bottom fish. The total effect is disorienting, so much so that certain water noises have prompted listeners to examine their clothing for signs of wetness.

Then the whales arrive. From faraway, their whistles resound through the speakers like a saxophone chorus playing a beebop refrain. Certain calls occasionally rise above the fray, slithering, soaring, and dive-bombing with the wild abandon of a Charlie Parker solo. Other calls seem to balance this boldness, they fold in upon themselves like a dainty flower closing its petals at sunset. A musician plays a few tentative notes in response. The whales turn silent for a minute or two. When we hear them vocalize again, it is much louder, a sure sign they have moved closer. If they come close enough, the orcas start echolocating the boat, perhaps trying to discover the source of the music. At two hundred feet, the clicks remind us of a woodpecker knocking on a tree. At twenty feet, they sound like a machine gun fired directly into the boat cabin.

Now the orcas are whistling at such a loud volume their calls seem to explode into the darkened room, settling in like an army of occupation. The overall sensation is not so much that the orcas are close by and vocally active but, rather, that one of them has inhaled the boat with all of us inside it. We feel like latter-day Jonahs and Giopettos, although if not precisely swallowed whole into the belly of the whale, then certainly our ears are being sucked inside the moist lips of it's vibrating blowhole. Vocalizing at the volume of a loud rock and roll band, every sound an orca makes (and some it doesn't) suggests linkage. When a skilled musician mimics their calls with aplomb, no one aboard is left unaffected. By the time the whales have made their exit, everyone feels spit out, exhausted, quenched...and witness to a bona fide encounter. At such a moment, the question of whether the dialogue was genuine or counterfeit seems moot, a sorry attempt to superimpose an analytical frame over a profoundly emotional and spiritual experience.

Telling the Difference

One might imagine it takes nothing more than a little practice to tell the difference. It takes more than that. These respondents really are whales, a truth that confounds a player even as it hints of a secret knowledge. Climbers of Mount Everest describe a Death Zone above 25,000 feet, a place with so little oxygen that the human body operates by remote control, guided by sheer will because no one trusts their senses. A similar, although more benign perceptual warping occurs on our boat. Although I have devoted twelve summers of my life exploring music with orcas, I would have never learned the difference between interaction and simultaneity by paying attention only to the sessions as they unfolded on the boat. I learned it, instead, by studying recordings of the same events in the comfort of a home studio. The knowledge came to me in a rush, like glimpsing a face hidden within the folds and textures of a surrealistic painting. The moment I heard the difference, I heard it ever after. Unfortunately, the distinction hinges on a close listening of musical inflections, and defies a literal explanation.

Though describing the signs of interaction may be difficult, the techniques that foster communication are straightforward. A developed sense of courtesy is fundamental. Start off playing quietly. Treat the music as an invitation. Visualize the bond of time and place as a sanctuary filled with music. Feel what it means to get on whale time. If the orcas start to leave, give them up because the interspecies ensemble has no chance to form. Don't try to communicate; it's a contradiction in terms that impedes nexus. Remain humble to the fact that music---especially "beautiful music"---is a judgment call, and a species-specific presumption. The sounds a musician casts into the water may just as easily be interpreted by an orca as an intrusion, or even worse, as the acoustic analogue to poisoned meat set out to kill coyotes. The orca who draws close to a sound session today, may have to dodge a fisherman's bullet tomorrow. This is not conjecture. In 1986, 80% of the orcas in these waters possessed bullet scars. Much of the violence was perpetrated by fishermen who perceived the salmon-eating whales as a threat to their livelihood. Fortunately, the advent of whale-watching and eco-tourism has caused this wanton gunfire to diminish markedly.

The repetition of a simple musical phrase outside the whale's own repertoire sometimes gets a startling result. I once spent two nights repeating the same twelve-bar blues riff on an electric guitar. On the third night, a young bull, known as A6* to researchers, joined in by improvizing over the chord progression. Like a jazz instrumentalist playing a solo, the orca kept his accompaniment harmonically and rhythmically consistent, making the chord changes on the correct downbeats. His phrasing was notably austere, perhaps 15 notes in the verse, although not unlike the sparse trumpet solos favored by Miles Davis during his Bitches Brew period. Did A6 vocalize with the intentionality of Miles Davis? Actually, his performance seems too much in the groove to be interpreted as anything else. A Japanese film crew recording the event giggled when the orca started responding. By the end of the verse they were sighing in disbelief.

As the second verse started, A6's solo imposed itself on my brain as human/whale communication of historic proportions. Under such weight, the interaction faltered. I initiated a burst of single notes with the intent of extending the fragments of his solo. But with the chord structure essentially vanished, there was no framework for the whale or I to track. Within four more bars A6 resumed his normal pattern of vocalizations, and soon departed the area. Perhaps this novel interaction would have ended just as suddenly if I had not lost concentration. Nonetheless, I will always wonder what might have transpired had I not committed the blunder of trying to own the moment rather than surrender to it. This "soloists" interaction never happened again. That it occured at all, and with such fluid grace, makes me suspect that A6 could have repeated it any time he wished.

Testing the Difference

Over the next few years, working alone, I discovered a simple technique to test my thesis of interaction versus simultaneity. D-C-D is a common orca phrase heard in these waters. The opening D note slides slowly down to a C and then quickly up to the final D. I discovered that playing the riff a whole tone higher opens a door of opportunity. About once in every ten tries, a whale would rise to the occasion by mirroring my alteration: E-D-E. About once in every 500 tries, a whale treated my melody as the start of a pattern, responding another whole tone up: F#-E-F#.

I next discovered it was not "the orcas" playing with me, but two whales in particular that gravitated to the boat whenever we transmitted. One was a male with a slight angular notch cut toward the tip of its dorsal. The other was a female with a distinctive nick cut out of the backside of her fin. It was A6 and his mother, A2, who was affectionately called Nickola by local biologists. Nickola was generally regarded to be the most outgoing whale on the entire coast, and the subject of many stories told about her interactions with researchers. Nickola initiated contact and nurtured it. Over several years A6 developed into the most inspired soloist, inventing melodies that occasionally attained a fluid density reminiscent of a jazz solo. There were nights the two whales remained to vocalize with us long after the rest of their pod had departed the immediate area. We would hear their podmates calling with urgency, as if informing mother and son that it was time to move on.


Lama Prayers and Orca

Blues song and Orca

Orca Music 1