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In Tune With Nature, Making Music with Animals

Seattle Post Intelligencer Staff

On San Juan Island, WA

The two-legged mammal lays down a 12-bar blues riff on electric guitar. The mammal with the dorsal fin weighs in with a whistling improvisation. The two-legged mammal changes key. The finned mammal follows, executing a plaintive high-pitched slide with deft timing.

It's a jam session of the confounding kind, part orca, part human, presented by a musician who raises the most extraordinary questions: Do animals make music? Will they make music with humans? Does such interspecies jamming constitute high-level communication?Who's in charge here?

"To do this well, you have to think of the animal as your teacher," says Jim Nollman, keying up another cut of his CD, "Orca's Greatest Hits" on the Macintosh in his home office. The CD captures orcas off Vancouver Island vocalizing with Nollman through underwater speakers and hydrophones dangling from a boat at a depth of 15 feet."I

think the orcas use melodies to identify one another. I think they use them as work songs to keep in touch with one another, use them to keep a basic tribal rhythm happening," says the 53-year-old islander, a freethinker with salt-and-pepper beard and intense jade eyes the color of the cold, deep waters that surround the San Juans.N

ollman, featured in an upcoming "60 Minutes" segment, has spent decades playing music to — and, on occasion, with — the furred and feathered and finned of the world.

Animals can be exacting critics. "I've worked with wolves, and if you're out of pitch, on any note of that scale, they are going to stop singing," he says. "I don't think scales are a human invention.

Not everyone gets what he does.

"Dateline" TV producers didn't. Nollman says they canceled a planned segment on his work last year. "They said there was no scientific basis," he says.

Nollman doesn't claim to be a scientist. He is director/founder of Interspecies Communication, Inc. (, a 22-year-old non-profit that encourages artists and musicians to get out in the field and interact with animals and habitat. What he does may use scientific rigor, he says, but it is closer to art, an affair of the heart, the ear, the gut."I started out trying to crack the code of interspecies communication. Then, after I did it for a while, I realized how hard it was. I realized that it was communication, but that I wasn't going to crack any code. What I was going to do was teach a lot of people about the nobility and inclusive value of the orcas, the whales, the animals."

In Mexico, he has played native flute for a tom turkey doing a dusty flamenco dance. In Death Valley, he thumped drums with kangaroo rats. In eastern California, he accompanied a wolf pack on a Japanese bamboo flute. Cetaceans, aquatic marine mammals, are his specialty. He has yodeled to humpback whales, played Tibetan bells for arctic belugas, tried polka rhythms out on clicking dolphins, floated in the 15-foot swells of the Pacific in a leaky dry suit playing a floating tongue drum to attract gray whales

."One moment I was completely alone, then the body of a 40-foot animal rose to the surface in front of me. My eyes squinted to take the full measure of this object," Nollman writes in his book "The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet," published last spring by Henry Holt ($25, 249 pages).The book tells tales of high adventures with improbable twists: Tibetan monks chant Buddhist prayers to orcas using Nollman's underwater equipment; Nollman helps free gray whales trapped in Alaskan ice by broadcasting underwater recordings of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mombazo.

Nollman, despite his baffling use of composite characters, writes with measured tone and rich reportorial detail of the "charged border" between humans and cetaceans. It's a border he calls a "luminous crack between world views."Those disparate views include the whale as meat, the whale as biological specimen, the whale as mythical ancestor, the whale as political football, the whale as New Age god, the whale as economic boon to whale-watching outfits and souvenir shops."The orca's are one basis of the economy on San Juan Island," says Nollman.

Your Average Latitudinarian

He walks his own charged border navigating those views. A "latitudinarian," one book reviewer calls him. A latitudinarian is someone broad-minded, tolerant of the opinion of others. "I gave everyone equal standing in the book — and the whale biologists went nuts that I did that," says Nollman, who describes himself as a multidisciplinarian.

Scientists like categories, he says. "They don't know where I fit in." But that may change. This year, he traveled European scientific circuits talking about communication in the new millennium, posing questions about the merging of science and art.

"For years I thought of myself as a conceptual artist. I went out in the water and made music with whales and didn't care what it all meant."Now suddenly, I'm being embraced by European scientists — although the American scientists still keep me at a distance"

The man who has gone eyeball to eyeball with whales throws up a hundred questions as he writes. Other animals flee from humans. Why don't cetaceans? "What do they know about us that other species do not know? What do they recognize about us that we do not recognize about ourselves?" Nollman isn't afraid to get personal in his writing. Watching dolphins die a slow, horrific death after beaching themselves — is this a mass suicide? he ponders — he openly weeps, knowing he can change nothing.He's also not afraid to crawl inside the mind of animals. When "60 Minutes" reporters followed him to North Vancouver Island to shoot him making music with orcas, the whales showed up as if on cue, in Cecile B. DeMille proportions: "There were three pods of whales within a half-hour," says Nollman. "It was absolutely perfect."I think the whales often do what people need of them.

To Eat or to Play?

"Yet he's no woo-woo lightweight. This is a man who can not only party down with a turkey, but also can put out their lights. "I have turkeys I'm about to slaughter here," he says, looking out the window of the handsome island home full of musical instruments, stained glass and Turkish rugs he shares with wife and children. "I say a little prayer over them and then chop off their heads."You have to eat.

"Eating whale is another matter. "I don't like it that anybody kills whales — that's my main problem with the Makah hunt," he says. "But it's a hard argument to use: 'I don't like it.' Is there a relative ethics? Or an absolute ethics? In terms of me, it's absolute."

Nollman, also author of "Why We Garden" and "Dolphin Dreamtime," is juggling a dozen projects, including editing of 20 years of audio tapes of human-animal interactions.This winter he plans to return to Finland and Russia, to work on a coffee-table book that will tie together such mysteries as a Finnish petroglyph of a woman giving birth to a whale, a 13th-century monastery used by Stalin as a gulag, and a rare population of beluga whales that have long haunted the shores nearby."Why are the belugas there?" he wonders. "Are they listening for the bells of the monastery?"

He is also writing a book recounting a strange trip to the Northwest Territories. The tale involves artist friends who went to make music with whales, Inuit whale hunters with a taste for fast boats and big guns, an oil company doing seismic tests during mating season, and, sadly, no whales. The hunters, unaware of the seismic fallout, blame the strangers. "We walked into the middle of it. My friend found these beluga whale boneyards and started stringing them up in mobiles that moved in the wind. The hunters thought they were hexes."And I was putting sound in the water. I told them the belugas have a language and they believed me. They thought I was telling belugas to get out of there.

"We got shot at."Nollman pauses. He smiles slightly."It's a new book," he says, "about people taking nature art seriously." Read it. It's called "The Beluga Cafe."


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