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Making music with the 'thousand mile song'

Travelling from Russia to Hawaii to Canada, the improvising composer, musician and philosopher David Rothenberg makes music with beluga, killer, sperm and humpback whales. His improvisations at sea and in the studio create innovative music using the full range of whale sounds.

He talks to Wallace Heim about how the 'thousand mile song' changes the people who hear it.

dr playing with belgua
David Rothenberg playing with beluga whales
Solovetski Island, White Sea
'People have thought about birds and music for thousands of years, but with whales, it's only been about forty years. You can trace the moment when it happened. The humpback whale’s song was discovered by Roger Payne and Scott McVay in 1971, and the song catapulted into people's concerns.

In the nineteenth century whaling was an important industry, and people used whale oil for everything. It built a whole society and then petroleum was discovered in the middle of that century, and we no longer needed whale oil. But it wasn't until the twentieth century that we figured out technologically how to exterminate whales. Explosive harpoons were invented, and we had factory whaling ships where all the whales could be processed out deep in the sea. Populations were rapidly decimated and the only people paying attention to this were whalers and a few conservationists.

A video by Gari Saarmaki of David Rothenberg playing with beluga whales at the White Sea in Russia is here.
The discovery of the humpback whale's song was one of the driving forces of the environmental movement. It's what led people to think about saving whales. Nobody talked about it before that. But when the song was there, people really started to respond. This is when Greenpeace got off the ground, and over the next decades, activists and the whaling industry sat down and agreed to a moratorium on whaling, which most of the world agrees with.

There is one thing that really confuses the whole story, which is the fact that if you dive under water, you can also hear them. So why did no one notice this before the sixties?
recording diagram
diagram of how to play music with whales

The story in all the books is that you need an underwater microphone, a hydrophone, to hear the whales singing. But if there are enough whales, and you're close enough, you can hear them when you're swimming under water. I've heard it. It's faint but it's there. Why didn't anybody talk about this?! It's as if you have to want to listen before you can hear. You have to decide that there's something worth hearing down there.

How do people hear these sounds today? Do we have a different sense of what music is than when the song was first celebrated forty years ago.

    If I play nightingale songs to my students, they think it sounds like cool club music. That's probably not what Wordsworth and Keats and John Clare thought when they heard it. Do we have a more open sense to what counts as music today? I'm not sure. I think it's evolving right now because of people's ease with the technology, because sound is something now that can be moulded.
Music is changing into something more and more fluid. More kinds of sounds are taken in. That relates aesthetically to what I'm doing. People can relate to the sounds differently now. Sounds that were seen as very, very odd in 1970, when this whale song was discovered, are accepted now.

dr on Vancouver Island
Rothenberg on a boat off Vancouver Island
For example, there is only one phrase of one whale song from a 1970 recording that is used by Judy Collins and Paul Winter. Both of them decided that it's harmonious and lush, and they made sweet sounds based on it. From that direction, the whale sounds like a human.

But a musician can sound more like a whale or a bird if you start to accept these sounds, accept the sounds the animals are making.

Anyone can take any sound to the studio and turn it into anything else. But to play live in the field, first of all you have to accept that their sounds and your sounds really can be a different music together.

The idea that the whale might listen to a human clarinettist and interact is fascinating. The theory behind this is that we really don't know what music means and yet it's obviously important to people. It communicates and it connects people. And it's very meaningful, even though we don't know what it means. You can play music with someone who doesn't speak your language and you can make something interesting together.

    So why can't you do that with another species? You don't know what they're thinking but perhaps music can cross species lines, more than language.
Playing with a whale feels like being on the edge of some new possibility, something beyond the human world. People are fascinated by communicating with animals. We are amazed by the possibility that you can reach this other consciousness. Humans are always impressed by the kind of ease and fluidity of how animals live.

whale tail
There is something special about jazz improvisation that allows this to happen. Jazz is open. It's always been able to welcome different kinds of music in. If you believe that music can be spontaneously created by people who don't always know what's happening, then you'll believe that you can make music with creatures you don't quite understand.

For more classical composers, the whale sound is a sound element, to be worked into the idea of a composition; it's constructed, planned out. Look at the two famous classical pieces, Alan Hovhaness' 'And God Created Great Whales', and George Crumb's 'Voice of the Whale'. They are very different pieces of music, but in both of them, the whale sound is something separate from the orchestra. An interaction doesn't really happen.

But jazz is made in the moment. So Charlie Haden, the jazz musician, can say 'Sure I can jam live with a whale, no problem'. It would make sense to him to improvise with a whale recording, or to imitate the whales’ sound with the bow on his bass, as he did with 'Song for the Whales'.

dr on boat
What's the difference between those kinds of music? Jazz is a kind of music that believes in spontaneous creation. It's how things work and as a jazz musician and as a philosopher I've thought of how to explain this difference. There is a difference in what you count as the musical experience. With improvisation, it's a question of what can be conveyed in the moment and developed, how you are spontaneously inspired by something that you've heard or thought about.


John Cage has been influential for me. He said he preferred nature to music and that music operates like nature. I love that idea—though it does go all the way back to Aristotle. Figure out how nature works and try and work that way. Of course, one of the ways that nature works is that we can't quite figure it out, and that is an important part of my approach. We don't know how it all fits together. The uncertainty has to be there. That's one of the ways to imitate nature and its manner of operation. To do things that you can't quite explain - that's what improvisation is really about.


Humpback whales change their songs. They learn new songs and communicate what they've learned to each other. They’re all singing the same song, and it sounds like they’re all singing together, but no singing whale is closer than one kilometer to another singing whale. As the weeks, months, and years go by, they all change their songs in tandem, so they are usually singing the same song. We don't know why they change their song when they meet new whales, and why they'll change so that they all sound the same. Why do they all want to change their song so they all sound the same? You could understand if one whale wanted to be different.

whale in Maui
humpback whale in the waters off Maui, Hawaii
In certain bird species, one bird might improvise a new song and others try and pick it up. They want to try and be different from each other to show their mastery or that they are the top bird. But the whales all want to sound the same. Fine enough, but then why do they need to change the song when they go off on their own? If they all sound the same, why does it need to evolve?

Nobody really knows what whale song is for because there is no clear evidence female whales are listening to this, even though it's only the male whales that sing. There are those who say it's about competition, but whales sing over a vast area and there's no evidence that they are using their music to fight with each other.

Jim Darling wrote about his ten years of watching what happens when a singing whale is approached by another whale. Most of the time no other whale approaches. In ten years they only had maybe two hundred incidences where something happened and usually another male whale comes and the first one stops singing. The two go off in silence and then they separate. What's it all about?


Whales transform people in interesting ways. The people in my book are quirky, the scientists and the musicians. I wanted to trace their stories as well as the story of whales and music.

singing boat Hawaii
Rothenberg (far right) with orchestral players
on boat near Hawaii
The composers working with whale sounds all have something that makes them really angry about each other's music. There's the musician Paul Winter, and the classical composer George Crumb, whose reputations are somewhat built on the fact that they were both inspired by whale song. Crumb will start talking about hating the contemporary classical music in vogue in the sixties, "that academic, serialist music, cheap imitations of Schoenberg and Berg. It's music without sex, it's just numbers." And then I ask Paul Winter about George Crumb, and he says, "Oh, that's head music, what I do is heart music".

Jim Nollman is another pioneer. His book The Charged Border is probably his best book on making music with whales, but he has a different approach and took issue with my portrayal of him. He said "You just described me as an old hippie". But this is all part of the story. How could you not like a guy who describes it like this:

    “In the Canaries I was playing off the Kairos, the famous new age sex boat. Most of the people aboard were naked, getting it on with each other all over the deck. Me, I’m a happily married man. I was just playing my reggae to the whales, listening underwater. Sometimes I had to close my eyes to concentrate.”
dr sax

I was always interested in the outdoors, in nature, and also in music. For me, hearing Paul Winter make music with the sounds of whales and birds when I was sixteen changed my life.'

David Rothenberg in conversation with Wallace Heim

David Rothenberg is professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and lives in Cold Spring, NY.
Photographs by David Rothenberg

See also David's essay 'To Wail with a Whale' (pdf).
David's essay on the US Supreme Court decision to allow the US Navy to continue underwater sonar testing is here.
See also our story Why Birds Sing on David's music-making with birds and his essay on the part music has to play in our ecological survival.

Payne, Roger and McVay, Scott,(1971). 'Songs of Humpback Whales', Science, vol. 173, no. 3997, Aug. 13, 1971.

Excerpts from George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) can be found here.
Charlie Haden's 'Song for the Whales' is on the album Nightfall.

Reviews of 'Thousand Mile Song'
The Times Literary Supplement, 14 November 2008, No. 5511 (not yet online)


David Rothenberg's publications include:
Why Birds Sing (2005, Basic Books in USA, Penguin in England)
Sudden Music. Improvisation, sound, nature (2002, University of Georgia Press)
Always the Mountains (2003, University of Georgia Press)
Hand’s End: Technology and the Limits of Nature (1995, University of California Press)
Is It Painful to Think? Conversations with Arne Naess (1992, University of Minnesota Press)

published in 2008

Playing with a whale feels like being on the edge of some new possibility, something beyond the human world.

thousand mile song

Whales transform people in interesting ways. The people in my book are quirky, the scientists and the musicians. I wanted to trace their stories as well as the story of whales and music.


If I play nightingale songs to my students, they think it sounds like cool club music. That's probably not what Wordsworth and Keats and John Clare thought when they heard it.
Do we have a more open sense to what counts as music today?


Jazz is open. If you believe that music can be spontaneously created by people who don't always know what's happening, then you'll believe that you can make music with creatures you don't quite understand.
Jazz is a kind of music that believes in spontaneous creation.


See also
A Story I tell: Helen East picks 'The Narwhal'
Many sightings of the whale onstage


Excerpts from the tracks on the 'Whale Music' CD can be heard here, including:

Valentine’s Day, 1992
David Rothenberg, clarinet
Robert Jürjendal, guitar
humpback whale song recorded by Paul Knapp

Most human music based on whale song concentrates on the wail, not on the form of the song, its pattern and rhyme. Here, Rothenberg slows the whale recording and transposes it a fifth down so that the structure of the song is clear.

Never Satisfied
Live, unedited duet with David Rothenberg on clarinet playing with one close-by and one far-away humpback whale, off the coast of Maui

Whiteness of the Beast
John Wieczorek, percussion
David Rothenberg, bass clarinet, synthesizer
Beluga whales recorded by Roman Belikov, Solovetski Island, White Sea

Duo Orcananda
Live interaction between clarinet and northern resident orcas of the A1 pod, Vancouver Island

The Killer
Robert Jürjendal, guitar
David Rothenberg, clarinet
Call of transient orcas, Vancouver Island
a melancholy lament

Moby Click
David Rothenberg, bass clarinet, synthesizer
Resonated clicks of sperm whale codas recorded by Hal Whitehead

The clicking, overlapping coda rhythms of female sperm whales are turned into a beat that sounds like it is played on a Brazilian berimbau, a one-string guitar played with a coin.

Myagostrov, in the Deep
David Rothenberg, clarinet
Belugas of the White Sea

A live recording at Myagostrov, Karelia, the clacking rhythms of the surf on rocks and the broadband Beluga noises near the hydrophone can be heard.

The World’s Last Whale
David Rothenberg, vocals, Turkish G clarinet, synthesiser

This is the first published recording of Pete Seeger’s song from 1970, with rhythm and background derived from the sped-up calls of minke whales, blue whales and fin whales, recorded by the U.S. Navy (declassified under the Dual Uses Initiative of 1991). Beluga sounds are also heard.

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