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Book Review: Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound 

click to enlarge Basic Books, 2008, $27.50.
  • Basic Books, 2008, $27.50.


We owe much to whales. The first recordings of humpback whale songs, made in the 1960s, stunned the world. This music helped launch the green movement, and would have an immeasurable effect on wildlife conservation policy. The songs were different then, more melodic—a generation later, these whales are on to something else. Their sound, their aesthetic, is changing constantly. One might even wonder whether the songs from that era had a particular intention, a special hook, for our ears—whether these animals were trying, via music, to save themselves and their planet.

Upon hearing these early recordings, artists and composers promptly took up the cause. Judy Collins, on her 1971 gold album Whales and Nightingales, sang a chantey with the backup accompaniment of a humpback. Captain Beefheart, David Crosby, Don Cherry, and John Cage all ventured in, finding ways to commune with the cetacean sensibility. Pete Seeger stated the case in the plainest terms: “If we can save our singers in the sea / Perhaps there’s a chance to save you and me.”

Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg is at the current vanguard of interspecies music. His previous book, Why Birds Sing, detailed his jazzy duos with thrushes and other peregrinations in avian musicality. More recently, he has been jamming with whales—voyaging far and wide with his clarinet, and discussing the mysteries of these intelligent mammals with experts.

Reading his searching chronicle, Thousand Mile Song, one never loses sight of the line between science and art; the ethical questions that arise as the author encroaches on this boundary become an important part of his inquiry. In general, his musical experiment is welcomed by the pros as an eco-educational opportunity, or even as a way for the animals to learn about us. One conservationist, however, scolds him. When Rothenberg defends himself, saying he wants only to make “interesting sounds…sounds that can’t be made by one species alone,” his antagonist shouts, “What’s the point if you haven’t got a hypothesis?” Rothenberg explains that he does have one, “but it’s musical, not scientific.”

His approach and process nonetheless do entail speculating on salient discoveries that researchers have made. About spindle neurons, vehicles of empathy and intuition that until recently were known to exist only in the brains of higher primates, he observes,” We opened their brains and didn’t find the reason why whales sing, but there is evidence that they may be able to care about our question.” He’s always the humanities jock—while analyzing humpback phrase patterns, Rothenberg ponders the similarity of the sonograms to medieval musical notation, calling to mind the quirky derivation of our own aesthetic standards. To be sure, his cultural relativism does not exclude whale culture.

The prevalent view among biologists is that male humpbacks’ songs—although collaborative, imaginative, and sometimes rhyming—are created purely for the business of attracting mates. The problem, though, is that there is no evidence the females are at all interested. As a musician, Rothenberg can coolly detach from the Darwinian premise of this question, and as a philosopher, he can do so without misunderstanding science. The author’s edgiest assertion may be simply that a whale can trade licks in a manner universal among all true musicians; by listening, replying, giving space—and searching out a certain kind of rightness.

The CD that comes with Thousand Mile Song introduces a new genre of world music. The didgeridoo tonality of humpbacks or capoeira beats of sperm whales may hint at foreign sources from which our own species’ musical culture was invented.

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