How artists are making new music inspired by the mysteries of whalesong

Human ears up here on land may not be able to hear it, but under the sea, humpback whales are singing songs using complex musical techniques — and now a group of musicians is working to reveal their watery wisdom.

As part of Halifax’s annual Nocturne: Art at Night, the largest art festival in Atlantic Canada, a group of five musicians took part in a whalesong workshop last fall, where they learned about the unique compositional techniques and structures that are at play when humpback whales sing with each other.

These musicians then used the lessons they learned to create original compositions.

“I’m always working to be a better listener,” says Nicole Rampersaud, a trumpeter and composer based in Southampton, N.B, who took part in the workshop.  “Whether I become a whale at the end of it, I’m not sure. And if I do, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

The intention behind the workshop was to encourage these musicians to consider their relationship with the natural world. 

“I asked the artists questions that I actually ask myself pretty often in my practice,” said Nocturne curator Lindsay Dobbin, who is a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk)-Acadian-Irish artist. 

“How can the land guide us as creators? Our listening, our actions?”

The workshop was facilitated by vocalist, composer, and cantor Daniela Gesundheit, as well as renowned acoustic biologist Katy Payne. 

For participants, the focus was on listening to the rich sonic world of humpback whales, remaining open to where that music might take them.

“I just had this urge to sit with the whalesong and just put the headphones on and listen,” says Rampersaud.

Making music with a whalesong pioneer

The whalesongs Rampersaud and her fellow participants listened to were recorded accidentally by a Navy engineer named Frank Watlington while he was trying to record Russian submarines in the 1960s. Watlington then shared these recordings with Katy Payne and her then-husband Roger Payne.

Whale song remains a “wonderful mystery” even a half-century after it was discovered, says pioneering whalesong scholar Katy Payne. (Katy Payne)

“After we heard that,” says Payne, “we were so moved that our lives were completely changed forever.” They are credited as being the first to realize that the eerie whale calls were actually songs.

In 1970, Katy and Roger Payne released these songs as an album called Songs of the Humpback Whale, and it became the best-selling environmental album in history. Katy then spent the next 30 years analyzing every facet of those whale songs. 

She made spectrograms, which are visual representations of frequencies — basically pictures of sound — and in studying these, she made a discovery.

“[I] realized that the whale was singing a different song as time went on,” said Payne. 

A spectrogram, also known as a sonograph, of whalesong made by Katy Payne in 1981. The spectrogramming process led Katy to realize that the whalesong progressed and changed over time. (Katy Payne)

Her work revealed that the whale song is not simple communication. It is a highly complex cultural phenomenon — it’s music. They are singing together and deciding on how the song should evolve together. It is a leaderless collaboration where differences arise over time. And they return to sing the same songs seasonally. 

“Every part of the song had its history,” says Payne.  “And all the whales were agreeing on what that history was. It was a jazz experience. They’re improvising, they’re listening, they’re imitating and fantastic to listen to.”

Born musicians

As a trumpeter and composer, Rampersaud was particularly drawn in by the musicality of the whales. When you listen to Rampersaud’s compositions after hearing the whalesong released in 1970 by Katy and Roger Payne, the parallels are profound:

One of the tracks composed and performed by Nicole Rampersaud

“The thing that stuck with me were the sounds, so the tambor of their voice, so to speak, and within there, there’s so much. There’s the texture of it, their vocal range, but then as you dig deeper and reveal the layers, it’s highly complex rhythmically.”

Rampersaud listened and re-listened to these recordings and eventually started her process of composition using the whale songs as inspiration.

“For me, it was like, ‘How do I create that feeling of hearing and receiving your sound in a place like the ocean, but in headphones?'”

Documentary producer Veronica Simmonds (top, second from left) and participants of the virtual whalesong workshop, captured in full music-making action over Zoom. (Veronica Simmonds)

Her original composition is called Kaamos from the Finnish word meaning “polar night,” a phenomenon that occurs inside polar circles where the night lasts longer than 24 hours. Nicole says she was inspired by the idea of a dark time of isolation and reflection. That resonated with her process of listening to the whale song. And the word itself, kaamos, which has no English translation, felt like the right fit.

“I chose that title because I’m always interested in words in other languages that don’t have a direct translation.” she says.  “That was something that really kind of stood out to me in this whole process of whale song — like, we don’t know why they sing [and] what the meaning is in the song.” 

Inspired by mystery

Payne says that the best guess that she and other biologists who study whales have for why they sing is that it’s likely for courtship. The singing territories of the whales take place in breeding grounds. 

But to this day, no one has actually seen humpback whales mate. So it is still a guess as to why they sing and why their songs change over time.

“What’s the biological driving force for change?” Payne asks. “Maybe females just like innovative males. That’s the best explanation that anybody can come up with.”

“It maybe doesn’t translate into something you can tap your foot to or dance to but there’s a timing and a pulse,” says Nicole Rampersaud of the whalesongs that inspired her work. (David Dacks)

And as for the beauty and resonance of the songs themselves, there is no accounting for that either.

“You know, it’s a mystery. That’s the wonderful thing,” says Payne.  “There are parts of some of the songs that make you sad or that make you happy as a person. But we don’t know about the emotions in the whales. We simply don’t know.”

For her part, Rampersaud believes this process of listening to whalesong will be reverberating throughout her music process for years to come.

“I think after sitting with the workshop, it became sort of very personal, for lack of a better term. I just understood on a deeper level that there’s so much I don’t know and that that’s wonderful, because it means there’s so much more to learn. And the way to learn those things is to listen.”

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