more about the project here and here
words below from my process journal:
Since I was initially interested in water, for many reasons (water can give life, or be destructive, allow or inhibit travel etc) this is where I started to look for sound. One of the most interesting things I came across is whale songs. They are complex in their syntactic structure, beautiful in sound, and puzzling to those who study them. One of the most fascinating things about whale song, is that they can be arrhythmic or rhythmic depending on the group and song. They follow patterns, and evolve overtime moving back and forth in length, complexity and tone. The are often long and extremely intricate, making them difficult to decode especially since they do not repeat in a predictable way. Katy Payne, a trained musician and biologist compares it to jazz “where each player riffs on the same methodical repetition, but innovates too.” It is almost like scat singing or as I will talk about later, call and response but it is most definitely considered music.
I came across Roger Payne’s study of whale vocalization after listening to this podcast where a musician went on a trip to try singing with some whales in a Norwegian Fjord. Despite neither side being able to understand the other, and there being no discernible intent, there is a dialogue, a conversation.
A man called Frank Waltington who was working for the US government using SOFAR to listen to Russian submarines, had trouble because the whales songs were getting in the way. His finding somehow made it to Payne and his colleague Scott McVay and they produced a study called Songs of Humpback Whales. Here they discuss the intricacies of the songs and break them down into units, sub units, themes ect. I am also interested in these notations used to illustrated these units:
an illustration of all units in a whale song
an “score” or illustration of two whale songs in their entirety
And the variation in tone, frequency and intonation:
Overall, whales communicate to support each other whether they are hundreds of miles away or very close. They sing when they are alone, and in groups perhaps to find food, to find mates, or to play but no one really knows for sure. Their form of communicating is subversive and powerful in this way, as it is only for them to know and understand. Besides their unique sonic abilities, water is the vehicle for this communication and its intensity or softness. It is not being controlled, but rather adapted to. These creatures are intelligent and compassionate which we can learn just from the way they communicate. They uplift, grieve, warn and play with each other with only their voices. I am considering using this album in particular as a base for my composition, as well as taking influence in notation from the scores.
In thinking about how I want the sound to be structured, or what this “communicative healing space” will entail, I started to think about what is inherent to feedback loops. There is an input, and an output and they are inversely related, it is again a call and response. I wanted the sound to respond to the water and vice versa. I began to look into the origins of “call and response” which to my surprise comes from music, with its origins in traditional African song/ritual, spreading to negro spiritual, gospel, jazz and so on. The “call and response” in song is an affirmation of the self in the group, a democratic way of performance, and a form of protest or resistance.
The field holler is similar, though it is usually sung by an individual with the occasional response from a group. It is sung to accompany work, primarily associated with cotton cultivation and chain gangs.
If you listen to the above track, and the Solo Whale track, there is also an auditory similarity (around 6:15 in Solo Whale). I find this an exciting start for mixing and layering. For me, one of the most powerful aspects of these songs besides their use to uplift was their subversive nature. Often with nothing but the body and the work, slaves used their voices to commune and cope. Overseers mistook this singing for content with hard labor, and so they allowed it in the fields. This misinterpretation allowed for a strengthening of community and uplifting of spirit, and is often the case with this kind of code switching whether verbal or gestural. Although in the case of slave hymns this way of misleading is very intentional, I think it is interesting to think about in relation to these whale songs. I think these tracks could be in an interesting dialogue with each other. Looking more into call and response and its influence on more contemporary music like jazz, gospel and blues I can think of many ways to integrate other singular and group forms of improvisational song. I am excited to begin playing with this sound and seeing where it will go! Updates with tests to come!