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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Jamming with Wild Whales

Air Date: Week of

A Pacific Northwest artist has set up a special underwater sound system so Orca whales can hear him play the guitar, and the whales sing along. Liam Moriarity of KPLU-Seattle recorded the jam session and speaks with the artist about communicating with another species through music.


CURWOOD: Many of us hold powerful convictions that we are not alone in the universe. Astronomers, for example, constantly search the heavens for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. But for more than 20 years, artist and author Jim Nollman has sought otherworldly contact closer to home. Mr. Nollman uses music to interact with whales, creatures that inhabit a world nearly as alien to us as outer space. And he believes connecting with them is as challenging and as important as communicating with beings in distant solar systems. From member station KPLU, Liam Moriarty reports.

(Power boat engines)

MORIARTY: The power boat skims over glassy water on a sunny day off the west coast of Canada.

(Voices on radio)

MORIARTY: Jim Nollman and the two-man crew scan the horizon, looking for whales. It doesn't take long. The waters near Vancouver Island are home to more than 200 killer whales, or orcas, that travel in highly-structured family groups.

(A guitar strums)

NOLLMAN: Underwater speaker --

MORIARTY: Mr. Nollman pulls into a quiet cove and prepares to entice the whales into a jam session.

NOLLMAN: So is it plugged in?

MAN: Yeah, it's plugged in.

(A few notes on the guitar)

MORIARTY: The sound of Mr. Nollman's electric guitar will be broadcast underwater through a special speaker. A microphone will pick up how it sounds underwater, and how the whales react.

(Guitar plays)

NOLLMAN: I'm kind of diddling around right now. I haven't quite found my niche yet.

(Guitar plays, joined by whale songs)

MORIARTY: Orcas live in a dark world where sound, not sight, is the primary sense. They navigate by echolocation and communicate with each other using a sophisticated pattern of clicks, chirps, and squeaks.

(Guitar plays; whales sing)

NOLLMAN: There's a key time between when they are really fully at rest and they're moving, in which they kind of get playful, in which they seem to be most interested in something new.

(Guitar and whales)

NOLLMAN: I've got them now.

MORIARTY: It can sometimes take hours for the whales to show interest. Some days they're not interested at all. Today, Mr. Nollman gets lucky.

(Guitar and whales)

MORIARTY: He grins as the whales respond, following the notes up and down the scale.

(Guitar and whales)

NOLLMAN: I've had some good luck with some reggae rhythms, actually, and with ragas, Indian ragas. With a raga, you know, you can just keep a drone going forever, so it -- you can play a piece of music for an hour, for example, and it remains basically musical. There is always a space for the whales to come in.

(Guitar plays)

NOLLMAN: When I get into some of the ping ponging, I think it starts to sound pretty cool, at least through headphones.

MAN: Mm hm.

MORIARTY: Back in his studio in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, Mr. Nollman edits his field tape with a technician for release as a CD. He's published several collections of music with orcas, and he's written a book about the relationship between humans and whales.

(Guitar and whales)

MORIARTY: When you ask what motivates him, or even to define what he does, Mr. Nollman doesn't have a quick answer.

NOLLMAN: The thing that I like about it -- this is nuts, to say this -- is that you can almost not say what it is. Because it involves biology and cognitive science, and new music, and reggae, and religion. It has all those things and they're all equal.

MORIARTY: To him, it's conceptual art, a way of dancing with the natural world. He's often asked to speak to scientists at conferences about whales, but he is quick to point out that his approach is artistic, not scientific.

NOLLMAN: I remember a biologist saying I really should focus on sine waves, because then I can measure the frequencies and all that. And I said, we're not here to measure sine waves. We're here to try to make music, which is a form of communion. We want to have communion with these animals.

MORIARTY: While his work may not be scientific, it has had an impact. In recent years, Mr. Nollman has used his art to promote whale-watching in Japan, northern Russia, and other places where whales or dolphins are still hunted. He feels that whaling communities will change only when they see it's more lucrative to let the whales live than it is to kill them.

NOLLMAN: I think that's a value that art always has. It's to change perceptions of the world we live in. And I'm trying to do it with whales.

MORIARTY: And Mr. Nollman's pioneering work has inspired other efforts at inter-species cultural exchange.

(A choir sings)

MORIARTY: Aboard the Odyssey, a whale-watch boat out of Friday Harbor, 14 members of Seattle's City Cantabile Choir check their sheet music and warm up their voices. They're on their way to make an unusual artistic gesture. They're going to sing to the whales.

(Choir sings)

MORIARTY: In the wheelhouse, director Fred West says the choir wants to show the whales there's more to humans than harpoons and noisy boats.

WEST: They see a whole other side of human existence, you know, mostly kind of the mechanized side and the fishing side and whatnot. I just feel like they ought to meet the artist. Don't you? (Laughs)

MORIARTY: Jim Nollman's sound system is set up to broadcast the performance underwater. The boat's skipper picks a spot that resident orcas are known to frequent, shuts off the engines, and waits. Soon, several black fins slowly approach, rhythmically diving and surfacing. It's show time.

(Choir and drums)

MORIARTY: The choir kicks into an Afro-Brazilian song about Yemanja , goddess of the sea.

(Choir and drums continue)

MORIARTY: Over the next 30 minutes, more than a dozen whales swim by. Some continue on their way. Other seem to linger, perhaps curious about the unusual sounds.

(Choir sings: "Yemanja, oh ya" )

MORIARTY: On the trip back to port, choir member Joanne Koonce feels the singers made a connection with the whales.

KOONCE: It seemed like there was a whale that was heading sort of right by us across the bow. And it looked like he turned around and kind of tacked back and forth a couple times, came up. It did seem like they stopped.

MORIARTY: The participants are exhilarated by their encounter, but Jim Nollman resists reading too much into it. He says overanalyzing the whales' reaction is missing the point.

NOLLMAN: Somebody else might say, well, how do you know that they did anything? And I don't know. I just know what I feel, you know, and I'm not a scientist. I'm an artist, so feelings have power and they have weight.

MORIARTY: For Jim Nollman , the value of this work doesn't lie in achieving some dramatic breakthrough in interspecies communication. It lies in changing people's perceptions about the whales, and about our own place in the natural order. For Living on Earth, I'm Liam Moriarty aboard the Odyssey out of Friday Harbor, Washington.



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