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Thousand Mile Song

Sharman Apt Russell reviews David Rothenberg's <em>Thousand Mile Song</em>.
Thousand Mile Song David Rothenberg Basic Books, 304 pp., $27.50

Book cover

Pop quiz! (Pun intended.) Name an album from 1970 that is still in print with more than 30 million copies sold. The Beatles' Let It Be? The soundtrack of Woodstock? Nope. It's Songs of the Humpback Whale, an eerie collection of booms, moans, sighs, chirps, buzzes, gulps, and violin-like sounds made by actual whales. Without this hit, the jazz musician and philosopher David Rothenberg argues in Thousand Mile Song, "there might never have arisen a movement to save the whales, transforming their im­age from oil and blubber to gentle serenaders of the sea."

The navy first recorded whale songs in the 1950s while listen­ing for Russian submarines. It wasn't until 1967 that these se­cret tapes were given to the bi­ologist Roger Payne, who helped produce Songs of the Humpback Whale to draw attention to the excesses of commercial whal­ing. In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, banning the importation of all marine mammals and their products into the United States. Today, only Japan, Norway, and Russia continue to hunt whales.

Whale populations are now re­covering in what Rothenberg calls a conservation success story based on the intersection of science and art. We make music. Whales make music. How could we kill animals that "sing so beautifully"?

Music can be defined as an art form that uses sounds and silence. But can a whale be called a musi­cian? Rothenberg would say yes. The long, repeated phrases in a humpback whale's song often end with a similar sound, and so they can be said to rhyme. Within a song, different patterns also end with the same sound, creating a recognizable rhythm. Only males sing in this way, usually at winter breeding grounds, and all males sing the same song -- one that evolves as the breeding season progresses. The song is different the next year, suggesting that whales, like humans, seek novelty and innovation.

They may also be seeking mates, though no one can say how this works since no one has ever seen a female actually approach a singing male. Some scientists argue that the singing is a form of male bond­ing or cooperation -- although, again, they can't explain why or how. As Rothenberg the philoso­pher lays out these controversies, he eagerly reveals the gaps in our knowledge. The natural conclu­sion, as he sees it, is that we don't know enough about whales.

Rothenberg the jazz artist has his own agenda, and it is not par­ticularly scientific. He wants to jam with whales. He wants to play a duet, their songs and his clarinet: an interspecies performance that might allow him to enter "the whale aesthetic." Whenever he can -- as a guest on a scientific ex­pedition or a paying passenger on a whale-watching tourist boat, at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago playing to beluga whales (a small whale known to make a variety of sounds) or on a Russian island in the White Sea -- Rothenberg pursues his dream using a com­bination of underwater speakers and hydrophones that allow him to hear whales singing even as they are able to hear him.

One beluga at the aquarium fi­nally copies one of Rothenberg's notes, a G just above middle C. The belugas in the White Sea also mimic that note and respond with their own screams, wails, cries, and clicks. Is this interspecies music? Rothenberg is inclined to think so: "A whale sings, a clari­net rings. The sounds overlap and connect." His best jam is with a humpback whale in Hawaii. On a tour boat decorated with astrologi­cal signs, Rothenberg encounters a whale that plays off his own riffs, not interrupting but adding to the sound of his clarinet with low growls and super-high squeaks, echoing the pitch and timbre of the instrument.

The musical pursuit of whales might needlessly disturb the animals, and Rothenberg does have the grace to doubt himself: perhaps this is all a "ridiculous stunt." His story is nevertheless worth reading for the questions it raises: Is the artistic impulse solely human? How much can people truly interact with whales? And is making music with a giant underwater creature a new kind of silliness, or perhaps a new way of understanding this mysterious and remarkable animal?

image of Sharman Apt Russell
Sharman Apt Russell is an award-winning nature and science writer whose most recent book is Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist (Basic Books). She teaches creative writing at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and Antioch Universi... READ MORE >