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The moving sounds of whales

By David Rothenberg, Safina Center Fellow

Whale hall at the University Museum of Natural History in Bergen. Photo: David Rothenberg

No one knows exactly how the whales got there, but there they are. Skeletons, huge ones, hanging above our heads. A long room sixty meters at least. A nineteenth-century museum, a National Landmark for Norway. For seven years the whale skeletons lay enshrouded in great white sheets, protected during the renovation. But be careful if you renovate a Landmark, said the authorities. When it is done, it must all look the same. You are allowed to transform it only with sound.

University Museum of Natural History in Bergen. Photo: David Rothenberg

So Bjarne Kvinnsland, Trond Lossius, and I, three composer/sound artists, got to work. We created a twenty-four channel sound installation made out of the songs and calls of sperm whales, pilot whales, killer whales, blue whales, bowhead whales, and an occasional clarinetist trying to make music with humpback whales. The specific aim was a difficult one—to tell precise stories about whale sounds only with their sounds, including as little explanatory text as possible.

Stories like these: Humpback whales sing long, beautiful songs that are closer to music than language, sometimes moving human listeners to tears. The male whales change this song, all together, from month to month and year to year. When one whale changes his tune and the new song is accepted, all the other whales quickly follow and change theirs so they all wail the new tune. When sung deep enough under the ocean’s surface, blue whale songs can travel thousands of miles across oceans in less than an hour. Bowhead whales sing lilting, simple songs like the bowing of a cello back and forth. They chant as they migrate under the ice. Their sounds suggest ancient time, a slow movement that could outlast human civilization. Pilot whales use a mix of echolocation clicks to find food and whistles and grunts to communicate. Their crisp complicated warbles and thlacks can be easily recorded with an underwater microphone called a hydrophone. Scientists today are trying to analyze hundreds of hours of pilot whale sounds to teach machines to decode what is being said. Sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whales, use clicks for echolocation and also to identify their family groups. They are the only animals we know of that have clan-specific percussive sounds. This precise and cultural way of using sound suggests that these whales have a complex and nuanced social life that humans can barely understand. We knew nothing about this when we hunted them to near extermination for their oil and ambergris.

After three years of transatlantic collaboration, including the design and manufacture of specially created spherical whale-bone-tinted speakers, the University Museum of Natural History in Bergen opened to the public on October 14, 2019. As soon as I walked in I realized this is no ordinary museum. In the old museum, at the entrance appeared four grand paintings of the institution’s founders, wealthy men of distinction who provided the capital for this grand edifice to be constructed. These austere paintings have now been replaced by four elegant animal painting: rabbit, lynx, squirrel, and fox, each with fictitious biographies underneath. Erika Rebecca Reba von Rev, for example, is described as a “business fox and philanthropist,” as now the Museum’s wise curators realize it is the animals, not the humans, who are the real founders of this collection. Take that, proponents of the Anthropocene. Upstairs in a glass case is a super-realistic wax figure of a woman nursing a child, with the caption, “the most dangerous animal to the planet.”

Our founders. Photo: David Rothenberg
“The most dangerous animal to the planet.” Photo: David Rothenberg

At the opening a naked performance artist, Marthe Ramm Fortun, led the first visitors on a tour of the collection, exclaiming quotes from Greta Thunberg and statistics on Amazon forest fires to the gathered crowd. I felt like I was inside a sequel to Ruben Östlund’s fabulous film The Square about a crazy Swedish art museum inside a former royal palace. We also had a viral video fiasco…. In preparation for the opening scientific curator Terje Lislevand posted a short film about how the old, ugly stuffed animals in the museum would be retired in favor of new, more high tech and shiny animals, and this sparked a vast public outcry. Thousands of viewers wrote in saying “we want the old moth-eaten animals,” and the Museum acquiesced, installing them in this unusual way: The people had spoken and were listened to, and by now it was clear this is no ordinary Natural History Museum.

Ugly animals. Photo: David Rothenberg

On the second night of opening festivities I played a solo concert with our sounds, aware of the irony: How can one encapsulate the grandeur of whales inside a human space? What sense of life could these old bones offer us anyway? Moving between seljefløyte (a Norwegian overtone flute), clarinet, and the booming bass clarinet, I interacted with the result of years of our collaborative composition, thinking of the words of Roger Payne, discoverer of the structure of humpback whale song, when he first listened down to it and said “I heard the size of the whole ocean that night.”

The room was dark, the whale sounds moved. I found my way into the mix. When done, everyone in the room smiled. One small way humankind had found a way to touch nature.

The exhibition is permanent; listen to it whenever you happen to end up in Bergen. You can eat whale down at the harbor but you don’t have to do that. Just listen to them. And I am honored to say that in part of the exhibition, you can hear me playing live along with the humpbacks too.

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