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Save the Whale Song

Susan Notes:

David Rothenberg--philosopher and musician--is the author of Why Birds Sing, which has been published in six languages and turned into a TV documentary by the BBC. You can see him communicating with belugas at http://www.thousandmilesong.com.

Tracks on Rothenberg's CD Baby recording (which you can listen to online) include:

1 Valentine's Day 1992
2 Never Satisfied
3 The Far Field
4 Whiteness of the Beast
5 Duo Orcananda
6 The Killer
7 Moby Click
8 And She Married a Whale
9 Myagostrov, In the Deep
10 Beluga No Believe in Tears
11 Koholaa!
12 The World's Last Whale

By Carolyn Mooney

At your next cocktail party, why not play a jazzy duet featuring a clarinetist and a humpback whale?

David Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (and an accomplished clarinetist), had recorded duets with songbirds while researching his popular book Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song (Basic Books, 2005). Now he has released a CD of his jam sessions with humpback, beluga, and orca (killer) whales. He traveled to Hawaii, Russia, the Pacific Northwest, and the Caribbean for his latest interspecies recordings, which include a Pete Seeger song about saving whales.

"This goes back to what I studied in grad school ΓΆ€" humanity and nature," says Rothenberg. "How can we relate to the natural world? I'm thinking music is one way to connect."

Rothenberg used some fancy technology to connect with the world's largest mammals, whose highly complex sound patterns ΓΆ€" thought to be a form of communication ΓΆ€" range from deep groans to high-pitched squeals. For a live duet recorded at sea, he stood on deck and played his clarinet into a microphone, which broadcast the sounds underwater via a special speaker. He also wore headphones to hear the whales' sounds, which were recorded on a special underwater microphone. For other duets, he played his clarinet over prerecorded whale sounds.

The whales' music is strange, stirring, soulful. "Humpbacks are the most musical, in terms of having long and complex sounds," Rothenberg says.

The founding editor of the MIT Press's Terra Nova book series, which explores the cultural and artistic components of environmental issues, Rothenberg is also a composer and has released a number of jazz CD's. He has plans for more interspecies duets ΓΆ€" perhaps featuring insects ΓΆ€" and was headed to Finland for a conference on nightingale music when we caught up with him.

Want to listen in on the scholar and the whales? Visit http://www.thousandmilesong.com or http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davidrothenberg2. Rothenberg's new book, Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (Basic Books), also includes an audio CD

— Carolyn Mooney
Chronicle of Higher Education


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