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Whale, Bow, Echo - Alex South

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

Whale, Bow, Echo for Violin, Cello and Fixed Media, Humpback Whale recorded off Mo’orea 25.09.2019

Whale, Bow, Echo (2021) is the most recent of an ongoing series of pieces of music based on the complex vocalizations of the humpback whale. These works, most of which I have made in collaboration with other humans, form part of my doctoral research into the relationship between human music and humpback song carried out under the supervision of whale biologists Luke Rendell and Ellen Garland (University of St Andrews) and composer Emily Doolittle (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). This piece has been special for me because it is the first I have worked on that does not involve me in its performance. Although over the last decade I’ve been involved in making a lot of new music, mainly working with other people, I’ve always been up there on the stage at the end of the process. So, it’s been interesting to play a new role and to have to hand over the score and with it any further responsibility for the performances themselves. In this case, Alice and Sonia of Sequoia played a key role in the early stages of the composition process, and so they too have become composer-performers.

The origins of the piece lie in some ideas I’d had about the rhythms of humpback song. It is an open question whether the rhythms of humpback song are independent of the song units (sonic gestures) of which it is comprised. In human music, we’re used to thinking of rhythm as a feature of music that can be varied independently of the notes which make it up: the same notes with a different rhythm (or vice versa) make a different melody. This may depend on the fact that much human music is based on a fixed set of pitches that can be performed with a range of durations. By contrast, one of the special features of humpback song is that its elementary song units are constantly evolving and changing, and thus it seemed plausible to me that every type of song unit also has its own inherent duration. This means that human compositional rules might be reversed: rather than choosing song units (or notes) to fit to a given rhythm, or finding a rhythm that goes well with a sequence of song units, it might be the case that the rhythm is already bound up with the identity of the song units. I said that this is a reversal of human compositional rules, but of course there is a large class of music in which rhythms arrive already built in: song… Where words are involved it is natural that song rhythms are to some degree dependent on the rhythms of speech, and I have explored this in the context of humpback song in an earlier piece written with Katherine Wren based on a poem by Lesley Harrison, ‘In the black holes of the ocean’. But Sequoia is an instrumental duo, and my first idea was that the rhythm of the piece would be constrained by the type of material that they were performing and its relation to violin and cello. As to this material, I wanted it to be related to humpback song units in some way, and also wanted that the players would choose this relationship, with the only proviso being that both instruments would produce sonic gestures that would be recognizably ‘the same’ to each other and to an audience. This relates to another property of humpback song: that all whales within a particular population sing the same song at a given time.

The initial thought about rhythm led me toward thinking about the way in which humpback whales produce their sounds and how this could be connected with the ways in which string players create sounds from their instruments. Humpbacks generate their vocalizations within their bodies in a closed system, with air moving from lungs to a specialized organ called the laryngeal sac and back again, and I was struck by a possible parallel to the upwards and downwards movements of the bow. I speculated that rhythms might emerge naturally from bow length and the speed or pressure with which the bow was employed to make particular sounds. However, in the course of the first workshop on the piece, it became clear that this was not really the case, because such skilled players as Alice and Sonia did not have these constraints over their technique. In part, this was due to the material chosen. As I well know, whale vocalizations of all kinds, but especially those of the humpback whale, seem to invite or even demand an imitative or mimetic response, and this was certainly the case here. I was very happy to keep out of Alice and Sonia’s way here and their pleasure in experimenting with different ways of ‘becoming-whale’, of transforming humpback song units into gestures on violin and cello with the aid of some rather unusual techniques. And so the piece morphed, from an exploration of rhythm into one concerned more with what happens when music-like phrases are translated from one vocal ‘language’ into another.

From early on I’d thought that the piece would include an extra layer of sound created electronically, and I experimented on early recordings of the bowed sounds with the Ableton Live DAW (digital audio workstation). I’d been struck by the relatively consonant pitches of the whale song phrases that Alice and Sonia had chosen, and was happy to find a highly customizable ‘resonator’ plugin that would bring out certain pitches in their phrases and prolong them in another process of mimesis. The use of this plugin immediately plunges us into an immersive quasi-oceanic environment, and I realized that I wanted to create echoes of the violin and cello gestures, echoes which would build and continue throughout the piece, but be subjected to slow transformations (rolling off high frequencies, increasing reverberation times) which might give the impression of violin-cello-whales heard at a distance. This was easy to do within another DAW (Reaper), and I ended up with a multi-layered fixed media part generated from Alice and Sonia’s own sounds, hence seeming to absorb, reflect and multiply their song phrases played live.

With regard to the audio component of , the last step came very late on, when I decided to introduce parts of the original field recording, made in September 2019 during my own fieldwork led by Ellen Garland and Michael Poole (Marine Mammal Research Programme, Mo’orea, French Polynesia). I took phrases from the three themes that had served as models for imitation and put them together in an ‘asynchronous chorus’. Coming at the end of the piece the whale song takes on an unusual identity: for me it is as though everything up to that point has been some sort of prelude or overture. Or, better, a kind of summoning, a ritual in which the painstaking efforts of the players to become-whale are rewarded by an aural glimpse of another vastly more ancient form of music-like expression, similar and yet irreducibly different. It is only then that the audience can appreciate the proximity of whale singer and human performers.

Finally, I note that I created the projections accompanying the piece from spectrograms of phrases of the original humpback song, spectrograms that we found to be useful visual cues in performance and that form an essential part of the score. The timing of the gradual transitions is set so that different spectrograms appear visually at the same pace as players move from one phrase to another, although there is no strict synchronization.

Alex South, November 2021

Watch a performance of Whale, Bow, Echo

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