Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Songs of the Humpback Whale

Today I found the reissue CD of this classic album, Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970). This was the original whalesong album, produced by Dr. Roger Payne, that changed everything. It was instrumental in changing the minds of people about ecological awareness, and can be credited as part of the inception of the whole "Save the Whales" movement in the 1970s. The January 1979 issue of National Geographic went so far as to include a plastic LP soundsheet, to be played on your record player, produced by Dr. Payne, of whalesongs to accompany their cover story on the humpback whale.

I still have my original vinyl LP of this album. I bought it brand new. It was one of those albums of music that, like many albums of 20th C. avant-garde music that I also bought in my teens, changed my life, and affected my life as a composer and musician. Songs of the Humpback Whale was the original. It was the first. There have been many recordings made since, but this one stands as a classic. I listened to it many nights, I can't count how many, in the dark of the night; I sometimes fell asleep to it, following the sea-echoes off into meditative silence.

These whalesong recordings were also one important source of the beginning of my interest in recordings of nature, or ambient sounds, and connected directly to my simultaneous studies of John Cage's ideas that all of natural sounds are music. So I can honestly say that this was an album that affected my direction as a composer and sound designer, and added impetus to my already-existing tendencies towards both new music and recorded natural sounds. (I made at least one amateur tape piece inspired by it, which fortunately is lost; it was a teenager's homage to something he loved, and no doubt I'd be embarassed to hear it now myself.)

Songs was long out-of-print, until remastered and re-released by Paul Winter's Living Music record label. Winter was another musician whose life was changed by listening to this album. He writes for the reissued CD liner notes:

Hearing this album was a milestone experience in my musical life. I was thrilled by the haunting beauty of these humpback whale voices, much as I had been when I first heard jazz saxophonists like Charlie Parker. Studying the long, complex songs which the whales repeat again and again, I was amazed by their musical intelligence, and shocked that these magnificent beings were being hunted to extinction. The whales opened my ears to the whole symphony of nature, and expanded my world forever.

Songs of the Humpback Whale is a timeless classic of the earth's music.

—Paul Winter

Winter has ever since been involved with weaving natural sounds, especially those made by animals, into his music. He has since recorded several albums in which he performs improvised music to accompany the sounds made by other living creatures. Notable examples are his albums Callings and Prayer for the WIld Things. (Another album I sometimes put on to fall asleep to. On my worst insomniac nights, music such as this, or whalesongs, or Tibetan Buddhist chant, focuses the wheel-spinning mind, allows it to be calmed and quieted, so that I might fall asleep.)

Samples from this album were used by composer Alan Hovhaness in his orchestral work, And God Created Great Whales. . . (Opus 229, 1970). The orchestra creates soundscapes, repetitive patterns in the strings, with a soaring brass melody over the watery strings, and the recorded whale enters as a soloist, as in a concerto. In high school in Ann Arbor, I was playing contrabass in the orchestra when we performed this piece. I already knew the piece well from its premiere recording, as I had become interested in the composer as part of my studies in avant-garde music, and was thrilled to be able to study the score and play it. It's a musical experience that has stayed with me all these years. (I remember performing Respighi's Pines of Rome in the same concert.) In the ensuing years, I've played several of Hovhaness' solo piano pieces.

Samples from this album, along with some other recordings, were also used for the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which the crew of the Enterprise travelled back in time to bring two humpbacks forward to save the Earth. Living Music also released a soundtrack album connected to the film, Whales Alive! This CD contained narration and readings by Leonard Nimoy of prose and poetry by D.H. Lawrence, Gary Snyder, Hermann Melville, and others.

Now that this compelling and mysterious music is available again, I urge a new generation of listeners to seek it out. May your life be forever changed by it, as so many others' lives were changed, including my own.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve only discovered Hovhaness recently – within the past five years – and I’ve gobbled up everything I could find (that I could afford). And God Created Great Whales. . . is a favourite but I’ve not heard anything yet that I didn’t care for. Pines of Rome I’ve known for nearly forty years. Respighi’s not a composer whose work has stayed with me apart from the three tone poems although I recently got to hear his Concerto Gregoriano which is quite wonderful.

As for just listening to an album of whale sounds I think I may have done many years ago but I’m not sure. I don’t have anything like that just now.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My other favorite Respighi is the three suites of "Ancient Airs and Dances for Lute," which are Renaissance pieces he re-arranged and orchestrated for large forces. The original rhythmic charm is there, filled out with some masterful orchestrations. I do think Respighi was one of the master orchestrators of the 20th C.

Glad you've discovered Hovhaness. I've played a lot of his work, orchestral and piano, and listened to a lot more. I agree, I haven't heard anything I didn't like. I have probably twenty of his piano scores, and have played through most of them, and actually performed a few of them. There's something very appealing about his musical choices; very international.

11:18 AM  

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