WILD HEART: Musical Discussions With Whales

Jim Nollman * Chris Swenson Performance

first time in Europe, first session in Helsinki, Finland, 28th April 1996, time 15.00

The Sperm Whale Project

The sperm whale possesses the largest brain we may ever know. And how bizarre that no human being has ever tried to make personal contact with the animal. In fact, the only way human beings have related to this species historically is to slaughter it at every turn. Contemporary science can tell us little about this whale beyond the size and weight of its various internal organs. For instance we know this ceatacean's brain can weigh an astounding seventeen pounds. Nineteenth century whalers left us but a fleeting glimpse into the sperm whale's social behavior. We know that the males and females travel separately in their own distinct pods for most of the year. We know the species prefers the deep ocean because it feeds primarily on giant squid. A few researchers, first off Sri Lanka and later off the Azores have recently videotaped sperm whales swimming underwater. The whales seem to spend hours and hours spiralling about one another, never losing tactile contact. The overall image is of some vast gray rose slowly opening its petals.

The conclusion is unavoidable. This gray rose of a whale offers us little of substance, although much to provide the basis of a profound mystery

How might we begin to interact with this species that is, conceivably, the most evolved being ever to inhabit the Earth? In fact, let us imagine approaching this whale at its own slow pace and with all due humility. Let us fantasize greeting this being whom the French name cachelot and the Germans pottwhal, not as a cache or pot of fine machine oil--not as a subject or as a specimen. Let us greet it in a manner human beings never greet wild animals anymore: as student to master, disciple to wisdom keeper--as pint-sized initiates desiring a glimpse into the great unknown.

If our motives are transparent, if our methodology displays compassion, is there any chance this creature might reveal something of it's thought processes, it's knowledge, it's dreaming? Would it tell us if the mind is only a local phenomenon or whether the brain serves, instead, as a kind of radio receiver tuned to thoughts that reside somewhere outside the skull? And what are the sperm whale's conclusions about communication and coexistence with Gaia? What does it know about hyperspace, the unity of past present and future, the alien intelligence of giant squid, the psychoactive effects of sound and deep diving. Can it tell us something--anything--about why we exist at all?

We propose a great adventure. Let's meet the sperm whale in the open ocean, and then attempt to find a common ground of communication with it. But what language might we employ to even begin this difficult process. We at IC recommend that music will serve well as the foundation for contact. Both recorded music and improvised live music might very well display something essential about the human heart, human culture, the pulse of our creativity. It will certainly exhibit something of our joy, our sadness, even our desire to finally transcend the unmitigated cruelty we have exacted so thoroughly on all of nature.

Being There

We at IC have begun to promote an interactive project with sperm whales. Our own interest is straightforward enough: We simply want to be aboard when people first attempt to communicate with them. Our own specific goal is to improvise music. To our ear, most animal vocalizations are more akin to music than language. We agree with philosopher Gregory Bateson, who spent some years working to communicate with dolphins, and concluded that attempting to translate cetacean whistles into English or sign language--or even into a made-up halfway language like John Lilly's apple computer-based delphinese--is a futile endeavor, not unlike trying to translate Beethoven into words and sentences.

An idea mentioned briefly in the last newsletter seems worth developing more in this context. Almost all toothed whales use echolocation as the primary means of perceiving their often-murky underwater world. A staccato burst of clicks bounces off an object such as a fish and echoes back to the whale where it is received through nerve receptors in the jaw. The animal "hears" this echo as an actual three-dimensional image possessed of a certain shape, material density and distance.

Recent evidence suggests that the sperm whale may also utilize echolocation to attain a uniquely sophisticated level of interpersonal communication. Unlike its toothed cousins--the dolphin, the beluga, the orca--sperm whales do not also whistle as a means of signalling simple concepts like identity, distance, and alarm between members of their immediate pod. What they do instead is vocalize a close approximation of their own echolocation clicks back and forth to one another. It seems likely that the species is actually communicating these so-called "echoes" back and forth among one another. If its true, then it strongly implies that sperm whales possess a spoken language vaguely analogous to the word-images of the Chinese alphabet. But this language is quite unlike anything we humans can perceive with our own ears and brains. Although it is "spoken" as a burst of clicks, these clicks actually contain the graphic information of a sonic hologram. The clicks are interpreted by the whale, not as sound, but as three-dimensional moving images that unfold directly inside their head.

It seems important to emphasis that whale echolocation follows the same fundamental laws of acoustics that produce sonar imaging in submarines and ultrasound imaging in pre-natal care. It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility to consider that we already possess the basic technology to image sperm whale clicks onto a screen. But to image them is one thing. Interpreting them is quite another. For just one trivial example, if the Hawaiian language has over one hundred words for rain and the Inuit language has fifty words for snow, how many words might the deep-diving sperm whale have to describe water pressure? For a more knotty example: how can we conceivably expect our own small brain to map the more comprehensive thoughts of such a larger brain?

Maybe the sperm whales will aid us in understanding them. Consider this. As a direct result of whaling, the sperm whale is today on the endangered species list. Yet although the species is close to extinction as a direct result of human activities, sperm whales still do not exhibit any inclination to flee human beings who approach them in boats. They are however, pelagic creatures who approach land infrequently. There are a few scattered locations around the world--the Galapagos, the Azores, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, the Canaries, the East coast of Japan--where sperm whales draw close to shore at certain times of year. In many of these places, sperm whales are suddenly finding themselves to be the subject of a brand new whalewatching industry.

The Gray Rose

Over the past year, I have introduced the concept of interacting with sperm whales everywhere I have traveled. Describing the potential of the interspecies interaction, discussing its logistical problems, its financing, and proposing various solutions, makes me feel more connected to a growing worldwide network than any other project IC has been involved in over the past twenty years.

In the Canary Islands this past December I told the story of the sperm whale to our workshop gathering. Describing the spiral, the gray rose, the huge brain, the potential mind, the three-dimensional language, the giant squid; I felt I was traveling much the same allegorical ground as the mythmaker who first brought the allegory of the holy Grail to King Arthur's court. Two days later the group aboard our ship, the Kairos, voted to sail to a location fifteen miles off the island of Gomera, where the deep ocean comes very close to shore and sperm whales were sited just a few months earlier.

I was intrigued when the group next voted to stop the boat and spend the entire day in silence and meditation. In other words, rather than spend the time peering outward--sailing and scanning the ocean for whales--we journeyed inward, spending the time emptying our minds to test the unconventional premise that the sperm whale might even enter one of us.

The sea was uncommonly flat, the day gloriously warm and sunny. In counsel that evening, participants expressed many strong feelings, some of them very strange. Two people independently told of witnessing some unidentified species of whale breaching a few times off the stern. No one else saw it. Someone depicted the day as a grand tour through a mythical territory. Everyone agreed that silence and meditation are essential elements of any future meeting with sperm whales.

In a way, the IC sperm whale project commenced that sunny day in twelve thousand feet of water off Gomera. Its next series of events are scheduled to manifest when I visit Japan for a presentation tour this June. A deep ocean trench parallels the east coast of that country . Sperm whales linger seasonally near a few of the peninsulas that jut out toward that trench. At Chiba near Tokyo, I will perform at a yearly whale festival, and then lead a weekend workshop which will include a visit to an offshore grounds frequented by sperm whales.

On the Muroto peninsula on the rural island of Shikoku, seafaring men who were whaling commercially just five years ago, have recently converted their boats to whale watching. June is when the sperm whales venture close enough to shore to observe their passage. Working closely with the organization, ICERC--Japan, IC has made contact with these whalewatching operators in Muroto. I will travel there this June with a representative from ICERC and a TV producer to meet the skippers. If conditions are right we all hope to spend at least one day swimming with sperm whales. The human principles will discuss collaborating next year to film a six-week long meeting at sea with sperm whales.

Mentioning a few of the other talented people who have expressed an interest in participating in this Japanese event grants a potency to the project. One man is a senior scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles who wrote the software to help image the radio signals received from the Magellan deep-space probe. He also worked with IC five years ago to devise algorithms for imaging orca vocalizations. Another man, a long time IC member, is a well-known musician and an expert in optimizing the MIDI-interface that joins computers with musical instruments. A woman has led workshops in swimming with dolphins all over the world, and is currently involved in a longterm study of the intuitive side of human/cetacean interactions. In Japan, I will discuss a film collaboration with an Olympic medalist in synchronized swimming.

Walk And Chew Gum

Presenting the IC sperm whale project at a series of recent presentations in Germany prompted an entirely different response. It brought together a group of artists, cetacean promoters and media producers to discuss ways an encounter between humans and sperm whales species might be documented. The idea of making a documentary nature film for TV interested no one. What interested everyone is comedy, absurdity, mystery, lots of whale images, and an undeniable interaction between species.

At the present time, a film script is slowly emerging within cyberspace. In brief, our film is geared to be shot in the Azores, which is one of the best places in the world for meeting sperm whales. As if the metaphors we're playing with aren't already tantalizing enough, a white sperm whale is known to visit that part of the Atlantic Ocean periodically.

The film will be a mongrel: part documentary, part science fiction. It should make frequent use of computer animation. The story begins at an interplanetary conference held in the year 2097. People from all over the galaxy have gathered together to commemorate a crucial event in the history of inter-galactic communication that occurred in the Azores in the year 1997. This event is, of course, our own humble expedition to interact with sperm whales. Here's a few snippets from the still malleable script.

...They communicated to one another in a three-dimensional dialect utilizing elements of mathematics, osmotics, and a music vaguely akin to reggae rhythms but devoid of all limitations of gravity.

...The camera settles on the rear deck where several people are seated in a circle. A peace pipe passes between them. The group includes a scientist studying holosonic communication, an American Indian storyteller, tap dancers who hope to communicate with the sperm whale on a tin-covered raft, a marine biologist, a woman with a dream to touch a sperm whale, a director of documentary nature films, a psychic, a writer of men's adventure stories, a former whaler, an animal rights activist, a designer of theme parks, a didgeridoo player, a politician.

...Regard this film as a post-modern Canterbury Tales focusing on the human relationship to nature. Each character aboard the sailboat tells how and why they first became interested in connecting with the sperm whale. The stories they weave are heavily dependent on costuming. For instance, as one man talks about collecting data about whales, he suddenly dons a white coat and peers through a microscope that materializes in front of him. As a woman discusses her interest in giant squids--the sperm whales main diet--she morphs into a squid.

...Sperm whales process several ideas at once. We joke about this ability in humans when we say that so-and-so can walk and chew gum at the same time. But how does a sperm whale do it? [On screen, someone tells the story of the Aboriginal dolphin dreamtime. After two sentences we see the story enacted on screen. At that precise moment, another crew member simultaneously starts relating the story of the Dogon myth of dolphins originating in the dark companion star of Sirius. After two sentences, the Dogon story gets superimposed over the Aboriginal story. Simultaneously a third myth begins. And so on, until there are eight stories being told and depicted on screen simultaneously. Be playful with this presentation. For instance, have all eight people say one specific word at the same time. Or have the teller of one story finish the sentence of someone telling another story and vice versa.

...No image, a white screen. A woman's voice: "This event was the great leap upward. For the first time since the industrial revolution, the human species finally understood just how limited was its own brain." [film clip of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz singing: "I would wile away the hours, conversing with the flowers...If I only had a brain."] The white screen slowly comes into focus as the camera pulls back to reveal a billiard ball. It is rolling back and forth across a large wooden ship's table with upraised edges. Now we hear the sound of the ball rolling as the film credits also rock back and forth across the screen. The camera pulls back to show that the table is the central piece of furniture in the salon of a large boat. The roll of the ball is caused by the boat rolling through the waves. We see through a gangway, a large group of people gathered on the stern deck.

...In hindsight, it seems ironic that, in his own time Einstein was considered a physicist and not an aesthetic theorist, or that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle was used exclusively as a description of sub-atomic physics, instead of as the foundation of shamanic biology. But then, a hundred years ago aesthetics was utilized primarily in entertainment. [Computer animation begins] Humans did not yet comprehend the fact that the animals they perceived all around them were not precisely real, but only a clever disguise, an outfit the real animal put on when it visited the human world. Human beings had no idea that once home again, the animal took off its costume and changed back to its true form, which was exactly the same as the human's true form. This blindness among humans occurred because, a hundred years ago, human beings granted science, economics, and politics the central import in their lives now reserved entirely for osmotic tuning. As we know, the science, economics, and politics of that time successfully conspired to deceive human beings into believing that the animals of planet Earth were mere instinctoids. [Cut to the tap dancers on their tin raft, in squid costume, dancing vigorously in front of a pod of sperm whales. The sound track includes the clicking of the whales.]

Jim Nollman's email: beluga@rockisland.com

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Rauno Lauhakangas
Research Institute for High Energy Physics
University of Helsinki, Finland