Extending our Senses

Image A conversation between David Rotheberg and Laurie Anderson, in n+1:

David Rothenberg: That is a humpback whale singing there, recorded in Hawaii. They do it during mating season. They swim from Alaska all the way down to Hawaii, and they don’t eat—they just sing and mate and give birth. Only the males are singing, scientists have figured out, and they assume it is to attract the attention of female whales, but in the thirty years people have been studying this, they never have seen a female whale show any interest in this song.

Laurie Anderson: Maybe they are interested but just don’t express it.

DR: Exactly—they are not going to show this to us humans.

LA: Isn’t there sort of a cyclical way those work, sort of like pop songs?

DR: That is the amazing thing; humpback whales change their song as a group from year to year, from month to month. From week to week you can hear a difference. And why do they want to change it if they all want to sound the same? No other animal does anything quite like that. People are thinking, “Well, it is like pop music?”

LA: When you are playing with whales, can you just describe how that works?

DR: Yes. I play clarinet, but I don’t jump in the water with the clarinet because it would get all wet and be kind of hard to play. So I’m on a boat, playing into a microphone; the sound goes into an underwater speaker and is broadcast into the world of these whales. I am wearing headphones listening to an underwater microphone, so I am playing along with this other environment. A lot of times I try this and nothing happens, the whales don’t seem to care. But in the best moments they do seem to interact. Sometimes they really do seem to respond to what I’m doing, which isn’t surprising when you have an animal that wants to change its song and maybe is interested in new sounds.