For the previous two weeks we’ve looked at artistic representations of whales (a poem and a sculpture), emphasizing the way earth’s largest creatures can embody the persistent mystery of Creation and the complex way we engage with the created world and with its Maker. While those works touched on present and historical interaction between whales and people, today’s musical work brings together imaginative and symbolic associations with more explicitly scientific overtones.
Vox Balaenae, or “Voice of the Whale,” was composed by American composer George Crumb (b. 1929) and was first performed by the New York Camerata in 1971. It was only four years before that, in 1967, that biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay discovered that humpback whales “sing” and published recordings of the whales’ complex vocalizations, after which “whale song” quickly entered the popular consciousness and helped propel the “save the whales” environmental movement forward. (In 1970, Folk singer Judy Collins even put out a version of the traditional melody "Farewell To Tarwathie" over a background of recorded humpback whale songs.) For many, the fact that the massive creatures might share the human capacity and desire to engage in music as a social activity only made their wholesale destruction at our hands more egregious.
Though he was himself inspired by hearing those early whale song recordings, Crumb’s work does not utilize tapes of real whales or attempt merely to reproduce the effect in the context of an ordinary musical form. Instead, he asks three chamber musicians with modified and electrically amplified instruments (piano, flute and cello) to create sounds that evoke the entire natural history of the sea. The piano is played and strummed from inside the case and with a glass rod or plate on the strings, the cello part emphasizes a string’s abilities to produce high harmonic tones, and the flautist sings into her instrument as she plays. Many of these effects are intended to suggest natural sounds—as in the cello’s "seagull effect" (audible at 5:59 in the video linked blow), and the whale-like beginning cadenza by the flute—but not always in a direct way. In addition, all three players perform wearing half-masks, which, according to Crumb help “effac[e] the sense of human projection,” especially when they play under blue stage lighting as he envisioned. (Most of these features can be seen and heard in this April 2011 performance in Montreal by Philippe Prud'homme, piano; Stephane Tetreault, cello ; and Camille Lambert-Chan, flute, though it omits the blue stage lighting.)
In this multi-sensory impressionistic scene, the whales become representatives of a natural world that predates humanity, yet whose fate is inextricably bound up with the will of mankind. Indeed, the tension between the measured vastness of geologic time and the “Age of Man” is written into the score, as an opening prologue is followed by variations on the initial “Sea Theme” (beginning at 4:20), each named after geologic epochs: Archeozoic, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and finally, the Cenozoic. It is in this last age—when mankind arrives on the scene—that the sometimes atonal and harsh combinations of sound reach a dissonant climax that the score indicates should be played as “dramatic, with a feeling of imminent destiny” (beginning at 11:26). Finally, the piece moves towards its conclusion with a haunting restatement and renewal of the Sea Theme (at just after 13:00), with the musicians gradually playing more and more quietly until ending with a pantomime, as if creating sounds beyond the limits of human hearing. Again, the sense of resolution in the music is named by Crumb in the score’s instructions to the players: “serene, pure, transfigured.”
So what do we make of this musical narrative and what Crumb seems to be saying about both whales (standing—or swimming—for the natural world) and humankind? Is it truly an anti-human statement, a “whales vs. people” image in response to environmental damage we were only really beginning to understand (via science) at the time the piece was written? There is certainly a skepticism here about human hubris, made explicit at the end of the prologue section by a “parody” of the opening phrase of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra (at 2:40). Contemporary listeners then and now will likely recognize that borrowed theme as the music from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but before that it was a musical homage to Nietzsche’s view of ascendant Man. In this ironic re-use of Strauss’ work, Crumb seems to say that against the span of geologic time and a vast (musical) world previously unknown to human ears, our claims of knowledge and technological mastery seem laughable.
Yet there are several clues that that sort of reading misses the mark, or that it is, at best, incomplete—beginning with the experience of playing and hearing it in person. I first heard Vox Balaenae in about 2002 with my then 6-year-old son. It was played in a small hall (under blue lights) at our local art museum by the Quadrivium Players, a group that included my friend Mary Boodell on the flute. While the masks were surprising at first, they did, indeed, de-emphasize the personality of the players as individuals, while emphasizing the atmospheric, world-creating power of art-forms, especially music.
Rather than a symbolic effacement of the human presence in the world (in keeping with the anti-Nietzschian not above), the effect was to move away from the ritualized performative aspect of modern chamber music and bridge the divide between players and observers, creating a more participatory community. Because of the piece’s distinctive, impressionistic kind of narrativity, one isn’t so much as “carried away by” the music as submerged and suspended in the world created by it, and Boodell describes the effect (especially at the end of the piece) of feeling like the audience is holding it’s breath to hear the silences Crumb has written into the score.
But Boodell also recounts the story of being drawn into the conceptual frame of the piece in a very physical, way when she found herself alone in a swimming pool in the weeks leading up to a performance. Though hesitantly at first, she couldn’t help but wonder how the sounds she made in Vox Balaenae would sound underwater, and so went under in the pool to find out. While the image makes one smile and probably reminds most of us of similar, less technically-proficient underwater experiments of our own, it also suggests how the piece helps hearers make a connection in addition to that between player and listener—that between humanity and the rest of the natural world. If the unexpected flow and soundscape created by Crumb helps audience and players achieve the kind of connection music scholar Jeff Warren has elsewhere on this site discussed as “entrainment,” it is also an invitation to a similarly compassionate state with the rest of creation, based on the new-found knowledge that other creatures have complex, even musical relationships with each other, and that we are privileged to discover and begin to understand them.
Clearly, then, Crumb’s Vox Balaenae touches on scientific knowledge of the world both in its genesis in recordings of whale songs and its structure keyed to geologic, evolutionary ages. But does it have more to say to us here than that we should avoid killing whales because they sing? While we can recognize that the biblical call to have dominion over the earth guides us towards cultivation and care for its creatures and remember that Jesus exemplified such a shepherding role, we should also remember his priestly one, and ours. For just as he remains the High Priest of heaven, holding our prayers in the presence of the Father, we have similar joy in being between heaven and earth, “a little lower than the angels.” Thus we can hold up the great whales (and their songs) as monuments to the depth of God’s creative activity in and through nature—and even revel in our musical, creaturely fellowship with them—without denying the special place of humanity. On the contrary, we affirm that special place when we humble ourselves to listen, seek to understand the native tongues of creation, and then, through Christ, present its songs before the throne of the Almighty Creator and King.