Thousand Mile Song

Bookshelf: Thousand Mile Song

Thousand Mile Song – David Rothenburg

Thousand Mile Song
Thousand Mile Song

David Rothenburg’s Thousand Mile Song is an eccentric but occasionally charming meditation on humanity’s connection to the rest of nature. The author’s quest is to interact musically with whales, by playing his clarinet at them while they’re singing. His efforts to do so (illegal and frequently irresponsible – supposedly excused by the fact that he’s an artist and not a scientist) form one of the threads running through the book. Rothenburg details the rise in popularity of whale sounds as music, or an addition to musical compositions, and tracks down fellow musicians who have attempted to engage with cetaceans or used their songs in derivative compositions.

Intermingled with Rothenburg’s musical meditations are discussions with whale scientists. It was only relatively recently (in the last 50 years) that the extent of whales’ vocalisations was fully appreciated. The songs sung by humpback, fin, blue and other whales have deep structures that change and propagate through populations and across huge distances. Different populations have different characteristic tunes. Many of their sounds are not within the frequency of sounds audible to humans.

Peculiarly, scientists differ wildly on the purpose of many of these sounds. The glib answer seems to be that they serve a purpose in the reproductive process – to signal location and availability to potential mates, perhaps. In the case of the humpback whale, it is the males who sing – and other males who respond. This is confusing and would seem to contradict the reproduction hypothesis, unless they are talking about females! Rothenburg does not attempt to synthesise the scientific disagreement on the subject, but simply presents information from a variety of cetacean experts. This can be bewildering.

It is tempting to see the songs of whales simply as a form of self-expression, although I am cautious to anthropomorphise creatures about which we know fairly little. Certainly cetacean intelligence (which is I think excessively mythologised by some crystal-waving sectors of the population) is deeper than that of almost any other animal, but it is not always the simple explanation (“they’re behaving like humans”) that is the correct one. Reducing whale behaviour to a shadow of what humans do is, to my mind, lazy and unscientific.

Emphasising the importance of the auditory realm to cetaceans underscores how important it is to exercise caution when propagating loud noises (sonar, missile tests, etc.) in the world’s oceans. The constant background noise provided by ships’ propellors influences the behaviour of whales, and causes increased stress (which, curiously, can be measured by chemicals occurring in their scat).

This book is for musicians and philosophers who have a small interest in science, rather than for scientists (bona fide and citizen) who enjoy music. The latter group will find it too frustrating and disorganised, I fear. Included with the hard copy of the book is a CD of the author’s clarinet duets with humpback whales. I read the book on my Kindle, so did not get to hear this musical offering in full. You can listen to samples here.

There are other reviews (better written than this one) here and here.

You can buy the book here (if you’re in South Africa), otherwise here or here. You can get it for Kindle here.

Somewhat related: you should follow the Lonely Whale, @52hurts, on twitter.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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