A lullaby or a lament?

January 31, 2012

Listening again to Roger Payne’s Songs of the Humpback Whale, I wonder what I am hearing. Aside from the kneejerk critique of such natural music as new age dross (especially when accompanied by synthesizers), I find few negative reactions toward the whales. Their songs are immediately soothing, majestic, perhaps otherworldly, and seem to tap into a romantic yearning for planes of time and space that are beyond our grasp in the workaday world. These songs have become a haven for us. Yet part of me cannot help but wonder: what if the whales are speaking of something horrible? What if they are crying? What if they are complaining about the ships polluting their waters with debris and extraneous noise? Science has, of course, made informed guesses regarding the linguistic functions of these songs, yet how can we know that we’re not blasting private traumas of these misunderstood beings across airwaves for our own “relaxation”? I have in mind an analogue. Hungarian composer István Márta has written a piece entitled Doom. A Sigh, which was lovingly recorded by the Kronos Quartet. Against strings and electronics, we are confronted with a field recording of two Romanian women whose keening voices mourn for lost loved ones. And yet we can throw it on a Nonesuch record and call it art, treating it as a moving musical experience that somehow captures the essence of hardship (the two women in question, I’ve read, were appalled when they learned what Márta did with their private expressions of grief). We might do better to let these sounds speak to us, rather than trying to speak for them. -Tyran

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