Whalesong Remix

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad / The New Yorker

We thank the New Yorker for this note about Sara Niksic’s whalesong remixing, as described by Matthew Hutson:

How a Marine Biologist Remixed Whalesong

Sara Niksic, a lover of whales and electronic music, has merged her passions.

In 1971, in the journal Science, two scientists, Roger S. Payne and Scott McVay, published a paper titled “Songs of Humpback Whales.” They began by noting how “during the quiet age of sail, under conditions of exceptional calm and proximity, whalers were occasionally able to hear the sounds of whales transmitted faintly through a wooden hull.” In the modern era, we could listen in new ways: Payne and McVay worked with underwater recordings of humpback-whale vocalizations from a naval researcher who, as the story goes, was listening for Soviet submarines off Bermuda. They analyzed the recordings, and Payne’s own, and found structure and repetition in the sounds, documenting a sonic hierarchy: units, phrases, and themes, which combined into what they called song.

They chose the term advisedly, drawing, they said, on a 1963 book titled “Acoustic Behavior of Animals,” which identified a song as “a series of notes, generally of more than one type, uttered in succession and so related as to form a recognizable sequence or pattern in time.” And there was an intuitive sense in which the whales’ vocalizations sounded songlike. The previous year, Payne had published an album of whale recordings called “Songs of the Humpback Whale”; it sold more than a hundred thousand copies, and became a soundtrack for the conservation movement. Artists, including Kate Bush, Judy Collins, and the cast of “The Partridge Family,” integrated whalesong into their work; in 1970, the composer Alan Hovhaness combined whale and orchestra for a piece called “And God Created Great Whales.” In 2014, a group of ambient composers and artists released a compilation album called “POD TUNE.” Whales’ otherworldly emissions are now literally otherworldly: in 1977, nasa included whalesong recordings on records it attached to its Voyager spacecraft.

Sara Niksic, a biologist and musician from Croatia, is a recent participant in the genre. In 2019, she self-released an album of electronic music titled “Canticum Megapterae – Song of the Humpback Whale.” (Humpback whales belong to the genus Megaptera.) The album contains a track she produced, alongside songs by seven other artists, and combines psychedelic trance and ambient tones—the building blocks of a genre called psybient—with whalesong. Niksic’s record evokes nineteen-nineties classics such as “The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld”; its synthesized clicks, sweeps, and throbs would sound good in the chill-out room at a rave. But the whales add another dimension. Integrated into the tracks, the vocalizations sound at times soothing or playful, and occasionally experimental—sound for sound’s sake. Listening, you wonder about the minds behind them.

Earlier this year, Niksic released “Canticum Megapterae II – The Evolution,” a remix album on which a new group of electronic musicians interprets the track she made for the first volume. The new album, she told me, connects to her own research, which focusses on how whale songs shift from year to year. “Basically, whales remix each other’s songs,” she said. “So I thought this concept of remixes in our music would be perfect to communicate this research about the evolution of whalesong.”

Niksic was born in Split, Croatia, on the country’s coast, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. She could see the water from her window, and learned to swim before she could walk. “I was always curious about the ocean and all the creatures living down there,” she told me. “The more I learned about animal behavior, the more I got interested in marine mammals, because there is social learning, vocal communication, and culture.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in marine biology at the University of Zagreb, and went on to work with groups that study whales and dolphins in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere; eventually she returned to Split to work at the Mediterranean Institute for Life Sciences, as part of a team called ARTScience, finding ways to creatively communicate the institute’s research…

Read the whole article here.

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