Jazz musician David Rothenberg is perhaps unique in his choice of musical collaborators. They sing a capella, their voices travel for hundreds of miles, and each musician is roughly the size of a school bus.
Using underwater speakers and microphones, Rothenberg intertwines the rhythmic rumbling, clicking, booming, honking, whooping, howling vocalizations of the humpback whale with his own improvisations on clarinet and synthesizer, creating free-form jams that give a whole new meaning to the word "fusion."
In his latest book, "Thousand Mile Song," which includes a CD of his improvisations with humpbacks in Hawaii, as well as belugas in Russia and orcas in Canada, Rothenberg says his attempts to musically connect with humpbacks "could be the ultimate interspecies experiment."
Humpback whales are perhaps the most acoustically sophisticated creatures on earth. Their songs, intricate layers of repeated notes, phrases, and melodies that can last for hours at a time, seem to contain their own syntax, and yet are nothing like human language.
Nobody really knows why they sing. Some scientists believe that the songs are for mating – only the males sing – but there is little evidence that the females actually pay attention to their vocalizations. Others think that whales use the songs to help each other navigate the deep. But this also has yet to be proven.
Rothenberg, who is also a professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has found that jamming with humpbacks has changed the way he plays ("Six octave shrieks are starting to become the norm," he writes.) But is it reciprocal? Do the whales improvise back?
Rothenberg believes they do, but he says he can't prove it scientifically. Humpbacks – with their huge brains and highly social behavior – would certanly be capable of changing their songs in response to Rothenberg's playing. The only question is whether they want to.
His recordings have drawn some criticism. In his book he recalls a conversation with Mark Johnson, an engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who thinks that he is bothering the animals for no good reason.
"If you're trying to learn something about whales which could then translate into a tool for conservation," says Johnson, "that's worth doing, but simply trying to enjoy an event in which the animal doesn't know he's participating, to be honest, I don't see the point."
Rothenberg demurrs. His project is not strictly scientific, but musical. "Music," he replies, "is knowledge too."
Rothenberg's view of nature – which emphasizes beauty for its own sake – doesn't quite square with that of biologists who attempt to explain phenomena such as whale songs and bird plumage purely as adaptations to maximize selective fitness. But Rothenberg, who likes to describe natural selection as the "survival of the interesting," is in good company. He often quotes Charles Darwin, who in his Descent of Man described birds as having "a taste for the beautiful" that seems to exist beyond any instrumental value.
Rothenberg knows something about birds, too. His previous book, "Why Birds Sing" has him performing with thrushes, nightengales, and a lyrebird, an Australian ground-dweller with a remarkable ability to mimic sounds.
Are the noises that animals make – the howling of a coyote, the warbling of a lark, the chirping of a cricket – purely to convey factual information to other animals, or do they play the same roles as human music? For Rothenberg, nonhuman animals have a capacity for joyful creativity that is in some ways analagous to our own, and this capacity is a sign that it it irresponsible for us to disregard the inner lives of the creatures with whom we share our planet.
"[W]e should not be misled into thinking that our care and feeling for whales and their world is something subjective, emotional, and easy to discount when it comes to planning their future," he writes. "Our species has no future on this planet until we consider the flourishing of all other forms of life as part and parcel of human progress. There is a gentler, more humane way to live along with the sea. We must learn to hear the ocean's music, so as not to play our human part too loudly."
Watch David Rothenberg perform with beluga whales: