A collaboration between Parley and the MIT Wind Ensemble
Imagine a grand piano, percussion section, woodwinds and brass in conversation with a symphony of humpback whales. Imagine musicians from different worlds harmonizing through a shared language of their common planet. In collaboration with Parley, the student-comprised MIT Wind Ensemble brings this auditory journey to life with the improvisational arrangement In Praise of the Humpback.
The score uses recordings from the March 2019 Parley SnotBot expedition in the Dominican Republic, along with featured selections from Roger Payne's iconic 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale, which helped launch the ‘Save the Whales’ movement and supported a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling.
In Praise of the Humpback was conceived and arranged by Fred Harris, founder and director of the MIT Wind Ensemble. Parley caught up with Fred following the ensemble’s March 30th Dominican Republic tour premiere of the piece at the Santo Domingo National Conservatory of Music to learn more about how the sounds of nature intertwine with music to become an experience of empathy, appreciation and wonderment for the world beneath the surface.
What was the inspiration for this score?
The notion that we might try to musically collaborate with the noble humpback whales; And then when Carmen Danae Chamorro, Director of Parley in the DR sent me so many wonderful examples to listen to it became clear that this piece had to happen in the Dominican Republic, while we were there, particularly as we had audio from Samana Bay, captured just weeks before our trip.
What do you feel when you hear the song of a humpback whale?
I feel really humbled. Here I am, this mere human, listening in on the secret lives of these magnificent mammals, and I have the audacity to think I might add something to this already perfect music? Honestly, I hear these whale songs and just think, “okay, this whale is a great communicative artist and I simply want to get closer to it, so if I try to collaborate it forces me to pay even more attention to the details of her music.” I also feel a strong desire to share these sounds with students and ultimately with audiences; I think anything that can respectfully draw attention to the majesty and plight of these mammals is positive.
And what do you see?
I imagine their eyes and how their bodies might be moving as they are singing.
The performance in the DR was an improvisational arrangement. What was your vision for guiding the musicians? How did you instruct them?
I tried to balance structure with freedom and spontaneity; in a sense, to mirror those qualities I hear in the whale song. The piece is broken up into five sections with specific musical gestures but they are all either on my cue or at the will of individual musicians who are ‘soloists,’ performing duos with the humpbacks. And with all the musical gestures I tried to provide some verbal instructions to tap into the musicians’ own imaginations. For example, towards the end of the piece I ask the full ensemble to play their lowest and most beautiful note with the descriptor, “the beauty and mystery of that which is unseen.”
The short full ensemble chorale that is heard at the beginning and again at the end comes from A Resistance, Now, an amazing extended composition by Jamshied Sharifi featuring clarinetist Anat Cohen. In the Dominican Republic, we played In Praise of The Humpback before we performed A Resistance, Now, and it really set the stage for Jamshied’s piece, which is, in part, about the global crisis of climate change.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the piece?
I hope they get a solid glimpse into the profound beauty and spirituality of whale song. And I hope hearing how musicians interact with the songs is inspiring. Most importantly, I want them to think and read more about whales! My wife, Becky, a biologist/ornithologist, had me read Diane Ackerman’s The Moon By Whale Light a number of years ago and that expanded my horizons.
Any advice for listeners before they dive into the recording?
Close your eyes when you listen, and being in a room with the lights off is really helpful. Eliminate all the visual stimuli that clutters our world. Good headphones (or good external speakers) are important. Allow the music to wash over you in a kind of meditative state. Imagine that you are with the whales, one of them, not just eavesdropping.
Have you seen a whale in the wild? If so, can you describe that encounter?
Many times. I love the adventure and spontaneity of the experience. Witnessing breaching is a magical gift but when you have the chance to be close to a whale, to hear it, feel it, and have its spray graze your body; that’s when you feel the mystical nature of these great mammals and you immediately think, “everyone on Earth must experience this gift of nature!”
What can we learn from the whales?
How to be better people and better stewards of the oceans and the whole planet. We also learn humility. We think we are so incredible with our big brains and big ideas, but whales—and the natural world in general—have such beautiful complexities, mysteries, and intelligences. As much as we can and should learn from humanity, nature is the greatest ‘university’ anyone could ever hope for.
How do you think musicians in particular can help the conservation cause?
Music is one of the most powerful and universal forms of communication ever known. Musicians can tell stories through sound that have the potential to change the way people think and move them to do great things. Whether it is drawing attention to the natural world or sounding a clarion call to action (so needed right now!), musicians, I believe, have an obligation to use their voices to try to make a difference in the world.
Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr., is Director of Wind and Jazz Ensembles at MIT. His books include “Conducting with Feeling” and “Seeking the Infinite: The Musical Life of Stanisław Skrowaczewski.”
What was it like performing with the whales?
TONY TERRASA (MIT STUDENT)
We often talk about music reflecting, expressing, or being inspired by nature… However, not so often do we literally merge them, overlaying them to see what sounds and sentiments can be portrayed. This experience was like none other that I had had before. Performing with whales made me feel truly connected to the meaning behind the piece, inspiring my bandmates and me to express the beauty and strife of the whales in a way inexpressible without that connection. At the end of the piece, I think all of us on stage felt closer to nature and the ocean, and I think the audience could feel it as well.
A second-year undergraduate student in the Mechanical Engineering department, focusing on robotics and autonomy, Tony regularly plays jazz saxophone in the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, but was incredibly excited for the opportunity to play as a guest with the MIT Wind ensemble for the first time this spring.
RACHEL MORGAN (MIT STUDENT)
Performing with the whales was a unique experience. Knowing that some of those recordings came from just off the coast of the DR reminded me how beautiful and musical nature can be. It was awesome to get to interact with the recording in such a deep way. Pretending to be the ocean and with the whales was a very inspiring and empathetic experience, and added another dimension to the piece. It definitely changed how I think about whales and the relationship between music and the environment.
A first year graduate student in the Aeronautics and Astronautics department at MIT researching exoplanet technology, Rachel has played the saxophone in the MIT Wind Ensemble for five years.
Experience the music live
Join us in Cambridge, MA, on Saturday, April 27th for a Parley Talk ahead of the MITWE 20th anniversary concert and the U.S. premiere of In Praise of the Humpback
7PM — Parley Talk: Parley SnotBot, EarBot & Drones for Whale Research
Drs. Iain Kerr & Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance
Cyrill Gutsch, founder, Parley for the Oceans
8PM — MIT Wind Ensemble 20th Anniversary Concert
Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr., Music Director
Kenneth Amis, Assistant Conductor
Stephen C. Massey, Guest Conductor
Kathryn Salfelder and Michael Weinstein, Guest Composers