[-empyre-] November -empyre- discussion, DURATION: PASSAGE, PERSISTENCE, SURVIVAL

Annie P. Lewandowski apl72 at cornell.edu
Tue Nov 20 14:29:45 AEDT 2018

Thank you Tim and Renate for the invitation to be a part of the -empyre- soft-skinned space.

In early autumn 2017, I began meeting with bioacoustics researcher Katy Payne to listen to recordings of humpback whale song Katy and Roger Payne recorded from 1969-1988 in Bermuda and Hawaii. While many animals sing structured songs, the Paynes made the groundbreaking discovery that humpback whale songs evolve, progressively and continually, over time, with all singers in a population participating in the changes. There are changes in pitch, duration, and rhythm that occur as male whales mimic and develop each other’s song during the breeding season. Innovations enter the song at the micro level within each season, and at the macro level across spans of months, years, and decades. This is a striking example of composition in a non-human animal.

In the piece I composed for the 2018 Cornell Council for the Arts Biennial, “Cetus: Life After Life,” extracts of Hawaiian whale song sessions from 1977 and 1981 are broadcast through four speakers facing out from the top of McGraw Tower in duet with percussionist Sarah Hennies performing on the Cornell Chimes. The piece begins with the 1977 recording. When the chimes enter, they follow the contour and development of one of the humpback whale song themes recorded throughout the 1977 season. At the completion of a 1977 selection, the chimes make a dramatic shift in texture, color, contour, and rhythm, reflecting the cumulative innovations that occurred in whale song during this four-year period. After a brief chimes solo, a recording of whale song from the same Hawaiian population, now in 1981, enters. The chimes and whale song duet for the remainder of the piece, modeling how humpback whales must be listening while singing, simultaneously but independently -- the chimes performer listening and integrating subtle changes inspired by the 1981 recording into her song.

The 1981 recording was specifically chosen for “Cetus” as it offers a special window into whale behavior – four minutes into the song, the sound attenuates as the whale swims to the surface of the water to breathe, reminding the listener that whales, like humans, are mammals.

You can listen to a recording of the live performance here: 


The slowly shifting clouds were extraordinary the night of the performance - I’ve included a picture on the Bandcamp page.

More information about the empyre mailing list