In 1969, National Geographic magazine gave away a free flexidisc of humpback whale song recorded off the coast of Bermuda by Roger Payne, an American marine bioacoustician. In the next decade, an astonishing ten and a half million readers sent off for copies. Released on Columbia Records in 1970 under the title Songs of the Humpback Whale, the recordings made by Payne, his then wife Katie and his colleague Frank Watlington went on to sell another 100,000 copies on vinyl by the decade’s end.
As an artefact, the album tells us as much about sensibilities of the era as it does about whales themselves. Payne had opened up an undersea world previously restricted to marine biologists; an eerie submarine space of basso profondo groans and solitary, echoing moans which could not but resonate with listeners buffeted by the socio-political shocks of the late 1960s. Audiences were fascinated to learn that only male humpback whales sing, that they can sing continuously for more than 24 hours, that whales have no vocal chords and generate sound by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities, and that different herds in various parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans produce distinct songs, which change over a number of years never to return to the same sequence of notes.
The immense outpouring of wonder and affection which greeted these recordings suggests that the act of listening exceeded scientific enquiry. Hearing whale song was understood as a journey of discovery equivalent to the exploration of outer or inner space. It was an encounter with nothing less than a new order of sentience. Payne’s research, like John C. Lily’s work with dolphin communication and Dian Fossey’s with gorillas, seemed to have discovered a new form of language and liberated a dormant artistic potential. In interviews, Payne spoke of night-time recording sessions in the North Atlantic, ‘taking turns at the headphones in the cockpit, lulled by the smooth rolling of the boat’ and began to refer to the whale moans as the work of ‘great singer-composer-poets’. It is unclear whether Payne or the mutton-chopped hipsters over at Columbia Records gave his recordings titles such as ‘Slowed Down Solo Whale’ and ‘Three Whale Trip’ but the sense that this was science in the service of the sublime remains surprisingly powerful.
Released soon after the first Moon landing and within months of the newly declared Earth Day, Songs of the Humpback Whale became an emblem of the ecology, animal liberation and conservation movements. And while the intervening years of New Age appropriation have imbued whale song with a piety that is hard to stomach, the original recordings retain their power to enthral. Partly, that’s due to the propeller noise of large freighters and the sounds of ropes rubbing against the hull of Twilight, Payne’s creaking, groaning boat; all of which places the listener as an earwitness in the field of recording.
It is also partly because the enigma of cetacean sound continues to resist and provoke interpretation. Civilians and scientists are no nearer to understanding whale communications than they were in the 1970s. If one takes the invitation implicit in that opacity and reverses the directions of hearing, then another, more intriguing encounter begins to emerge.
The album liner notes suggested confidently that the listener might hear ‘the way songs would sound to other whales’ and that clanks and creaks of the hull are what ‘a whale hears as a sailboat passes nearby’. It’s hard not to reject this as hyperbole: after all, how could anyone know what a whale might hear? Nonetheless, if one pursues that thought until the subject/object opposition is reversed then another, more intriguing encounter begins to emerge in which it becomes possible to imagine the human as the object of cetacean investigation. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) and Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974) all examined what happened to the observer observed.
What if the whale song were heard as the voiceover to a movie in which humans are subjected to experiments of which we remain entirely ignorant? Of course, our science would blind us to this possiblity and thus ensure the continuation of such an experiment, the intentions of which we would be
unable to fathom. To understand it would require listening again to the songs of the humpback whale with this question in mind: what, after all, do whales think of us?