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RCEH: Changing song of the humpbacked whale – Bath Spa University

Giving the Ocean its Voice: The Changing Song of the Humpback Whale

Wednesday 24 November, 2021 – Wednesday 24 November, 2021
6:00 PM – 7:30 PM


In 1970, biologist Roger Payne released the album of humpback whale song that was to become the soundtrack to the successful campaign to end industrial whaling. In his later book Among Whales, Payne wrote that whales “give the ocean its voice, and the voice they give it is ethereal and unearthly” (1995). It is paradoxical that although the many species of whales and dolphins do literally endow the ocean with a polyvocality, cetaceans still lack a political voice in the sense of full recognition of their diverse interests, continuing to face ongoing existential threats from human activity.

Given Payne’s characterization of humpback song as "unearthly" it is ironic that the songs featured on the 1970 album have long since disappeared from the ocean through gradual processes of song change, but are still travelling beyond the solar system onboard the Voyager spacecraft. Here Alex South provides an Earthly perspective on humpback song traditions from multiple populations, playing recordings from the South Pacific to contrast internal "evolutionary" change with "revolutionary" song replacement events driven by contact between different groups. Alex also introduces and problematises additional music-like aspects in humpback sounds, song structure and behaviour, aiming to navigate between the twin dangers of naïve anthropomorphism and anthropodenial.

This event is co-hosted by the Research Centre for the Environmental Humanities and the Intercultural Communication through Practice Research Group.

About the speaker

Alex South is a clarinettist, improviser and composer, currently carrying out doctoral research into humpback whale song considered as a music-like phenomenon. Supervised by composer Emily Doolittle at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and biologists Luke Rendell and Ellen Garland at the University of St Andrews, Alex uses quantitative and qualitative methods drawn from bioacoustics and zoömusicology to study temporal aspects of humpback song structure, performance and evolution, and creates and performs new music informed by these studies. He also seeks to develop an understanding of how the use of animal song in human music can foster an "animalcentric anthropomorphism" in opposition to anthropocentrism.

Image credit: Elianne Dipp

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