It is invigorating floating around in the open North Pacific Ocean. I am thirty yards from the rubber boat, lying flat out on my back rubbing this carved 'Whalesinger drum', this interspecies musical instrument, descendant of the Native American tone drum, the Tulke of the Maya, the Tepanatzli of the Aztec. The sound is generated by rubbing the various wooden surfaces of the box-shaped drum with a mallet tipped with a dime-store superball: something like scratch-chalk against a blackboard, but much more mellifluous.
Different sized superballs emit different pitches, textures, and even octaves of sound. The giant red, white, and blue superball moans ever so deeply, and sometimes clicks as well if it is bounced and rubbed at the same time. The technique for this was quite tricky and it took several days before I had mastered it. The medium-sized cat's-eye superball sounds roughly akin to the human voice. But it is a voice of rubber and ever-so -long drawn-out, like a whale. A whale human, The small dayglo orange superball screeches like an elephant, but not quite so harshly. All of these sounds , taken together, evoke any and all the whalesongs that you or I have ever heard, either in reality, or in the deepest recesses of our animal dreams.
The Whalesinger has been equipped with an outrigger which keeps the instrument from tipping and drawing water through the tuning slits which have been cut into the top face of the drum. It also gives me a snug little frame to put my body inside of, and thus be totally supported while riding through the swells. This is more than a case of becoming one with one's instrument. The swells can get as big as twenty feet high. Interestingly enough, it is not the tops of the waves that bother me. It is in the valleys between the swells, when I cannot tell for the life of me where either the boat or the shore has gone to. I am not out here to test the hydrodynamics of slit drums. Neither am I our here because I enjoy three-hour immersions in 42 degree water. Rather, I am here because I believe that humans can communicate to whales.
At this point in the long-term venture of interspecies communication, it seems essential that I play this music from directly within the whale's own watery environment, So here I float, a mile offshore of the rugged Point Reyes Headland, working up a musical sweat, making whale-type sounds with all my body and soul. And the gray whales, these forty-five foot living express trains, are all about as they continue along their leisurely four thousand mile swim from northern Alaska to the warm harbours of Baja California. There they spend a toasty two months congregating, courting, making love, and making babies. Once the babies are born and taught a bit of practical seaworthiness, the grays turn about and immediately head back up the coast to northern Alaska again.
Watching the spectacle of this migration has developed into quite an environmental event at various headlands along the coast. There are incredible moments when one is able to see a pod of twenty or thirty whales, all less than a mile offshore, spouting their breath ten feet into the air and occasionally lifting their enormous leviathan bulk completely out of the water.
Governor Jerry Brown of California was only too aware that the whale's migration along the coast was a kind of natural wonder on a level with the redwood trees and Yosemite valley. To promote both the migration and the plight of the whales worldwide, Governor Brown sponsored 'California Celebrates the Whale'. First, there was the weekend event in Sacramento, with lots of music, exhibits, and movies. The event gathered together most of the professional whale-saving human beings from all over the planet together under one roof. In retrospect, I always felt that the celebration was the first governmentally sponsored Totem event in White United States history. As the environmental philosopher Ponderosa Pine has said about the event: 'We learn to sing and to dance as a way to provide ourselves with our medicine, and eventually feel as good as the porpoises do.'
The event was such a success on all fronts, that the governor decided to continue his active promotion of the whales. The State hired a group of innovative design consultants, collectively know as The Ant Farm, to design some programme which would bring the event of the gray whale migration closer to the people. The Ant Farm, best known for such arty-type works as the Cadillac Ranch (a monument to the tailfin), and the House of the Century which looked vaguely like an electric shaver, went to work. They designed and built an underwater public address system which would make the sounds of the gray whales audible to listeners on shore. The hardware consisted of a buoy containing underwater microphones known as hydrophones all connected to a radio transmitter. The signal could then be received by any radio with a public service band, and from as far away as two miles.
But although the gray whale is known to be one of the more vocal whales, most of this vocalization occurs in the harbors of Baja and in the waters off Alaska, in other words anytime when they are not migrating. Thomas Poulter, a bio-acoustician who had recorded over 60,000 feet of tape of gray whale sounds, categorized their vocalizations as clicks, rasps, and the bong of a big Chinese gong. If the Ant Farm's project was going to succeed, they would have to devise some technique for coaxing the whales to sing.
Since I was enjoying a modicum of success in my playing with dolphins, the Ant Farm hired me as their musical director. Nine times during the months of December and January in 1976-1977 I slipped into my wetsuit, draped my arms and legs around the Whalesinger drum, and slipped into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The music that I made on the drum resonated out through the bottom and thus directly into the water.. On several occasions it attracted the attention of passing gray whales. Sometimes they came so close that I felt as if I could reach out and shake their hand. It had something to do with their eyes. -page 79-82-
Typed by Cheryl Vega 3-20-95