THOUSAND MILE SONG by David Rothenberg


Whale Music in a Sea of Sound
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A joyful ride among the orcas, belugas and humpbacks, aimed at enticing these behemoths into a jam session.

In his seventh book, Rothenberg (Philosophy and Music/New Jersey Institute of Technology) reprises the approach he took in Why Birds Sing: A Journey Through the Mystery of Bird Song (2005). There, he sought to understand the practical and transcendental aspects of birdsong, as well as engage birds with his wind instruments. Here, he turns his clarinet to a microphone attached to an underwater speaker in hopes of playing music with whales and finding some common ground through sound. Humans may have scant understanding of what whale song is all about, Rothenberg writes, but as an accomplished jazzman once said, “sometimes the real music only comes when you have absolutely no idea what is going on.” The author gets as much understanding as he can into the mix before he attempts any session work. He covers the scientific work done on whale song, the role whales played in the growth of the environmental movement and the various musicians, from Pete Seeger to Paul Winter, who have sought to bring the whale into their work. The book’s meat-and-potatoes sections chronicle Rothenberg’s encounters with whales in Canada, Russia, the Caribbean and Hawaii. His ruminative yet rather merry prose only occasionally tips into fruitiness (“where whale and human songs wash together over distant leagues”), and his sheer enthusiasm is remarkable. Even when a hard-bitten scientist upbraids him for a project that “doesn’t really yield anything except a gratuitous level of self-satisfaction,” he holds faith in musical communication. He may “have no idea what is going on” in a clarinet/whale duet, but for a few minutes, playing with the humpbacks, he “entered their wild world of sound.”

Approaches the stirring border of interspecies contact with dignity and glee.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-465-07128-9
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2008


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