On April 25, 2011, Laurie Anderson and David Rothenberg met at the Explorers Club in New York for a conversation about music and exploration. There was an audience of a hundred or so people. The event began with a resounding song of a humpback whale, which made everyone quiet down quickly.
David Rothenberg: That is a humpback whale singing there, recorded in Hawaii. They do it during mating season. They swim from Alaska all the way down to Hawaii, and they don’t eat—they just sing and mate and give birth. Only the males are singing, scientists have figured out, and they assume it is to attract the attention of female whales, but in the thirty years people have been studying this, they never have seen a female whale show any interest in this song.
Laurie Anderson: Maybe they are interested but just don’t express it.
DR: Exactly—they are not going to show this to us humans.
LA: Isn’t there sort of a cyclical way those work, sort of like pop songs?
DR: That is the amazing thing; humpback whales change their song as a group from year to year, from month to month. From week to week you can hear a difference. And why do they want to change it if they all want to sound the same? No other animal does anything quite like that. People are thinking, “Well, it is like pop music?”
LA: When you are playing with whales, can you just describe how that works?
DR: Yes. I play clarinet, but I don’t jump in the water with the clarinet because it would get all wet and be kind of hard to play. So I’m on a boat, playing into a microphone; the sound goes into an underwater speaker and is broadcast into the world of these whales. I am wearing headphones listening to an underwater microphone, so I am playing along with this other environment. A lot of times I try this and nothing happens, the whales don’t seem to care. But in the best moments they do seem to interact. Sometimes they really do seem to respond to what I’m doing, which isn’t surprising when you have an animal that wants to change its song and maybe is interested in new sounds.
LA: It seems so basic just to ask why whales sing or why birds sing, and nobody really knows. Is that true—nobody really knows? There are lots and lots of theories of course.
DR: Yes, nobody really knows how to answer. I would say they sing because they have to, they must, like people. We have to make music, it is part of our very essence and it is part of so many animals too.
LA: Lou Reed and I got to curate this music theater festival at the Sydney Opera House last summer, so we got to invite all of our favorite people. I said during one of the meetings, “And we will also do a concert for dogs.” And they said, “OK, concert for dogs.” They didn’t even think about it, they just wrote it down and it became part of the program. We began the concert with a sort of introduction of all these whale sounds and it was on the same premise as “Why do whales sing?”—“Why do dogs bark?”
We expected only a few hundred dogs—and thousands of dogs showed up. We had areas for small, medium, and large. There were a lot of rocker dogs. You know, I want rock! They were just this wonderful audience. My favorite were the ones in the front row—the droolers. And they were like, [makes facial expression]. Plus they had all been really primed because for one week before the show, all of the owners of the dogs had been like, “We are going to a concert just for you—you are going to love it.” So they were like, “ Yes!”
It was a short concert—it was twenty minutes. But we got a lot done and there were no dogfights at all. It was really wonderful. We played some things that had to do with rhythm, because those of you who have dogs know that when you’re walking the dog, it is a rhythmic relationship, otherwise you are dragging them down the street or you are being dragged. You have to synchronize and get into a groove. So we played some things that were more or less dancing, walking things, and people moved a little bit.
It really was the most wonderful musical experience I’ve ever had. Then I got a lot of invitations to “do a dog concert here,” and I was so afraid because I don’t really want to be the “dog concert” musician, as much as I love them. So if any of you want to organize one, it is really fun. Just have a small one to start. Oh also, I forgot, at the end, we did some howling. Once they got permission to howl, of course everyone was like, “Hooowwwwwl!”
Have you ever done concerts with whales?
DR: Well yes, I have gone out to play live with them in the sea.
LA: So some sing, some come to listen.
DR: A lot are listening. The ones closer are more often joining in, the others are presumably listening to the sound we are making. What is fascinating is that when you bring these animals in to make music together with them, you realize music is this way to communicate with other creatures. People have tried to translate what dolphins are saying, what animals are saying. But if you think of it as music, you don’t need to translate it, just as we can understand music from very different cultures without knowing exactly what its meaning or what its structure is. You can get something right away. Music crosses cultural lines; I think it can cross species lines also. I wonder if you thought of bringing some dogs into the performing side of things.
LA: Well I do, but before I talk about, I just wanted to say I have a cousin who was working with dolphins. Dolphins are always talking, not specifically singing, but really communicating. They talk day and night—they sleep with one eye open, one eye shut, and they just talk. He was working with a team of people who were assigned to find out, “Well, what are they talking about?” He spent maybe ten years on this, and one of the things that they discovered was that they talk about hierarchy—who is top dolphin, who is second top, who is going to be the next top dolphin, just like any New York cocktail party.
As far as performing with dogs, I have done that as well, with my own dog, Lolabelle. She got cancer a couple of years ago and then she went blind. A lot of dogs lose their sight and they are fine. She wasn’t fine. She was a rat terrier whose whole social life was interacting with people, walking in the West Village for example. So when she went blind, a dog trainer I know said, “I taught my dogs to play piano.” And she taught us. So she played piano for one hour a day for two years.
She just released her Christmas record, which is maybe not the best Christmas record you have ever heard in your life. She worked on electric keyboards that were down on the floor and could play a lot of things with both paws. She would walk on the keyboards—not a lot of keyboard players do that, you know, up and down the keys. She played chords and individual notes and we put indicators on each key so she knew what she was playing. She just died one week ago, so I am thinking of her, and missing her so much. She was an extraordinary animal. When you get to be with an animal in that way, it is really amazing.
LA: Can you talk also a little bit about the things you have done with birds?
DR: Sure. It is much easier to play music with birds. They are all around us, and you hear these things. You learn in biology class that male birds sing to defend their territory and attract mates, and sure that is what they are doing. But how come one bird sings, “Beebooo” and another sings this long complicated song with all these different parts? You can say each species has its own way of doing of things, but there is no real necessity for one bird to sing a twenty-minute song; its life is not different.
To get more out of it, you have to think each species of bird has its own aesthetic sense—its own sense of beauty that needs expression and that the function of the song does not totally cover. That got me thinking that evolution really isn’t survival of the fittest, when it comes to these things, it is more like survival of the interesting, survival of the beautiful, survival of the weird, cool stuff that managed to evolve. And Darwin definitely he knew all about this. That is why he didn’t stop with Origin of the Species; he had to write The Descent of Man, which has two chapters on birds. He says they appreciate beauty, that they have natural aesthetic sense. Sexual selection is about evolving weird, cool stuff, he didn’t quite say it like that, but he understood it. Biology even 150 years later doesn’t like this, it seems too frivolous or too hard to quantify.
LA: Usually when you are talking about birds and beauty, it’s in terms of security rather than beauty. That the more elaborate males are the stronger ones, and the drabber ones are the weaker ones.
DR: That is what the biologists want you to think. The handicap hypothesis, proposed by the Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi, says that peacocks are carrying around this beautiful tail, and the point is that they are carrying around this heavy, useless thing but they are still strong enough for really important stuff. This is, I think, an attempt to go against Darwin and bring sexual selection into natural selection. And neglect the fact that evolution is just producing these weird things, not most of the time but the possibility is there, and for generations, if females peahens decide they like this weird, crazy thing, it’s not very useful it is just beautiful.
LA: And fashion is about illusion. When you see somebody wearing something really gorgeous and probably super-heavy and encrusted with stuff, you don’t think, “Wow, that must be heavy to drag around,” but “Wow, how lovely, what an illusion of lightness and reflection.”
DR: We have to admit that important parts of life are not efficient or engineered to work out. If you wound back evolution, you wouldn’t end up with the same things we have now. This isn’t the world we had to get—it is just some weird possibilities that happened to catch on.