When the Boston Landmarks Orchestra's Music Director Christopher Wilkins first heard the sounds of whales, he couldn't help but think of humans. He says his reaction was much like the reaction of the biologist Roger Payne who discovered the songs of humpback whales in the 1960s.
"When I first heard the recorded sound of a humpback I couldn't believe my ears. It was as if human beings and whales shared an aesthetic sensibility that their music-making had heroic phrases and impressive riffs and trills and the language of music," Wilkins said, summarizing Payne.
That's the basis of a new piece of classical music, "Oceana," by composer Stella Sung, premiering Wednesday, Aug. 15 at Boston's Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. Sung, a music professor and director of the Center for Research and Education in Arts, Technology, and Entertainment (CREATE) at the University of Central Florida, worked with the New England Aquarium and scientists at Cornell University to incorporate whale sounds into the composition. The result is 14 minutes of string and wind instruments interwoven with ship horns, seismic blasts and the calls of various sea mammals, including dolphins, humpbacks and porpoises.
For many of these mammals — their feeding, migration and mating habits all depend on sound.
"Whales for example seem to show off their gifts as artists. It's been described this way to me by many scientists particularly in the mating process of selecting a mate that seems to be an important thing that females will choose a male who is exceptionally gifted — you know, a virtuoso singer," said Wilkins.
It's a music that's now in danger. Some whales used to be able to communicate across the expanse of an ocean. But cruise ships and container ships have interfered with their calls and endangered their lives. It's a conflict composer Stella Sung reflects in the piece.
"They also have sort of like traffic signals, ways of communicating just under water. When those patterns and the signals get interrupted, the traffic flow also gets interrupted so to speak. This is an important work for me as a composer ... to highlight this problem," Sung said.
Audience members will also see images paired with the music, from videographer and photographer Annie Crawley who documents mammals underwater.
The performance is meant to move you, but also unsettle you. And the story of some of these whales is alarming. Sung's piece includes sounds from the North Atlantic right whale. Scientists think there might be only about 450 left and the population isn't growing. Hunters nearly killed the entire population by the 1890s. Despite more than 70 years of protection efforts, these whales are still extremely endangered, risking entanglement in fishing gear or ship collisions.
At Landmarks' "Sounds of the Sea" performance, the orchestra will also perform Claude Debussy's "La Mer" and "Moby Dick" by American composer Bernard Herrmann based on the novel.
Wilkins said that while re-reading "Moby Dick" as he readied for the performance, he realized just how much the novel had raised to the consciousness the plight of whales. One specific passage has been on his mind a lot:
The moot point is whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase and so remorseless a havoc whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters and the last whale like the last man smoke his last pipe and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
"The message takes on emotional resonance and even some sense of spirituality of, you know, what is the essence of life here and these animals require much the same things that we do," said Wilkins.
Sung's piece ends with a crescendo, a swelling of string instruments, whale calls and ship horns meant to convey a way forward, a way to co-exist. It reminds us there is time to heed the sounds of these ocean beasts. But it's an urgent call.
The Boston Landmarks Orchestra performs Stella Sung's "Sounds of the Sea" on Wednesday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Hatch Shell.
This segment aired on August 15, 2018.