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Environmentalists abide: Listening to whale music - 1965-1985.


At one point in the film The Big Lebowksi (1997), a stressed out "Dude" (Jeff Bridges) needs to relax. The Dude's solution is whale music - instrumental music that samples or thematizes whales--the sounds of which offer a blissful escape from the worries of the day. The scene works because the Dude is an ageing hippie, a living artifact of 1960s popular culture. And hippies, best known as popular purveyors of environmentalist values (harmony, one-ness, etc.), gravitate toward the sounds of whales, perhaps the most environmental of all popular sounds. The purpose of this paper is to explain why whale music has these associations, and what they teach us about environmental ideology more generally. Since its heyday, whale music has been very much the worse for wear--"excruciatingly familiar" in the words of one early Nineties music critic (The Wire, 1992). But "one decade's cliche, is an earlier decades' watershed" (Purdy, 2015: 198). Whale music helps to explain how people navigated the swell of environmentalist ideas that washed over white middle-class society beginning in the late Sixties. It was not only a sound-track for interrogating nature during a time of ecological crisis--an historical period that bears stark resemblance to our own - but a site of surprising contradiction, informing distinct relationships among widely-different currents of environmentalist thought and activity.

This paper uses ideology theory to construct its history of whale music. I take Althusser's (2014) formative definition of ideology--the "imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (30)--and refine it with insights drawn from Antonio Gramsci, John Mowitt, and Neil Smith. The goal of this approach is to reveal environmentalism a sonorous formation--a belief system that recruited subjects into sonically-mediated realms of thought, action, and subjectivity. For environmentalists who came of age in the 1970s, listening to whales fostered complex interrogations about the identity of nature and the nature of identity (Weyler, 2004). It modeled new interests in "communing with nature" (Fletcher, 2014), proposing experiences that self-identifying environmentalists were particularly interested in acquiring. Whale music's history represents an instance of environmentalism as a sonorous formation: an ideological-system that recruited listeners into musically-mediated realms of thought, action, and subjectivity. Presented as "music," the sounds of whales became communicative, personally-fulfilling, and community-constitutive all at once.

In making my case, I gratefully acknowledge calls for "radically expanding listening in human geography" (Gallagher et al., 2016: 1). Geographical scholarship has shown how sounds shape political processes (Kanngieser, 2012); mediate experiences of public memory and everyday life (Anderson, 2004), and provoke new understandings of movement and landscape (Revill, 2014). I argue that music remains relevant within geography's recent embrace of sound studies, and in ways that complicate distinctions between musical and environmental sound. The history of whale music can contribute to geography's efforts to examine the ideological in environmentalism (Peet and Watts, 2004; Robbins, 2007) and grasp how environmentalist ways of life are lived and pursued. Cronon (1996) discusses how wilderness pursuits privilege sight as the way to engage nature; nature experienced and rendered as sublime landscape. Without detracting from this claim, I want to present music as a modality of experience that is significant to how ideologies of nature function. This is because "the work of music is not only a performance of a social order," as Denning (2015) argues, "its very forms present an abstract model of the social order" (11).

With the whale music of the early Seventies, the imagined social orders were diverse, illustrative of the fact that the "modern environmental movement" was actually an array of social and political projects (Rome, 2003). Yet across so many of the sites where it featured, whale music played to the backbeat of post-Fordist restructuring. It articulated with new interests in eco-tourism, entertainment, and lifestyle. The newly musical appreciations of nature one found in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, for instance, took shape within a largely urbanized, "post-materialist" middle class that sought to distance itself from the resource-producing hinterland (Barnes and Hutton, 2009). In celebrations of whale music, we find articulations of nature that reinforced pervasive stereotypes about indigenous cultures and landscapes. Although the activities whale music solicited were diverse, the aggregate effect is an unlikely ode to the "metropolitan imperialism" one still hears in the environmentalism of the West Coast today (Raban, 2010).

Ideology, music and nature

The invention of "whale music" was not some quirky hippy happenstance. It emerged from within the broad arc of a capitalist society's response to the socio-ecological "dissonance" heard across North America during the post-war period. "The late 1960s and early 1970s were a peculiar cultural moment," Purdy (2015) notes, "when many people saw "environmental values" as radical on the one hand and, on the other hand, as likely points of consensus" (209). It is only when we consider the newly reflexive engagements with "the environment" taking shape during this period that we can begin to understand the appeal of whale music. Like "the environment," whale music was an idea, something that seemed to "make sense" in ways it hadn't before. How did this work? For Althusser (2014), ideologies produce subjects through a process called "interpellation," a word that connotes an action or remark that interrupts in some way. Interpellated individuals are never informed they are being recruited (Montag, 2013). Instead, subjects involve themselves in this process "freely," becoming bearers of institutional directives and associate practices in the process. Althusser's famous example of interpellation took place in a Parisian street, where a citizen-subject dutifully performs a self-identifying turn in response to a policeman's call--"Hey you there!" (2014: 172).

Drawing from Althusser, we can understand whale music as an ideological construct, an historically-grounded idea that elicited particular beliefs and social practices. Whale music emerged at a time when a new ethos about nature was being modeled across North American middle class society, an ethos that moved "from conquering nature to communing with it" (Fletcher, 2014: 76). Althusser's account is useful for introducing this theme, but is limited by its inattention to the practice I am concerned with: listening. For whale music to convey its ideological injunctions, it had to be apprehended as music. Mowitt's (2002) Althusserian coinage, "musical interpellation," is helpful here. "Musical interpellation" extends from Mowitt's insight that a "sonic infrastructure" tacitly sustains interpellation-theory (2002: 42). In order for Althusser's street example to work, Mowitt notes, the subject must be receptive to the hail regardless of their physical orientation to the policeman. How, when the subject's metaphorical back is turned from the authority figure, do they remain attuned to ideological recruitment? "Is it conceivable," Mowitt asks, "that music is one of the cultural means by which interpellation is effected?" (2002: 43). Mowitt is not claiming that interpellation-theory is sonic because Althusser's policeman is literally producing sounds--a point neatly rebutted in Robbins' (2007) study of the silently hailing suburban lawn. Rather, he is suggesting that musical matters of pitch, timbre, and melody are ideological; that a globally pervasive music culture increasingly fulfills the requirements of the interpellative hail. Insofar as it does, music can shape subjectivity in ways that are profoundly sonic, something Althusser never sought to consider, but something we are well appraised of today (Taylor, 2012).

Musical interpellation links Althusserian interpellation to concrete practices of music-making, which includes everyday subjective efforts to establish relations between sounds and give them "sense" (Anderson, 2004). Althusser's original account of interpellation was elaborated in conjunction with combinations of institutions, practices, and ideas he termed Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). Mowitt does not discuss ISAs, but institutions remain central to his approach. "That which enables anything to 'make sense' to us," he notes elsewhere, "reaches well into the institutional field of the social" (1987: 217). By shifting focus from the fixity of identity to the practice of listening, musical interpellation offers a more fluid account of subjection than Althusser's formulation allows. It proposes a more interactive model, by which a hailed subject might listen, hear noise, listen again, and only then find meaning. In effect, the capitalist subject becomes a musical subject, "tuned" and "retuned" under changing cultures of reception.

As Hall (1996) and others have taught, it is a regular feature of contemporary life to receive multiple interpellative "hails," only some of which we evidently choose to "accept" as addressed to us. Whale music interpellated North American environmentalists in the 1970s, but as my findings suggest, its listeners took up a range of subject-positions. To account for this fact, a second theoretical amendment is needed. By refining Althusser-via-Mowitt with Gramsci's approach to ideology, we can more correctly place whale music within a field of ideological interactions, explicable as an "ideological terrain" rather than a single imputed consciousness (Gramsci, 1971). (1) "Subjects are not mere 'effects' of ideological interpellations," Rehmann (2013) observes, "following Gramsci, their everyday life and common sense are conceived of being heterogeneous and contradictory" (12). Gramsci refutes the idea that ideologies are "mere illusions... a willed and conscious deception" (1971: 326). Like Althusser, he recognizes that ideas manifest at the level of practical, habituated engagement. It is only within ideological terrains, in the mess of lived historical struggle, that hegemonic ideologies can find footing.

Gramsci's attentiveness to the historical-geographical specificities of ideological practice requires us to address a final question: what defines the ideological terrain specific to environmentalism, in particular? "Smith's (2008) "bourgeois ideology of nature" provides one compelling answer". (2) As I argue below, whale music affirms the dominant ideology of late capitalism as consisting of nature as a "thing" to be used (external), and nature as constitutive of all of life (universal) (cf. Smith, 2008: 27-29). These tendencies--external and universal--are not easily reconciled, and co-exist in tension and contradiction. Moreover, they are deployed and circulated in ways that produce material effects. Smith helps us recognize that social appraisals of whale music manifested in different ways within the dialectical tensions of a specifically capitalist ideology. Taken with Mowitt and Gramsci, Smith brings greater focus to the way a subject's "acquisition" of ideology is mediated through a range of social relations, including the variations of musical-historical experience.

As I demonstrate below, whale music did not connote "harmony between economic and ideological rule" (Rehmann, 2013: 34). Rather, it pointed to the dynamic, moving, and contradictory relationships among different currents of environmentalist thought and activity. In BC, where predominantly white, middle-class men cultivated interests in whale music, contradictory discourses around the "unspoiled" lands of Coastal First Nations routinely informed listening narratives. This is less the case in California, where whale music tended to resonate with burgeoning interests in communications networks, and where a more abstract topography of spirituality and eco-mysticism was mobilized. Gramsci's approach helps us identify the different subject-formations that "took up" whale music across such contexts, and how each denominative listening experience bore the marks of several historical processes.

From clicks and shrieks to musical singing

In this section, I consider the ideological content of whale music more closely. Two scenes help to set this discussion in motion. In the first, we are next to a holding pen in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the summer of 1964. A captive killer whale named Moby Doll is being showcased to a pair of researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (Francis and Hewlett, 2007). Listening to the animal through an underwater microphone (hydrophone), Schevill and Watkins (1966) note "clicks" in rapid-fire succession. They also observe "shrieks" which they hypothesize to be communication. Now fast-forward six years. We are at a farm in upstate New York. Folk musician Pete Seeger has recently completed a summer sailing trip with another scientist--Roger Payne. Inspired by the humpback whale recordings Payne played him during the voyage, Seeger writes a song:
I didn't just hear grunting
I didn't just hear squeaks
I didn't just hear bellows
I didn't just hear shrieks
It was the musical singing
And the passionate wail
That came from the heart
Of the world's last whale

A broad ideological shift took place between the years Schevill and Watkins heard "screams" and "shrieks" and Seeger penned the lyrics for "Song the Worlds Last Whale" --a song that featured in an anthology of environmental protest-music ("Songs of Survival") published by the Sierra Club in 1971. Announcing this shift was a new kind of "musical singing." (3) A previously discordant set of animal sounds (e.g. "shrieks") became recognized, aestheticized, and for certain individuals, "felt" as music. Seeger's refrain, ("I didn't just hear grunting, I didn't just hear shrieks") points to whale sound's new communicative power, a "beyondness" that seemed to recall a prior unity of humanity and nature.

In 1970, Seeger was among a multitude of environmentalist thinkers who found identity in whale sounds. That same year, Payne released the recordings that inspired "The Worlds Last Whale" as an LP with Atlantic Records. Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970) won Payne and collaborator Scott McVay a Grammy, and became a touchstone for the social, economic and legislative efforts of the "Save of Whales" movement so central to environmentalism's mainstream successes (Burnett, 2012). (4) It is little wonder that Rothenberg (2014) calls the album "Nature's Greatest Hit." But my claim is not just that whale music "made sense" to environmentalists, or that it was disseminated in ideologically efficacious ways. While these observations are valid ones, whale music's evocative power operated at more fundamental levels. Ideology was at work in the very structure of its sounds. The most identifiable "hook" listeners of Songs of the Humpback Whale encountered, a plaintive moan that swells as it rises in pitch - ewooOOH!--was itself ideological. To enjoy this sound was to partake, at least for its duration, in a belief system, one that could inform a whole way of life. Coming to terms with this fact, and connecting the forces that produced whale sound as "musical" sound, allows us to better consider the resonance whale music had across environmentalist thought.

It is important to note certain biographical details about whale music's connotative listenership. We need to recognize the fact that musical interests in whale sounds were predominantly forged in urban landscapes. To invoke Smith, it modeled a journey from external nature, as experienced in the city, to the universal nature "in which we endeavour to immerse ourselves" (2008: 27). As such, the history of whale music pivots on a particular "structure of feeling" (Williams, 2009): a dislocation felt across cities like Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle as their regional economies began shifting away from primary resource production beginning in the late 1960s (Rajala, 2000). This feeling of dislocation was spurred on by the new affluence of the post war middle class, which brought its burgeoning quality of life concerns to bear on dissatisfactions with the social conventions of Fordism. Across an urbanizing West Coast, this ferment gave expression to a range of environmental concerns, including planetary stress, overpopulation, and resource scarcity (Carson, 1962; Ehrlich, 1968; Meadows, 1972) as well as more affirmative engagements in eco-tourism and adventure travel (Fletcher, 2014). "By changing national values," Time Magazine declared in 1971, environmentalism "may well spur a profound advance in US maturity and harmony with nature" (quoted in Purdy 2015: 47). The emerging discourse of "ecology," with its powerful valorization of the sensory, was perhaps the most successful expression of environmentalism's new epistemological toolkit (Nelson, 2015). For Greenpeace, the whale-music loving environmental group that originated in Vancouver in the early 1970s, ecology was not just an identity marker, but a way to take invoke of "the common origin of all beings" (Weyler, 2004: 213).

As expressed in whale music, ecology was not just a key to solving new problems, it was also a means of diagnosing them. To understand how people could come to listen ecologically, or strive to, we need to look beyond the history of environmentalism, as conventionally understood (cf. Cronon, 1995), to shifts in popular music. Up and down the West Coast, middle-class men and women discovered new convictions about the anti-nuclear movement through the folk music of Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell, both of whom played at Vancouver's Amchitka benefit concert in 1970 (Pedelty, 2013). But more than a question of featuring new nature content, the boundaries of popular music were expanding, with "the environment" entering its forms in new ways (Gottschalk, 2016). Many scholars have touched on the widening range of acceptably "musical" pop sounds that began to circulate at this time, and their connection to new systems of countercultural expression (Kun, 2006; Zimmerman, 2008). The period witnessed a range of successful "nature music" albums, like Environments (1969), the first in a long series devoted to the looped nature sounds, Ambiance One (1970), billed as "An Adventure in Environmental Sound," and Solitudes (1972) which pioneered new techniques of field recording (Sutherland, 2014). (5) A commodification of nature indexed a burgeoning music consumerism, with a range of genres newly available to individuals looking to "say" something about their social identities.

Whale music was both environmentalized music and musical environmentalism. At its centre stood "the Whale," whose popular status had being dramatically reconceived--"from Blubber and Baleen to Buddha of the Deep" (Zelko, 2012: 1). Music's noted ability to connote "otherness" found a powerful vessel in a species long connected to questions of alterity in the Western imagination (Bryld and Llykke, 2000). The sudden avalanche of cultural production around whales (books, journalism, music) presented them as symbols par excellance for the Age of Aquarius (Burnett, 2012; Mclntyre, 1974). Environmentalist convictions that "the whales are way ahead of us" were persistently inferred through reference to their "harmonious" relationships with nature (Hunter quoted in Weyler, 2004: 179). If unavailable first-hand, such ideals could be modeled, encouraged, and circulated through the growing accoutrements of musical culture, a sphere through which a subject-identifying embrace of "continuous" interpellations was newly possible (Althusser, 2014). While the story of the whale's rise to iconicity in the 1970s has been told before, the role of whale music is rarely given sufficient attention. To a considerable degree, the dramatic reimagining of whales was a story of listening.

Listening to whale music

"Have you ever heard a whale sing?" the National Audubon Society asked US radio audiences in 1974. "Listen a moment... Is it a love song? Or a lament? It could be both" (Quoted in Schwartz, 2012: 289). Burnett (2012) estimates that over 150 items of popular music have sampled or thematized whale music since in the early 1970s (and mostly in that decade). This musical archive evokes an ideological terrain contoured by numerous significations. Whale music could be "joyous"--the killer whale squeals of Songs and Sounds of Orcinus Orca (1979); or "introspective"--the delicate interplays of flute and killer whale on Paul Horn and Haida (1974); or perhaps "sacred" and "profound"--the mournful humpback moans that mark the beginning of Common Ground (1976). Across the idiosyncrasy lay a thematic consistency: In the 1970s, whale music almost invariably promoted nature as good and beautiful, a universal voice for an ecologically fractured world. Whales "sing with a purity which our ears can only begin to appreciate" exhorted Tom Garrett of Friends of the Earth (quoted in Dorsey, 2015: 207). "To leave the oceans... barren of whales is as unthinkable as taking all music away," conservationist Scott McVay fulminated (quoted in Zelko, 2013: 189). For Greenpeace activist Mel Gregory, "The humpback whale, who is now at the point of extinction, has devoted his existence to perfecting the highest form of communication--MUSIC" (quoted in Weyler, 2004: 71). For environmentalists like these, the communicating power of whale sounds embodied the values necessary for self-definition within a burgeoning human community: environmentalism.

Today, whale music's environmentalist affinities are obvious. It plainly speaks to people (like the Dude) who care about nature. But this obviousness--an Althusserian outcome we "cannot fail to recognize" (2014: 271)--was produced; an ideological achievement revealing significant currents in environmentalism, and the role popular music has historically played across its expressions. With its mystery-laden messages, whale music proposed the necessity of a new ecological consciousness. But in so doing, it drew from an increasingly commodified musical modernity, and a vast network of meaning-making signs popular music carried forward (Derrida and Kamuf, 1991). Within popular culture, much about whale music--its non-Western instrumentation, its pitch modulation and repeated sustains--had already been "heard" (and apprehended as music) in the exotica, easy listening, and ambient genres available in the marketplace (Keightley, 2008; Lanza, 1994). The piano loops and accompaniment that featured on Steven Halpern's "Leviathan Blue" (1975) standardized humpback whales according to conventional composition schemes. This isn't to say that there was nothing different about whale music. But we consistently find such difference arranged by canonical orders of taste, sonic fidelity, and quality (Sterne, 2003), and thus prevailing forms of musical-cum-ideological "education." There is perhaps no more instructive example than the recording medium (magnetic tape or a 45" LP), which set the parameters of musical time-space to which popular whale music would adhere.

Claims to the ineffable in whale music deserve skepticism. From Mowitt, we can regard whale music's oft-cited "touching" qualities (e.g. Morton, 2002) as analogous to the declarative "knock" which grounds the embodied response to a musical interpellation (Mowitt, 2002: 46). This "touching" or "knocking" performs a crucial ideological interruption, Mowitt explains, "breaking in on the subject in formation" to position them socially (2002: 58). As environmental ideology, whale music involved new developments in musical production, marketing and consumption. It was a "discourse on discourse channel conditions" (Kittler, 2009: 41), a meta-commentary on the recording medium that announced technical changes in the professional studio's ability to enrich socio-sonic meaning. Whale music heralded marketing shifts in the popular music industry, including its growing cultivation of niche audiences in the late Sixties (Suisman, 2009). It arrived on the heels of growing commercial interests in musical mood modulation and sentimental sounds (Taylor, 2012), themselves supported by the penetration of hi-fi audio equipment into middle-class households and living rooms (Keighley, 2008). Whale music's ability to solicit emotional responses was not simply an indication of its musically affective power, then, but the consolidation of a new socio-technical basis for the production of musical affect too.

Music's conative function most frequenly operates in the direct-address lyric (e.g. "Hey you / Get off my cloud!..."). But it works as a non-verbal semiotics too, with powerful ideological links fusing through the very quality of a sound. Consider the "hook" I mentioned earlier ("ewooOOH!"). As with other instances of whale music, this sound, sampled from a singing humpback whale, was engineered to sound "natural." In audio-technical discourse, the terms "dry" and "wet" are used to characterize differences between a sound and its detachable echo (Sterne, 2015). Humpback calls were definitely "wet"; their "echoey" qualities, sometimes sourced in the recording process, sometimes boosted in post-production, key to their ability to suggest an expansive nature. Explains Doyle (2007): "Echo and reverb made it seem as though the music was coming from a somewhere--from inside an enclosed architectural or natural space..." (5). In whale music, the conceptual triad of "wet", "echo," and "spaciousness" often form a semantic thread, as on the opening track of Paul Winter's Common Ground (1976), where "haunting" humpback calls surface into reverb-dripped audibility. The nature modeled here is both external to the interpellated listener, a place for them to "go," but crucially, it is "within" them too, a universal and fluid "mind-space" reaching within and beyond the subject. In the 1940s and 1950s, reverb invited listeners of country music to imaginatively explore the vast spaces of the American west (Doyle, 2007). Put to work in environmentalism's system of musical interpellation, reverb could invoke the boundlessness and transcendental monism of nature itself.

On the terrain of popular culture, only one whale music album, the Payne and McVay-released Songs of the Humpback Whale (1971) has achieved canonical status. Songs of the Humpback Whale sold 45,000 copies in its first year of release and surpassed one million in sales by the end of the 1980s. While Time Magazine balked at "music that might have come from the throat of a 40-tonne canary," counterculture-savvy Rolling Stone celebrated a "trippy record" that "stretches your mind to encompass alien art forms" (quoted in Rothenberg, 2008: 18). Among the diverse list of artists claiming inspiration from Songs... are George Crumb, whose Vox Balaenae (1971) imitated whales with warbling, microtonal flute passages, and Pink Floyd, whose "Echoes" piece (1972) featured the delay-dripped "wailing" of guitarist David Gilmour. Consistent across these renderings was a plain environmentalist message: the originators of whale music's "surprisingly beautiful sounds" could only be sentient, intelligent beings (Payne, 1971: 1).

The social responses to Songs of the Humpback Whale offer a departure point for charting developments in 1970s environmentalism. The first trend extends from Payne and McVay's presentation of whale music listening through environmentalist fidelity with Romantic individualism (Turner, 2006). Whale music was satisfying music, and as with environmentalism more broadly, its satisfaction giving qualities depended on a listening subject's ability to "receive" nature sensorially. Payne and McVay suggest that appreciating whale music means training one's ears to "smooth uninterrupted rivers of sound" (1971: 1). "Listen to him singing far below the turmoil and ceaseless motion of the surface," they urge, "From that profoundly peaceful place a voice calls us to Turn Back." Jazz musician Paul Winter called Songs of the Humpback Whale "a timeless classic of the earth's music" (quoted in Whitehead and Rendell, 2015: 76), noting that, "the whales opened my ears to the whole symphony of nature, and expanded my world forever." Mel Gregory agreed: "one can't help but read purpose and intellect into the thirty minute songs," he noted. "Where man has gone out of himself with his hands, to create... the whales realizes completion within himself (quoted in Zelko, 2013: 124).

Whale music promised an exchange between listener and Nature. Mediated by headphones and LPs, it was more often a solitary endeavour, aided by free time and bong hits. Such introspection could easily lead to Utopian reverie, which helps to explain the optimistic humanism Purdy (2015) finds in Seventies environmentalism more broadly (cf. Mclntyre, 1974). Payne could have been describing the aspirational culture of footloose environmentalists when he claimed that "whales cooperate in widely scattered societies... held together by calls that can carry for hundreds of miles" which "exist for the purpose of sharing information on food finds and... reciprocal altruism" (quoted in Dorsey, 2015: 216). Saddled with such expectations, whale music's journey into Nature could resolve into a less demanding anthropomorphism. It is well understood that environmentalism helped birth the "therapeutic narcissism" of New Age culture, which emerged across North America in the mid 1970s and similarly championed whale music (Thornton, 2014). New Age perfected environmentalist appeals to "drop out" from society and embrace a politics of personal fulfillment (Zimmerman, 2008). Modeled in these terms, listening to whales could support the notion that changes in lifestyle as opposed to protest or legislation, was the path toward more just ecological futures.

Regardless of the solipsism it encouraged, whale music was a manifestly social phenomenon, and it was social in ways that confirmed developments in environmentalism as a form of social networking (Turner, 2006). Dorsey (2015) notes that whaling was second only to the Vietnam War in the number of protest letters it generated in the White House mailbox in the 1970s. Whale music--along with popular imagery and prose--was a big reason so many people impelled their governments to end the slaughter. Payne himself quickly recognized the power of Songs of the Humpback Whale in this regard (Payne, 1995). In 1971, he successfully played Songs... before the US congress in a bid to win support for a resolution to halt commercial whaling. (6) In 1977, a time by which organizations like Greenpeace were securing consistent media attention by sending recordings of distressed whale calls to news outlets (Zelko, 2013), Payne secured the recordings' presence on NASA's famous gold LP, The Murmurs of the Earth, which was sent into space as an "acoustic emissary" of Planet Earth. (7)

These examples of institutional networking are incipient moments of environmentalism's "overdetermination," or absorption within supervisory networks of capitalist institutions (Althusser, 2014). By the mid 1970s, many environmental organizations were seeking popular attention through orchestrated eco-spectacle, and by presenting their activities in ways that collapsed traditional barriers between work and leisure (Zelko, 2013). These efforts supported environmentalism conversion into a lifestyle project amenable to various forms of mass entertainment and consumption (Dowie, 1995). During this period, whale music likewise moved from a narrowly environmentalist pursuit into something tourists and publics could routinely encounter at institutions like Sealand of the Pacific and the Vancouver Aquarium, aboard a growing number of hydrophone-toting whale watching boats, or in the local record store. Yet even as whale music cultivated a green consumerism, it is important to stress the tensions that existed across its environmentalist terrain. Whale music invoked a mash-up of sentiments (pseudo-science, eastern mysticism, holistic ecology.) that identified environmentalism's expansive field of possibility. Listening to whale music reminded Greenpeace activist Robert Hunter that "humanistic value systems must be replaced by supra-human values that bring all plant and animal life into the sphere of legal, moral and ethical consideration" (Hunter, 1979). Others heard the communiques of ancient extra-terrestrials. Some listeners found musical critiques of Modernity and science. Others were inspired to embark on animal welfare campaigns. The "communing with nature" whale music modeled raised provocative questions about capitalism as a larger system, even if its cumulative effect was far from revolutionary.

Part II - Whale music as a way of life

In this second section, I want to examine different environmentalist understandings of whale music in more detail. Focusing on personal encounters with whale music will in turn support my claim for listening as an overlooked practice for assessing environmental ideology as lived experience. For Frith (1987): "[The] interplay between personal absorption into music and the sense that it is, nevertheless, something out there, something public, is what makes music so important in the cultural placing of the individual in the social" (139). Whale music's history embodies this idea. It invited its listeners to become "consubstantial" with voices that belonged to no one but Nature itself, and to revel in the "communing" of lives that rested on moves between an external and universal natures. I turn now to three individuals whose work deepens the understanding of this ideological tendency. Paul Spong, Jim Nollman, and John Ford represent divergent paths in the history of whale music. Spong embraced the ethical promises of whale music, blending science with animal advocacy. Nollman cultivated artistic engagement, fashioning a career of "interspecies music." Ford resisted the subjective promises of whale sounds, pursuing an objective study of killer whale "dialects." Yet insofar as they were distinctive, each participated in the musical interpellation this paper is concerned with. Each engagement installed relationships across the ideological terrain of environmentalism, revealing new ways musical perception was being solicited by environmental institutions. In different ways, Spong, Nollman, and Ford expressed and constituted the environmentalist experience of listening to whale music.

Paul Spong

In Spong's work, we find the modeling of experience so crucial to the interpellative power of whale music, with music "reconfiguring the relations between humans, animals and materials" (Gallagher et al., 2016: 13). Three years after Schevill and Watkins heard "captive screams" from Moby Doll (Schevill and Watkins, 1966: 3), Spong, a neuroscientist-turned-whale researcher, began working with Skana, a captive killer whale at the Vancouver Aquarium. Spong's Vancouver arrival coincided with an influx of draft-dodgers, anarchists, hippies, and members of the New Left. In step with these actors, Spong was instrumental in publicizing Vancouver's "environmental" identity, which was generating a range of environmental institutions, including the Society for the Prevention of Environmental Contamination (SPEC), the Vancouver Liberation Front, the Vancouver Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, which started out as "the Don't Make a Wave Committee" (Zelko, 2013).

A useful introduction to the Spong mythos comes by way of Weyler's Song of Whale (1986). In this book, a promising scientist, schooled in the behaviorism of his day, arrives to work with a captive animal. Gradually, the encounter transforms him, leading to a series of "musical" experiments, a celebrated confrontation with a traditionalist institution, and Spong's escape into Nature. Weyler's account suggests that environmentalist experience is mediated by musical experience, including the "high order of communication" Spong heard in whales (Spong, quoted in Hazelwood 1969: 7). Through Spong, whale music becomes research methodology; a practice capable of bringing whale and human into greater harmony. At its core was Skana's "intelligent" refusal to accept a standard reward (fish), which provoked a self-reflexive response in Spong: "I dropped my posture of remoteness, opened my mind, and personally engaged myself in Skana's learning" (Spong, 1974: 7). In behaviorist practice, the researcher maintains separation between their own nature and the external nature of their study object. Skana's musical communication shattered this conceit, producing Spong the researcher as an interactive study subject. Speaking at an academic conference in 1972, Spong speculated on the value of his approach:
Music we know to be a communication medium that transcends cultural
boundaries in our own species. It is perhaps most effectively used for
the communication of emotional data. We feel it has significant
potential in the realm of interspecies communication (1972: 184).

Spong's environmentalism rested on an ideological commitment to the communicating power of music (Frith, 1987). The whale's essential "nature" is revealed through the reception of musical sound. For Spong, it was evident that Skana's "un-musical" pen (a concrete box allowing little tonal differentiation) was causing "abnormal mental functions" (Percival, 1969). Sensory deprivation was undermining the whale's sense of self. Listening thus fostered a powerful interspecies empathy, the basis for Spong's fusion of science and animal rights advocacy. With Spong, environmentalism's "ethical extension" into the domain of the non-human (Nash, 1990: 162) proceeded through the attribution of musical meaning, a meaning that was both personal and profoundly natural, and thus a move to universal nature. "I want the whole bloody city to know [Skana] loves... music," Spong proclaimed to a Vancouver news reporter in 1969, "she'll flip her skull when she hears it" (Farrow, 1969).

Like Payne before him, Spong recognized whale music's networking potentials. Throughout the 1970s, he repeatedly sought to promote whale music, through fundraising drives, speeches, the Greenpeace Whale Show--"a totally absorbing blend of eco-politics, startling moody sounds, and suberb visual art" (Dorsey, 2015: 234; Weyler, 2004). In 1973, he teamed up with Joan Mclntyre, head of an influential California-based whale advocacy organization ("Project Jonah") to help draw attention to the unethical practices of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) (Zelko, 2013: 172). By 1973, he was also working with Greenpeace, an organization that had turned from anti-Nuclear protest to anti-whaling. Whale music quickly became the soundtrack of Greenpeace's efforts to transform the North Pacific into a stage for its new form of eco-protest. Spong circulated recordings of distressed whale calls to radio stations ahead of scheduled Greenpeace interviews. During one anti-whaling foray in 1975, he and other Greenpeace members played Payne's Songs...on full blast at approaching Russian whalers (Zelko, 2013: 229). Broadcasting music in this way was a territorializing gesture--an assertion of environmentalist defiance in the face of "primitive" resource extractors. It likewise communicated the virtues of environmentalist listening--a practice for the consolidation of community and the transformation of "mass consciousness" (Hunter, 1979). Spong's valorization of whale music came to inform his entire lifestyle. By the late 1970s, he was cultivating listening practices at OrcaLab, a wild whale research project on the north end of Vancouver Island. With its spectacular coastal location and underwater-network of whale-sensitive hydrophones, the station was an apotheosis of green escapism, appropriately funded by Stewart Brand's Point Foundation (Turner, 2006).

Jim Nollman

Spong's efforts to "place" whale musical experience informed a related practice, one that developed at OrcaLab as well as further down the West Coast. This was "Interspecies music," a reciprocal cross-kinship exchange of musical sounds and an environmentalist philosophy wherein "all of the species, resources and functions of the earth aid and abet the growth and continuity of all the rest" (Nollman, 1982a: 1). Nollman was not on hand in August 1970, when the rock band "Fireweed" floated a soundstage into OrcaLab waters to play music to killer whales. But he soon became affiliated with the mix of musicians, eco-philosophers, and technology developers that routinely composed "interspecies music" in the area. "Interspecies music" was an extension of environmentalist interests in "communes;" reflexive engagements in community making (Turner, 2006). It maintained Utopian interests in "appropriate use" technology, wherein electronic sounds could be consubstantial with natural ones (e.g. Hoyt, 1982). Perhaps, one interspecies music exponent suggested, "echolocation" was simply nature's communication technology par excellance, a device able to convey ecological and emotional information simultaneously (Sutphen, in Mclntyre, 1974). Supporting the apparent idiosyncrasy of interspecies music was a diverse set of funding structures and philanthropies from Vancouver and the Bay Area, instances of a growing collusion between environmental groups and ecology-conscious software and tech industries (Turner, 2006). In this respect, the career arcs of interspecies music exponents Peter Sugarman--from a member of the Human/Dolphin Foundation in California to software application developer at Microsoft--and Tom Wilkes--art director at A&M to founder of Project Interspeak--identify the purposeful social relationships undergirding a nominally environmentalist pursuit.

Like Spong, Nollman came to regard music as a form of animal research (1982). But his "interspecies music" was more geared to the technological utopianism whale music promised, and his interpellation led accordingly to the more appropriate signifiers of "systems" and "networks." For Nollman, efforts to "commune with nature" supported Kuhn's (1962) idea that science proceeded as system-wide revolutions of received paradigms. "We are on the verge of a major statement of interspecies communication that could change the way human beings relate to whales forever," Nollman wrote in the first Interspecies Newsletter (1978). "Interspecies music expresses the clear and simple example of humans attempting to communicate with other living creatures--even plants." To complete his work and support itinerant lifestyle, Nollman drew support from Project Jonah, Greenpeace, the Ojai Foundation, the Human/Dolphin Foundation, the BC Arts Council, and the California Arts Council. His debut album, Playing Music With Animals (1982), was released on Smithsonian Folkways, an influential folk music label with environmentalist leanings.

As environmentalism, "interspecies music" proposed a "prefigurative politics" (Epstein, 1991). It played on the ideological belief that a more ecological society could issue from the literal sounding into being of particular attitudes about nature. While the "energy exchange of harmony" Nollman's ideas seem outlandish today (Nollman, 1982b), it clearly resonated in its historical and geographical context. A 1973 CBS News story about the migration of the gray whales along the west coast of America captured images of tens of thousands of whale watchers clustered along California's beaches. In 1976, the State of California invited Nollman to assist in its efforts to further draw attention to the grey whales. Video footage from the Berkeley Film Archive depicts Nollman in conversation with Governor Jerry Brown, who had just declared a state wide "Whale Day." (8) Clearly, Nollman's eccentric interests could operate within mainstream models of West Coast environmentalism. In fact, his "non-invasive" whale music anticipated ideological harmonies between environmentalism and tourist economies premised on the non-consumptive utilization of whales decades later (Barstow, 1986). A sonic journey in both the literal and figurative senses (and sometimes both), whale music transported listeners from the external nature of the polis to the universal nature of the boundless ocean--"at least for the weekend" (Smith 2008: 27).

Mowitt's (2002) decision to develop "musical interpellation" through a late Sixties single (the Rolling Stones' "Hey You Get Off My Cloud") was more than a play on words. He wants us to recognize the function of music within the popular culture then taking shape--its increasingly visible (and profitable) infrastructure of leisure activities and identity performances to which music played such an important role. Within particular geographies, "nature" itself was coming to function like a concert hall: constructed as a space of commoditized musical performance (Adorno, 2002). Many of its best-known exponents - Roger Payne, Paul Winter, for instance--appraised whale music as a sort of an "ancient music"--not unlike pre-Columbian Amerindian music or Tibetan chants (Zimmerman,

2008). Joan Ocean's occulist theory of "sonic holography" (Ocean, 1984) and Nollman's "Dolphin Sticks" ("used by Austrialian Aborigines for many generations for calling dolphins") (1978: 1) tinted whale musical appreciations with the mystical hues of "exotic" cultures (Kalland, 2013). In projecting such associations across the coastlines of BC and California, where urban-dwelling environmentalists nocked to access a Nature safeguarded by new laws and property protections (Purdy, 2015), environmentalists could maintain ideological fidelities to a governing logic of settler colonialism, which has historically validated ideas of nature as existing outside of history and politics.

It is here in particular that the social consequences of Smith's universal nature are laid bare, where its ideological pursuit could mask historical realities. The authentic experiences environmentalists sought through whale music routinely transpired on unceded indigenous lands that were nevertheless celebrated as unchanging backdrops to an aural spectacle. And while the contradictions and ideological deflections of Seventies environmentalism would articulate a range of stances around indigenous struggles (Braun, 2002; Rome, 2003), what generally ensued was a liberal environmentalism that celebrated indigenous difference while skirting issues of oppression and political demand. An ambivalent conflation of indigenous culture and universal nature continues today (Raibmon, 2005).

John Ford

The unlikely notion that whale music can illuminate these themes stands confirmed in the work of cetologist of John Ford. Ford conducted research at the University of British Columbia at a time (the late 1970s) when popular ideas of musical whales had generated considerable anxiety within the academy. Environmentalist groups had repeatedly coopted cetology's acoustical researches, leading to erroneous public claims that "scientists were becoming convinced that whales are... capable of communicating with human beings" (Victoria Daily Colonist, 1975). In his dissertation (1984), Ford resisted identifying killer whale sounds according to any scheme that would identify him as an "Orcateer"--a term his colleagues used to disparage popular fascinations with whales (Murray, 2008). When it was necessary to expound on the symbolic content of whale utterances, he turned to the science of anthropology, using its lexicon for the region's indigenous inhabitants: "dialects," "clans," and "matriarchs" (1984). The decision was ideologically significant. It allowed Ford to locate whales somewhere between "nature" and "culture" - closer to the former, but still suggestive of uniquely human properties (Haraway, 1989). A celebrated scientific documentation of an ancient culture of coastal "Residents" (Ford, 1984), Ford's research supported imaginative access to a community of coastal inhabits whose lived existence remained invisible to most middle class observers. This influential work (Ford remains an internationally citedcetologist) maintained crucial fidelities with the pervasive "bourgeois" narrative regarding BC's indigenous peoples--fetishized, celebrated, and marketed for their proximity to Nature (Braun, 2002; Raibmon, 2005).

Ford's efforts drew from sonic experience and came to promote environmentalist listening too. To complete his research, he painstakingly listened to thousands of killer whale calls, correlating "dialects" to coastal habitat-areas through a matrilineal family structure. He pursued a "neutral" objectivism that relied on dendrograms and spectrograms--scientific tools that could map and locate whale identity along XY axes. Yet, in a different way than Spong or Nollman, he contributed to the success of an environmental ideology. In his capacity as cetologist, he was repeatedly summoned to legitimate an environmentalist fascination with individual whale voices (see: Francis and Hewlett, 2007, for the stories of Luna and Springer). His listening acts appeared in lifestyle portraits, interviews, and films that collectively reinforced a myth of white male discovery in a primeval land of whales and totem poles (Braun, 2002; Ford, 1981; Obee, 1992). For tourist promoters keen to enlist cetology into their education efforts, Ford's classifications facilitated the projection of environmental identity onto the whale identification act--a nominally "non-musical" gesture rendered aesthetic by its context. Mirroring the supposedly vanishing culture of indigenous peoples was the invisible but newly audible culture of whales, whose forms of sociality, lineage, and evolutionary history could similarly be mapped, romanticized, and presented as national heritage. By the mid-1980s, Ford's acoustical methods, combined with the photo-ID approach of his mentor Mike Bigg, had assigned every killer whale in the Northern and Southern "Resident" communities an acoustic "fingerprint."


Whale music was not discovered, as many of its devotees proposed it was, but invented, through a combination of animal sounds, recording techniques, consumer trends, and pervasive beliefs about nature. By considering the curious power of this music, this paper has proposed environmentalism as a sonorous formation,. "The significant feature of musical communication," Feld (1994) writes,
is not that it is untranslatable and irreducible to the verbal mode but
that its generality and multiplicity of possible messages and
interpretations brings out a special kind of 'feelingful' activity and
engagement on the part of the listener, a form of pleasure that unites
the material and mental dimensions of music experienced as fully
embodied, (quoted in Keil and Feld, 1994: 91)

With whale music, this "feelingfulness" was pervasively linked to the experience, and promised experience, of communing with nature. Confronted with novel sounds during an era of social and ecological uncertainty, environmentalists learned to "shift the resonance of the tonalities" they received, finding new sources of meaning and self-understanding (Shank, 2014: 8). The theory of ideology help us understand how quickly these shifts can transpire, shifts wherein "shrieks" and "screams" become "ecologically tuned in arias" in accordance with new historical movements (Helmreich, 2012: 156).

Smith's account of the "bourgeois ideology of nature" suggests that whale music's power operated, at least in part, through the connections it proposed between the interior spaces of the self-identifying subject, and the expansive terrain of a nature beyond. To understand the power and "touching" intimacy it musically conveyed, we must constantly relay whale music's connotative experiences back to the broader societal forces that proposed them. As Rehmann (2013) writes, "ideological interpellations are effective only when they succeed in appealing to lived experiences, and they can be challenged or rejected only when there are better and more convincing ways of making good sense" (178). In a Lower Mainland marked by the growth of green lifestyle and ongoing relocation of primary resource production activity (Barnes and Hutton, 2009), and in a Bay Area giving birth to the eco-friendly mix of tech utopianism and libertarianism that Barbook and Cameron (1995) term the "Californian Ideology," whale music supported ways of sense making that made sense within particular geographies of living and experiencing nature.

Dorsey's (2015) insight that "The Save the Whales" movement wrestled with the tension between seeing whales as useful and seeing them as special (Dorsey, 2015: 217), implicitly recalls Smith's (2008) distinction between external and universal appraisals of nature. Whale music articulated the irreconcilabilities of bourgeois nature; it was both a commodity and a document of human desires to break free from such fetters. By the 1980s, practices of environmentalist listening were nevertheless increasingly coordinated by big media, state agencies, and large national organizations like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace and the Audubon Society (Dowie, 1995). The environmentalist belief that whales "spoke to us" continued to ring out, but within such settings, the utopianism was dimmed (quoted in Zelko, 2013: 213). As Althusser would have it, the symbolic structural locations to which whale music musically interpellated its listeners privileged other activities, namely those that satisfied the needs of a rapidly professionalizing environmentalized white middle class. For certain listeners, whale music's introspective "mind-spaces" offered the seductive prospect of escape from the messy terrain of politics. Persistently, the pursuit of its immutable essence led not to a desired "universal" nature, but new networks of green entertainment and lifestyle (Smith, 2008).

Yet it is wrong to conclude that whale music simply co-opted environmentalists, or that its compositional "meanings" can be reduced to ideological functions. As Gramsci helps us understand, a more complicated terrain is at work here. For some listeners, whale music generated fundamental questions about what environmentalism should be about, and inspired significant forms of collective action. Rothenberg (2008) contends "we would never have been inspired to try to save the whale without being touched by its song" (1). In surveying the ideological terrain of environmentalism, I have sought to affirm the power of listening, agreeing with Rothenberg that listening indeed offers new possibilities for what environmentalism could consist of. At the same time, we must steadfastly question Rotherberg's presumed "we"; with whale music, it was particular communities who could enjoy a nature experience, and therein lies the ongoing challenge for environmentalism today.

In 1979, "Nuke the Whales," a single by the Bay Area punk band, The Fleshapoids, was released. Burnett (2012) ends his history of cetology by connecting "Nuke the Whales" to the vast apparatus of military-industrial science, institutional profiteering, and cultural wonder that marks the human-whale encounter across the 20th-century. I suggest we place it in the context of environmentalism, and observe a more direct message. "Nuke the Whales" was a retort, not to whales, but to a pious culture unwilling to confront its social hierarchies. Interconnection involves all of us, environmentalists seemed to say, but clearly some interconnections were more important than others--how else could it be "so much more terrible" to shoot a whale than a groundhog, as one anti-whaling campaigner suggested? (Dorsey, 2015: 216). Gramsci teaches us that the social forces by which ideological links are formed leave various traces on the ideological terrain. These traces are reminders that links are not fixed, but can be re-fused, and reworked into other conceptions and politics. With the resurfacing of whale music's beguiling promise today, amidst the hopes and anxieties and yearned-for escapes of another ecological age, we are invited to listen again, with better natures in mind.


My thanks to Kelsey Mae Johnson, Trevor Barnes, Jonathan Sterne, Mitch Akiyama, Sara Nelson, Martin Danyluk, Josh Akers and Geoff Mann for several rounds of patient and constructive criticism. I would also like to thank my three anonymous referees and Alex Vasudevan for their thoughtful and useful comments.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


(1.) Mann's (2009) excellent study of country music also mobilizes Gramsci, Mowitt, and Althusser. Mann's study does not include Neil Smith, nor does it make use of the "ideological terrain" concept central to my argument, however.

(2.) I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for helping me see this connection.

(3.) One might point out that Schevill and Watkins were describing killer whales, and Seeger, a sonically distinctive humpback whale. But Seeger's reference to "shrieks" and "squeaks" - sounds typically attributed to killer whales; rarely if ever to humpbacks--suggests that he was not describing a particular encounter, but self-consciously modeling the experience promised by the entire taxon.

(4.) Biologist William Schevill described beluga-produced sounds as "whale music" in 1962. His claim, which did not include a fulsomely 'musical' analysis in the way of Payne and McVay (1971), would not circulate beyond the scientific community. See: Schevill, William E. "Whale Music." Oceanus 9, no. 2 (1962): 2-13

(5.) See: I. Triebel (prod.) (1971) "Environments--Disc 3" (LP) Syntonic Research.

(6.) Nineteen seventy-two not only saw the passage of a United Nations (UN) moratorium on commercial whaling, but the US passage of The Marine Mammal Protection Act, which continues to provide the legal basis for marine mammal protections in the US.

(7.) In 1979, National Geographic released 10 million copies of Songs of the Humpback Whale as a flexi-disc accompaniment for a special issue, the largest ever single music pressing (Rothenberg, 2008). As one reviewer to this paper noted, we should wonder about the environmental impact of pressing millions of plastic flexi-discs, to say nothing of the original vinyl LPs.

(8.) See:


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Max Ritts is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography, University of British Columbia. His research combines interests in sound studies, environmental geography, and political economy.

Max Ritts

University of British Columbia, Canada

Corresponding author:

Max Ritts, University of British Columbia, 1984 West Mall, Vancouver BC V6T IZ4, Canada.


DOI: 10.1177/0263775817711706
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