For the fourth year running, the Music Centre is excited to present New Music Week, a weeklong celebration of musical exploration, inspiration and innovation. 2018’s artists in residence are James Turnbull (oboe), Eddy Hackett (percussion) and Emily Doolittle (composer). This year, Music Planet is infusing New Music Week with the latest insights from St Andrews researchers into how the soundscapes of whales and seals function, and how intertwined the sustainability of culture and landscape are in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Read on to find out more about how musicians and environmental researchers worked together to bring you this year’s week of cutting edge music and science.
Whale Coda Workshop
As a precursor to the concert programme, New Music Week collaborators held workshops in primary schools along the Fife coast to explore with the children the fascinating musical and scientific world of sperm whale sounds. Marine biologist Luke Rendell joined forces with musician Pippa Murphy to introduce the concept of sperm whale ‘codas’ to children at Aberhill and Pittenweem Primary Schools, helping them compose their own music inspired by the whales’ world of sound.
Codas are specific clicking patterns that identify both individuals and population groups of sperm whales, rather like a first and last name. Young sperm whales learn their coda pattern from their mothers, siblings, and other relatives in the maternal line. Scientists can identify where a whale is from and which other whales it’s related to based on which coda it uses. Rendell is one of many scientists investigating whale vocalisations at St Andrews. Their work seeks to understand the enormous variety of sounds produced across dozens of species in order to determine how these sounds express intelligence and culture in marine mammals. After learning about whales, especially ones you can see around Fife, the pupils picked important words from the presentation such as “odontoceti” (toothed whale) and “filter feeder” and worked with Pippa Murphy to compose their own musical patterns based on word rhythm. They practised on percussive instruments before stringing all the pupils’ work together into one longer composition. Emily Doolittle, one of New Music Week’s artists in residence, was also on hand to talk to the pupils about how marine mammal sounds inspire the music she writes, such as Social Sounds of Whales at Night and Conversation, both of which feature in New Music Week concerts.
New Sounds of Nature
On the shoals I count fifty seals,
their grey pod-bodies entwined.
Is it their thoughts or mine
that I hear?—a longing
so ardent and spacious.
This concert premieres Emily Doolittle’s Conversation, a setting for soprano and ensemble of Eleonore Schönmaier’s haunting poem of the same name. Schönmaier’s poem explores what Doolittle describes as a “slightly uncanny sympathy between humans and grey seals”. Humans are musical creatures. Sounds are so important to how we communicate and how we create that we are naturally drawn to the sounds other animals make, especially when we perceive those sounds as music. Marine mammals are especially musical — underwater, visibility is poor, but sound travels far. Grey seals are particularly captivating because their voiceboxes are the closest to ours of any other animal.
Grey seal calls from Pembrokeshire
Grey seals are one of the many marine mammals whose complex vocalisations are still largely mysterious. Scientists at the Sea Mammal Research Unit are working hard to uncover what it means when seals and other sea mammals sing. Doolittle has teamed up with biologists Vincent Janik and Alex Carroll to take a closer look at the musical patterns seals use when they howl together. Janik has published several papers on seals’ responses to human sounds, particularly industrial noise such as the construction of wind farms. For this project, the focus shifted to humans’ responses to seal sounds. To prepare for writing Conversation, Doolittle and Carroll went out to Abertay Sands, just up the coast from St Andrews, to record grey seals when they haul out on the beach. Doolittle received funding from the Culture and Animals Foundation and the Royal Society of Edinburgh to carry out this project. Noticing that other seals often join in when another starts to howl, she wrote Conversation in such a way that the method of playing is “as seal-like as possible … the musicians are often given freedom to choose when and how to join the howling pod. Unexpected melodies and harmonies arise as the howls overlap and intermingle.”
Artists in Residence
As part of the Artists in Residence centrepiece concert, oboeist James Turnbull will perform Emily Doolittle’s Social Sounds from Whales at Night. The title of this piece comes from the label on one of Luke Rendell’s recordings of sperm whale codas that he gave to Doolittle when she was working on this piece. These recordings, as well as others from St Andrews researchers of grey seal and musician wren sounds, helped inform the composition of a piece largely inspired by Patrick Miller’s recordings of humpback whale song.
The songs of humpback whales have entranced the public since Roger Payne’s album Songs of the Humpback Whale debuted in 1970. Today, scientists at the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews continue to investigate the role song plays in humpback whale life. Male humpbacks sing for hours at a time, singing the same song as other whales in their area. The songs gradually change as males pick up on the innovations of the whales around them, providing one of the best examples of cultural transmission in marine mammals. Different populations of whales approach song change differently in much the same way that human cultures develop in different ways. For example, some whales in the South Pacific Ocean create hybrid songs, where segments of new songs learned from nearby whales are spliced into the old one, making the change of the group’s song much quicker than in other populations.
Attracted by the melodic nature of humpback whale song, Doolittle transcribed the recordings for voice and instrumental parts. She edited a tape to be used in the performance too, weaving together the various researchers’ recordings into a musical backdrop. Each performance of Social Sounds of Whales at Night is different because at certain points in the piece, the performers are left to improvise in response to the recorded humpback whale song that continues to play. Doolittle says, “One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about having many different people perform this, on various different instruments, is hearing the very different ways they have approached the improvisatory section!” Given Turnbull’s dedication to exploring new repertoire for the oboe, hearing how he responds to the stimulus of the whale song will surely prove to be a highlight of the New Music Week concert.
Mairg an t-sùil a chì air fairge
eun mòr marbh na h-Albann.
Pity the eye that sees on the ocean
the great Dead Bird of Scotland.
In “An t-Eilean”, a panegyric about “the great beautiful bird of Scotland” that is his beloved Isle of Skye, Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean sings Skye’s praises, paying particular attention to the way the character of its people is tied to the power of their landscape. His poem ends, however, with an expression of profound anxiety that the damages done in the Highland Clearances have doomed the island to a future of degeneration and depopulation.
Composer John Wallace recently set MacLean’s haunting poem to music, and it is An t-Eilean that rounds off New Music Week 2018. Wallace’s piece is dedicated to Norman Gillies, a man whose career serves as a testament to the dedication of na Sgitheanaich (the people of Skye) to avert the future the poem fears will come to pass. Among his many other contributions to the revitalization of Gaelic culture, his work with the Clan Donald Lands Trust helping to create a sustainable development plan for 20,000 acres of land in Skye and the planning of the first new village in Skye for a hundred years has demonstrated a long-term commitment to the island’s future and directly contributed to the island’s repopulation. He also chairs the board of ATLAS Arts, an organisation based in Portree that, under the leadership of Emma Nicolson, “celebrates and explores the specificity of place” by supporting creative intiatives rooted in the inseparable relationship between culture and landscape on the island. Norman’s career has directly met the concerns raised in MacLean’s poem, keeping the “great beautiful bird of Scotland” alive and soaring.
The important relationship between cultural revival and sustainable environmental development in Scotland is a matter of research in St Andrews, making New Music Week a fitting opportunity to explore this topic in Wallace’s An t-Eilean. Charles Warren of the School of Geography & Sustainable Development has written extensively about the controversies surrounding land ownership, environmental management and land reform in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, all of which are affected by the long shadow of the Highland Clearances. Most recently, he has been exploring the novel concept of ‘rewilding‘ as practised in Scotland, an idea which is increasingly championed by conservationists but often resisted in places like Skye precisely because it is seen as a new form of Clearances.
John Wallace understands beautifully that inherent link between people and the land and uses his artistry to convey it. As the masthead of the West Highland Free Press proudly proclaims – An Tìr, An Cànan, ‘s na Daoine (The Land, The Language and The People) – we look forward to a time when our communities take charge of their own futures through ownership of the land and its plentiful natural resources.
We hope you have enjoyed learning more about the University of St Andrews research that underpinned New Music Week 2018. Check out our events schedule for concert times and venues. Follow Music Planet on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on our events!