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[Terra Nova] • Last month I told the tale of one scientist who thought my idea of learning the music of whales by playing along with them was the worst kind of egotistical folly. But recently I met a scientist with quite a different approach.

Michel Andre is one of the world's great experts on the acoustics of the sperm whale. He had long been vexed by the problem of how to tell one whale from another when recording a cacophony of clicking noises made by groups of these Moby Dick-type whales foraging under water.

Andre heard layers of overlapping rhythms that made no sense to him. He remembered that European musicologists, when first visiting Africa, could not understand how the large groups of drummers in countries like Senegal could keep their own part going in the midst of so many other contradictory beats. In fact these drummers have maintained their own signature rhythms in the din of the crowd since childhood. From these years of practice, each drummer knows how his pattern sings out in the spaces between all the other patterns. You must be an expert in the discernment of rhythms to successfully play this music.

With this in mind, Andre invited a Senegalese drummer, Arona N'Diaye Rose, to listen to his recording of a four-member unit of vocalizing sperm whales. The sabar master was immediately able to distinguish the beat of each of the four clicking whales from the others. He also believed that what the scientists heard as cacophony was actually an organized rhythm, based on a dominant beat coming from one of the whales, which Rose felt was analogous to the signature rhythms marking the social structure of an African tribe.

"I couldn't believe it," said Andre to me at a café in Barcelona last week, close to his laboratory. "We knew there were four whales because we took notes during the recording, but all we heard was a confusion of clicks. I asked Arona how he could tell there were four different animals. He said 'I don't know how – but I know.'"

Since that listening session ten years ago, Andre has been seeking funding to continue his research. But his story is the same as I've heard from many scientists: it is invariably difficult to get support for descriptive work. Applied science, especially work towards managing whale "stocks" or populations, is always easier to fund. An approach that combines biology with music – for all its intercultural promise – is the hardest to support. Should the funders be research agencies or cultural exchange groups? Neither wants to touch anything so firmly on the charged border between one approach and the next.

Andre has been developing more mathematically rigorous, or "objective," ways of categorizing whale clicks. Building this system is a prelude to being able to study the relationship between clicks that come from different whales with greater accuracy. It would also be a method that takes account of the precise rhythm that goes on between the clicks, how they fit into a larger patterned context. This complexity is what Rose heard in the recordings, and Andre feels we should not ignore it.

"We need to study the whales' perception, not our own perception," he said. "Scientists are more used to counting, so we count. We have to learn from the insights of polyrhythmic drumming to perceive the value of rhythm at work in the clicks themselves." So at the same time as trying out wild ideas, like collaborating with drummers, Andre is also applying more sophisticated mathematics, for more rigorous results.

Andre believes it is the relationship between the clicks that is most important. He also thinks that "reading" the clicks as music might help figure out what's really happening. But it's going to take musicians, scientists, and whales spending a whole lot of time together to get meaningful results.

"Sure, it's subjective if a drummer just listens once," said Andre. "But if I ever get to work with Rose for several months at a time, learning his perception and his approach toward analyzing the combinations, then I hope to learn something of his rhythmic intelligence that has been passed down through many generations. Yet we still don't have the funding to bring a drum master onto our team. Rose was certainly on to something. He immediately sensed an organization to these whale sounds that none of us in my lab could hear."

Perhaps one day the powers that grant funds to make science possible might see fit to support musicians and scientists working together more deeply. But at the moment, only about ten people in the world have even the slightest understanding of the code-like tappings produced by these legendary, mammoth beasts. How will we figure them out? The problem with whale science is the same as the problem Brian Eno pointed years ago regarding digital communication: "It's got to have more Africa in it."


Michel Andre's websites:

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