by Michael Durek
Whale / Human Collaborative Music Project's Pod Tune
10 Listens is a music review series where Michael Durek listens to an album at least ten times, taking notes along the way: the aim is to give a comprehensive picture of an album
Places listened: IIWII Studios Weekhawken, on Genelec 1032a, Barefoot Micromains, Fulcrum RM25 & Audio Teknik Subs; on Sennheiser HD380 Pro Headphones; Buick Regal 2003 (LS); NJ PATH train and NYC Subway L train on ear buds; home stereo system in NJ.
It’s not every day that you see a benefit record that is aesthetically related to the cause that it’s advancing. Whale/Human Collaborative Project’s Pod Tune features ambient composers from around the world using whale sounds, synthesizers, guitars, vocals, nature sounds, and more. The album, released in LP, CD, and digital formats, is powerfully coherent. The LP has only nine tracks and a consistent ambient tone throughout. The CD version extends to thirteen tracks and has a wider aesthetic reach, delightfully including some beats, a rockin’ tune, and a little calypso. It is, to my surprise, only the second album I’ve seen dedicated to whales, the first being Hovhaness’s And God Created Great Whales.
The whale song was supplied by David Rothenberg, Kent Noonan, the Macaulay Library, and Paul Knapp. Humpback whales can sing continuously for twenty-four hours or longer. They make music through their nasal cavities. According to Rothenberg, whales in different regions develop different songs: North Pacific Whales have a certain kind of song, North Atlantic whales another. They copy each other.
Each composer uses the whale sounds in a different way—as percussion, haunting ambience, melody, or chord tones. At times they even play the role of a lead vocal or maybe a spoken-whale word piece.
For me, different tracks stood out depending on the caliber of the system. When at IIWII Studios, with the Genelecs, Micromains, and Fulcrum Rm25s tuned to play simultaneously, certain tracks contained high frequency elements that seemed to jump out of the speakers. Notably, Mikael Jorgensen (of Wilco), Li Daiguo, William Basinski, Eric Holm, and Christina Vantzou’s tracks shined on the audiophile setup—stereo imaging, textural subtlety, and dynamics came through in great detail.
Eric Holms’s “My Jaw Was Made of Ancient Whale Bone” is an abstract track with dynamic bass, whirling wind, and looping clicks. By itself soothing, it could be used in a horror film or Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) video with equal facility. The percussive clicks are organic and gritty. Jacob Kirkegaard’s chilling “Chasm Chant” is another abstract offering, with discordant tones fading in and out like a warning siren.
William Basinski’s “Voyagers” has a gentle open feeling, sustained by a repeating background passage throughout—essentially a sus-2 arpeggio pattern. It sounds like Basinski: rain-like white noise can be heard throughout the track. The subtle, high frequencies are lost on my 2003 Buick stereo, but the tonal elements hold the song together. “Altus,” the opening track by Loscil, has a similar pairing of noise with looping chord tones, but with a much heavier melancholy mood throughout.
“Marine Layers,” by Jorgensen, features soft drones, whale sounds, and clicks. Where other tracks use just a few whale sounds, Jorgensen layers a great many to create a sonic tapestry of our marine mammalian friends.
Geasong’s “Dorudon Revival” is one of the most powerful songs on the album. It is the project of Rebecca Cross, who provides the vocals. This track walks the line between a classical vocal composition and a new age composition. Beautiful voices sing out amidst the whales as a cry for help. Schuyler Karr’s bowed upright bass joins in, and the voices are modulated with electronics. If not for the whales and modulation, I might have called it trite. But it is a beautiful, transcendent work.
Mia Hsieh’s “In The Deep Blue” is another uplifting vocal track. The production is interesting— the voices are panned and processed differently, along with the whale cries. The arrangement highlights a particular quirky ascending whale cry, which serves as a hook. It is a beautiful composition and performance, containing some audio artifacts that are only distracting on high-end setups.
One less experimental track on this compilation is Sugizo’s “Voice of Fatima,” which features heavily delayed electric guitar blended with voice synths and filtered whale voices. Occasionally, a few bass drum kicks come in and out, rendering this a vibey chill-out track, with euphoric splashes of waves crashing. An enjoyable piece, but in context of the compilation, I found myself missing the edge and dissonance that most of the tracks on Pod Tune embrace. Ugis Praulin’s “Valis” is also more traditional—he uses an electronic piano to perform a modal jam over a two-note ostinato whale loop with flute.
Greg Ellis’s “Molokini” is the most driving track on the compilation. Arpeggiated synths and beats create an upbeat Latin vibe. Structured with dropouts and drum fills, it would be at home in a dance hall or a movie soundtrack. It was a smart curatorial choice to mix in these more upbeat selections with the otherwise soft and meditative compilation.
There is something else touching about this release: proceeds benefit organizations such as the Ocean Alliance and the Blue Mind Project. I think the Humpback whales would approve.
MICHAEL DUREK is a Jersey City-based multi-instrumentalist and producer who performs as theUse, is in Pas Musique, and works with many others. He has contributed to Caliper Music blog, Impose magazine, and Tape Op magazine.