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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The sound of Whales singing with the Spokane Symphony

The music of humpback whales will be among the components of this weekend’s “Behold the Sea” concert from the Spokane Symphony.  (Imagine Earth Photography)
Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

While traveling off the coast of Colt Island on Stephen’s Passage in majestic Alaska, a number of humpback whales circled our boat and frolicked for a solid hour during summer 2022.

The humpbacks, who are great entertainers, can also sing. Marine biologist Ellen Garland, who is with the University of St. Andre Scotland, authored a study in 2022 on singing whales. Garland was taken aback upon discovering that whales in Australia passed their songs on to other humpbacks in French Polynesia, which gave tunes to whales in Ecuador.

Scientists have known that whales are underwater vocalists for many years. “Songs of the Humpback Whale” is an album produced by bio-acoustician Roger Payne in 1970. It was the first time the public heard whale vocalizations.

“That album was a huge hit when it came out,” Spokane Symphony Orchestra conductor James Lowe said. “People loved hearing whales sing.”

“And God Created Great Whales,” a symphonic poem for orchestra and recorded whale sounds, was crafted by American composer Alan Hovhaness. The work premiered in 1970 in New York City. The piece, which remains one of Hovhaness’ most popular compositions, will be featured Saturday and Sunday at the Fox for “Masterworks 4: Behold the Sea.”

“Every year, we have one Masterworks that really features the chorale,” Lowe said. “It’s quite easy to get stuck doing the same old pieces. I wanted to do something different this year. I love Hovahaness’ piece and we’re also doing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘A Sea Symphony,’ which is a huge choir and huge orchestra piece and it’s all based on Walt Whitman’s poetry about the sea, which is a metaphor for life and beyond. It’s a huge masterpiece that the symphony has never performed.”

The sounds of whales singing will be incorporated into the show. “We can’t get a humpback whale into the Fox so adding the whale sounds is the best we can do,” Lowe said. “It’ll be fun hearing the whales singing along with the symphony. The music in this program is really dramatic and has moments of tenderness and excitement.”