Interspecies Communications

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Wolf Pack with Shakuhachi Flute

In Which a musician plays "Silent Night" with a pack of wolves

In my eary days of exploring the musical interface between human music and animal calls, I produced and performed a series of radio shows for the Pacifica Radio Network through their Berkeley outlet, KPFA.

One of the most intriguing of these sessions occurred over a long weekend spent at a Wolf rehabilitation center located fifty miles north of Reno Nevada, near Pyramid Lake. I was accompanied by cellist and vocalist Sybil Glebow. I had met Sybil while performing John Cage in San Francisco. We both came at this music with animals as an aesthetic extension of the "new music" scene that unfolded in the Bay Area during the 1970s.

We set up our tents on a rise overlooking two large cages containing about ten wolves apiece. These animals had been brought here for several different reasons. Some came from zoos that had too many pups and not enough takers. Some animals were either shot for simply being wolves. They hadn't been killed, and ran away, only to be discovered, near death, by some compassionate person who brought them here. Others had been caught in leg hold traps and were limping around on three legs.

The wolve's twice-daily sessions seemed best explained as song ceremonies, enacted to a schedule based on the rising and setting suns. Each started about an hour prior to the s daily solar event, and gained in intensity and refinement, until each ended about fifteen minutes after the rise or set. Each session started off slowly, tentatively, and with a few false starts, which seemed to inspire the resolve of the forming chorus. Every session always included several ten minute intermissions between howls.

Sybil and I tried playing several different things whenever the wolves howled, including Indian ragas, atonal modern-classics, and jazz improvisations. For the most part, the wolves quickly communicated to us that they were quite willing to include us in a session if we would agree to stick to the intonations and scales they initiated. Otherwise, they would stop howling and start pacing and whimpering until we either stopped or found their own tonal center. By showing us, it became clear that their own sense of intonation was not only highly refined, but that it was more refined than the same sense in either Sybil or I.

On the third day, I took out a Japanese Shakuhachi. I could only play one tune on it, which ironically, resembled parts of "Silent Night". It was obvious from the start, that the wolves far preferred the tone and timbre of this end-blown bamboo flute played alone, than anything we played on strings. That's what you hear in this musical interaction, recorded just before dawn.

One thing this event taught me, was that my aspirations for interspecies communication would develop better if I focused on playing with wild animals. The simple fact that these wolves were being held captive in a big cage, while I played from the outside looking in, never felt right to me. These animals were a bit crazed, doing the best they could in an exceedingly stressful, unnatural situation. In so many ways, the true expression of their howling tradition had been compromised. Essentially, the event taught me to become a specialist in a very specialized field; to seek out and interact with animals whose aural tradition of communal expression still remained intact.

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