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Sounds Project Oceanic Light


Disney’s Willy will not be singing.

Boston Landmarks Orchestra joins with the New England Aquarium to turn the Hatch Shell into a seashell next Wednesday, as cetacean song and Debussy’s La Mer evoke the mysterious power and psychological depths of wind and waves. Stella Sung’s seascape discourses a watery dialogue between marine and human life, while Moby Dick rises again in the haunting music of Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock’s most frequent musical collaborator. And what could be a more a more startling segue than from Handel’s Water Music to Bedelt’s Pirates of the Caribbean?

Rain Date: Thursday, August 16th. If it rains on August 16th as well, the concert will be held at Emmanuel Church (15 Newbury St., Boston)

My podium notes follow.

The New England Aquarium first made music with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in the summer of 2015. A male humpback—recorded by researcher Salvatore Cerchio—performed as vocal soloist in Alan Hovhaness’s And God Created Great Whales. The collaboration was a revelation, demonstrating startling similarities between human and cetacean music making.

Tonight we are thrilled once again to welcome members of the New England Aquarium’s leadership team. It is a privilege to share the stage with Vikki Spruill, newly installed President and Chief Executive Officer. We are grateful for the many professional courtesies of Robin Elkins, VP, Development, throughout our months of planning. The suggestions, encouragement, and thoughtful guidance of Jane Wolfson, VP, Marketing and Communications have greatly enriched the program. And we are delighted by the support and advocacy of W20, and their founders, Barbara Burgess and Donna Hazard.

It was Scott KrausVP and Senior Science Advisor at the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, and Chief Scientist of Marine Mammal Conservation—who suggested that we explore deeper waters on our next joint expedition. He proposed that we create a symphonic representation of an urgent oceanic crisis: noise pollution. “It’s a true emergency,” he told me, “one that most people are oblivious to. These animals, who depend on sound to survive and thrive, are increasingly unable to hear. Furthermore, human-generated noise causes devastatingly high levels of stress for them. It would be as if you and I were living in an incredibly noisy bar. We’d always be able to get up and leave, of course, but they don’t have that option.”

Scott had lots of ideas, all of which struck me as perfectly in tune with our own thinking, including: “I wonder if we can make the Charles River sing.” That notion is only slightly more extravagant than King George I’s commission of a large-scale dance suite to be performed on barges in the middle of the Thames River in the summer of 1717. The result was one of the most recognizable of all orchestral works: George Frideric Handel’s Water Music. There was a time when Hamilton Harty’s lush orchestration of the Water Music was heard more frequently than Handel’s original. Those days are long over, but these grand realizations—of music built for the out-of-doors—seem especially fitting for a concert on the Esplanade.

The Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl was the first film of the Pirates series. The music was mostly composed by Klaus Badelt, the German-born protégé of Hollywood legend Hans Zimmer. Joining our performance are the stellar young musicians of the Boston String Academy, led by an outstanding musical team of co-directors: Venezuelan violinists Marielisa and Mariesther Alvarez and Peruvian-born cellist Taide Prieto. We are thrilled once again to perform alongside one of Boston’s elite orchestral training programs. Welcome back!

Tonight we present a new video of North Atlantic right whales created by Emily Greenhalgh, Senior Science Writer at the Aquarium. She has skillfully—and musically—choreographed still and moving images of these whales to Maurice Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’océan (“A Boat on the Ocean”). This eight-minute work began life as the fourth of his five piano pieces, Miroirs (“Mirrors”); the orchestration is the composer’s own. Swirling arpeggios in strings and harp invoke wind and water, as woodwinds exchange bobbing motives to suggest the rocking of a boat.

For North Atlantic right whales, potential catastrophe looms. Saving them is an urgent priority for the Aquarium, the Anderson Cabot Center, and Women Working for Oceans. The birthrate of North Atlantic right whales has dropped forty percent since 2010. They face a multitude of hazardous conditions caused by human activity, principally ship strikes and entanglement in fishing lines, but also toxic algae, noxious chemicals, pervasive noise pollution, unreliable supplies of their principal food (copepods), and the highest incidence of parasitic infections (giardia and cryptosporidium) ever recorded in a mammal.

In highly industrialized parts of the world—like the Northeastern United States—the impact of human activity on sea life is overwhelming and hurtful. Evidence abounds. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Rosalind Rolland—Director of Ocean Health at the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center—details stark discrepancies between the health of North Atlantic right whales and those in the Southern hemisphere, where there is far less industrial activity. In contrast to their Northern cousins, Southern right whales were found to be “fat, they were happy, they had no skin lesions, they were curious. [We were] dealing with a completely different animal,” she reports.

When I met Scott Kraus earlier this year outside his office on Boston’s Waterfront, I asked him what he thought about my desire to perform some of Bernard Herrmann’s Moby-Dick on this program. “What do you mean,” he asked, “what’s the problem with that?” “Well, it’s about whaling, of course,” I replied. Scott looked at me with excitement in his eyes and said, “Actually, Melville contributed more to the scientific and popular understanding of whales than anyone at the time. And he was the first to sound the alarm about extinctions.” Then Scott recited from memory a portion of the following passage from Moby-Dick, written in 1849:

“But still another inquiry remains; one often agitated by the more recondite Nantucketers. Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs at the mast-heads of the whaleships, now penetrating even through Behring’s straits, and into the remotest secret drawers and lockers of the world; and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all continental coasts; the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.”

I looked up this passage, to find that it continues as follows:

“Comparing the humped herds of whales with the humped herds of buffalo, which, not forty years ago, overspread by tens of thousands the prairies of Illinois and Missouri, and shook their iron manes and scowled with their thunder-clotted brows upon the sites of populous river-capitals, where now the polite broker sells you land at a dollar an inch; in such a comparison an irresistible argument would seem furnished, to show that the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction.”

Herrmann’s decision to create a musical dramatization of Moby-Dick came about in an unusual way. While courting his soon-to-be wife, Lucille Fletcher, Herrmann would sometimes join her for the hour-long subway ride from Manhattan back to her parents’ home in Brooklyn. During these rides they often exchanged ideas to spur each other’s creativity, he as a composer, she as a writer. On one occasion, he suggested that she create a fictional New England composer, modeled in his mind on Charles Ives. She was intrigued, and asked him what sort of music this imagined composer would write. Herrmann suggested a dramatic work based on Moby-Dick. After the next station stop—Lucille reports in her memoir—Herrmann said, “Golly, that’s too good an idea to waste on just a novel. I think I’ll write that cantata myself!”

Herrmann’s Moby-Dick is a compact setting of eleven excerpts from Melville’s novel assembled by the American writer W. Clark Harrington. Tonight’s performance omits eight minutes of the original forty-six-minute score, mostly by eliminating passages for male chorus, who represent crewmembers, a sailors’ chorus, and the New Bedford church choir in Chapter 9. Brian Keith Johnson sings the role of Ahab; Timothy Culver sings the role of Ishmael—the narrator—as well as lines associated with other characters in the novel.

Herrmann found Moby-Dick’s psychological depth irresistible. He portrayed the story’s emotional complexities through spare and penetrating musical gestures in a style that would serve him throughout his career. His “greatest gift lay in finding dramatic tension in the simplest of devices, the subtle interrelationship of color and rhythm,” writes his biographer Steven C. Smith. He was just twenty-seven years old when he wrote Moby-Dick, but the work already bears the unmistakable stamp of the composer who would soon become Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite. Herrmann probes Ahab’s neurotic mind with obsessive phrases that might remind listeners of music he created for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, Scotty Ferguson in Vertigo, or Norman Bates in Psycho. Desolate chords hover about his characters; hypnotic rhythms mark the nervous passage of time; and sudden strident pulsations create an anxiety we associate with much of Herrmann’s music.

There is an introspective intensity to the music accompanying two of the novel’s best known speeches, “Yonder by ever-brimming goblet’s rim,” and Ahab’s monologue, “Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky.” There are special effects of orchestration throughout: tense tremolos, rapid-fire articulations, quick mute changes, instruments at the extremes of their ranges, and dizzying changes of direction in ascending and descending lines. At one point a “thunder drum”—which Herrmann had encountered in his work for radio—signals an incoming squall that breaks up a rollicking hornpipe. Just before the conclusion of the work, after the sinking of the Pequod, Herrmann enlists a single shadowy bass clarinet to portray the aloneness of Ishmael, sole survivor of the wreckage. Finally only the contrabassoon remains, sounding the deepest reaches of any instrument, as Ishmael imparts the final line of his narrative, actually not Melville at all but a quotation from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Composer Stella Sung possesses a rare combination of gifts. Her imagination bursts with compelling and relatable ideas; she is highly experienced in a variety of media—especially in film and video; and she has an unusually keen ear for orchestral color. It was Stella’s idea to include film in her work. And it is through her ingenuity and generosity that resources at the University of Central Florida’s CREATE ( became available to support the visual component of Oceana. About her new work she writes:

“In the spring of 2016, Maestro Wilkins and I attended a lecture at the New England Aquarium given by marine biologists Scott Kraus and Christopher Clark (Senior Scientist at the Bioacoustics Research Program, Cornell University). We learned about the devastating effects of ocean noise caused by shipping traffic, seismic testing deploying air guns, and other man-made sounds. In that moment, I decided that my new composition, Oceana, would serve to demonstrate how important healthy oceanic ecosystems are both for marine life and for human life.  

“This is a multimedia work. We are so fortunate to have the stunning contributions of underwater photographer and filmmaker Annie Crawley ( Annie has created a film to serve as a visual counterpart to the music. The shots are all her own. She has beautifully edited them to accompany the flow and emotional arc of the music. I have compiled a soundtrack that plays throughout the work. It comprises recordings of the songs of marine animals (especially humpback whales, beluga whales, bearded seals, and dolphins), as well as the sound of seismic air guns, shipping traffic, and other industrial noises. Some of these sounds originated with the filmmaker; many came from Chris Clark’s resources at Cornell.

“The work is divided into three sections, representing 1) the beauty, majesty, and mystery of the seas and the life forms that live there; 2) man-made disturbances of the ecosystems; and 3) faith that humans can develop ways to balance our needs with those of oceanic creatures through a better understanding of the impact we have. It has been a great privilege to collaborate with the orchestra and with scientists at the New England Aquarium. It is especially appropriate that the Aquarium’s new President and Chief Executive Officer, Vikki Spruill, should be sharing our stage tonight. Among many accomplishments in her career, she is the former President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy and is the founder of the Trash Free Seas Alliance, an industry collaborative that has produced seminal research on the impacts of plastic in the ocean.”

The sound of the sea, the outline of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of the birds—these set off complex impressions in us. And suddenly, without the consent of anyone on this earth, one of these memories bursts forth, expressing itself in the language of music. (Debussy)

The sea inspired Claude Debussy throughout his life. Many of his works treat watery subjects. La Mer was also born of another of Debussy’s passions at the time, Emma Bardac. He dedicated his original score to her, making reference in his inscription to dark times they shared as a result of pursuing their intimate relationship while both were still married to others: “For my little one whose eyes laugh in the shade.” 

Debussy’s turbulent state of mind must have had an effect on the music. Compared with the rest of his output, La Mer is unusual for its emotional power. When once asked to name his favorite poets, Debussy named only one: Baudelaire. He did not abide the term “Impressionism” to describe his own style, identifying more with the artists known as Symbolists. Debussy felt closer to Mallarmé than to Monet. He particularly admired J. M. W. Turner (“the finest creator of mystery in the whole of art,” Debussy said) and Edgar Allan Poe (he once began an opera based on The Fall of the House of Usher). In explaining his love of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, he revealed a Symbolist’s aesthetic: “There is no attempt at direct imitation, but rather at capturing the invisible sentiments of nature. Does one render the mystery of the forest by recording the height of the trees?”

Begun as “three symphonic sketches,” La Mer eventually assumed the shape of a thematically unified three-movement symphony. The first movement corresponds to a morning on the sea. It emerges from the indistinct colors of dawn in the low strings, timpani and harp into brightly colored arabesques in the winds. Noting that the music covers the morning hours, Eric Satie once wryly commented that he especially enjoyed a tranquil moment toward the end, which he estimated occurred at “about a quarter to eleven.”

The second movement contains the most evocative nature painting of the three, with vivid representations of rippling wind and water, blowing sea foam, lightning streaks, and crashing waves. The last movement invokes the Greek god Poseidon, riding the waves, blowing his conch. The finale contains the only extended melodic material of the entire work. Building from a majestic theme first heard at the close of the first movement—amidst rousing fanfares blown by a team of five trumpets—Debussy creates an enormous accumulation of sound as the work reaches its thrilling conclusion.

George Frideric Handel (arr. Hamilton Harty) Water Music Suite (excerpts)
Klaus Badelt (arr. Ted Ricketts) Pirates of the Caribbean
Maurice Ravel 
Une Barque sur l’océan (A Boat on the Ocean)
Bernard Herrmann 
Moby-Dick (abridged)
Stella Sung 
Oceana (world premiere)
Claude Debussy La Mer

New England Aquarium; Boston String Academy
Timothy Culver, tenor
Brian Keith Johnson, baritone

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