On Sperm Whales, Motherhood and Music
My name is Nina, I am a French and Italian composer, pianist and audio-visual artist based in London. I believe that music can be experienced through all our senses, and have been exploring this over the years, collaborating with visual artists, film and theatre directors, perfume makers, wine makers and writers amongst others. Recently, I have been focusing on our tactile perception of music, and The Caress of the Sea, the new composition I am writing for Illuminate 2020 Season I, is my first piece exploring this concept. This blog post is a brief overview of the inspiration and the creative process behind this piece.
I have always been fascinated by whales. They are, in many ways, alien civilisations, species that have evolved in an environment so different from ours and have adapted every aspect of their physiology, their cultures and their lives to it. Their way of thinking is so advanced and foreign to us humans that it is hard for us to grasp. Yet some aspects of these beings are surprisingly similar to us. What if we could use those to create a bridge between our species and theirs? What if we could use music to learn to emotionally connect with these quasi mythical creatures?
In 2017, I read an article describing the way whales ‘use sound to touch each other, emitting very strong sounds which vibrate inside the others like a deep caress’(Hervé Glotin, as quoted in David Cox, ‘The People Who Dive With Whales That Could Eat Them Alive, BBC). This article particularly resonated with me as I was pregnant at the time and constantly singing to my unborn child, the vibrations of my voice embracing him via the amniotic fluid, sound becoming our first way of bonding. Over two years later, I still use songs to soothe and caress him, the way mothers have used the power of their voices to bond with their babies for generations.
To deepen my understanding of this topic, I have been investigating ways we can perceive sound with our entire body, learning sound healing techniques, researching lullabies and cetaceans communication. When Angela asked me to write a piece for saxophone and piano for Illuminate 2020 Season I, I realised it would be the perfect canvas to explore these ideas. The saxophone is at the same time extremely versatile and lyrical, lending itself perfectly to represent both a majestic whale and a singing voice. The piano is, well, everything else, and as a pianist myself, I particularly love writing for this instrument to create intricate soundscapes.
In the first workshop with saxophonist Naomi Sullivan, when discussing my inspiration for this piece she introduced me to a technique that reminded her of that quote : playing the saxophone inside the piano, while the pianist holds down the sustain pedal. The strings of the piano will then vibrate in sympathy with the saxophone - it was hard not to see a connection with my idea of sounds 'vibrating inside each other like a deep caress'!
The rest of the piece was built around this, I wanted this technique to be at its heart: a scene between a mother sperm whale and her calf, between any mother and her child, the saxophone caressing the piano strings through sound and bringing its harmonies to life.
I structured the piece as a story: at first, the deep ocean, rocking back and forth, slow and ineluctable, a hypnotic lullaby. The piano plays an elastic and deep pattern, a call to activate the audience's imagination, inspired by the evocative sound of a monolina.
More movement gradually starts stirring the water, as something approaches, until finally, we see her: the majestic Sperm Whale. I wanted to capture the feeling of seeing one of those animals for the first time, on a whale watching trip by the Azorean island of Faial back in 2017. The stormy sea, the long wait (sperm whales often stay underwater for 45 minutes, if not longer, before shortly resurfacing between dives), the excitement of a sighting, and then that feeling of being in the presence of an old, wise creature from another world, a glimpse of a gigantic being, true beauty.
The saxophone player moves closer to the piano, blowing the start of a melody towards the piano strings. The piano begins responding to it, shily at first, then more clearly, and from this vibrating hum the last, joyful section of the piece comes to life, a playful and cheeky game between the mother whale and her calf.
Finding my own way to evoke the sounds of the ocean through music was an interesting creative challenge. As with many projects, I began by sitting at my piano and writing short sketches: melodic motifs, rhythmic patterns, sonic ideas, most of them no longer than a bar or two. Some were just notes on techniques I wanted to use, chosen to emulate particular sounds, such as slap-tongue to recall the cliks emitted by the sperm whales, or slightly arpeggiated piano chords for a bubbly texture. Others were inspired by recordings of various marine mammals, singing games with my toddler (who loves to ‘sing like a humpback whale, orca or dolphin’), harmonies and timbres picked for a specific salty water or sandy quality. Once I had assembled enough pieces of the puzzle, I began weaving them together to create the various sections of the story, sometimes improvising in my DAW (I use Logic) to get a more spontaneous result, other times composing directly in my notation software, Dorico.
I hope you will enjoy this journey into the deep blue sea once it will be brought to life by the incredible talent of Naomi Sullivan and Yshani Perinpanayagam!
My thanks for the writing of this article and of The Caress of the Sea go to my son, Maël, for always inspiring me, my parents for their support and emergency babysitting services, my husband for indulging my whale-obsession and spending a third of our honeymoon on whale watching trips, and Pedro from Azores Experiences who infected me with his love for sperm whales.
Below is an example of some my music -
Although it is very different in style, it does explore some similar concepts, such as our perception of sounds as textures, and finds a lot of its inspiration in nature, from Icelandic volcanoes to NASA's Voyager Space Sounds and the song of humpback whales. It was written for an exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Art of Turin presenting silk and metal carpets from the Qing dynasty made to decorate the palaces of the Forbidden City. This composition, a video installation in five sections by Andreas Nold and myself, and a fragrance created by Diletta Tonatto accompanied and surrounded the audience. Textures, rhythms and movements inspired by the complex symbolism and the history of the exhibited work were used to create correspondences between the various art forms, shaping sonic landscapes and visual harmonies and creating an immersive multi-sensory experience.