Gulf Harmonies with Cory Diane

Cory Diane’s newest project is an experimental collaboration with Clementine Hartman, Peter J. Bowling, and a small population of endangered whales in the Gulf of Mexico. As a member of Wit’s End Brass Band and other collaborative endeavors, Diane has been a steady presence in the New Orleans music community for most of the last two decades. But for the last six years, Diane has spent quieter hours studying the vocal repertoire of an endangered species of whale that has lived unbeknownst to almost all of us, alongside us, a thousand feet underneath the Gulf of Mexico. The whales spend their days filtering gulps of water into their bodies, which are as long as RTA buses. Recent sonic and genetic research has allowed scientists to prove that about 100 of them are in the Gulf and are unique enough to be called their own species: the Rice’s whale.

Diane’s collaboration, part of their series called Experiments in Electro-Acoustic Ecology, moves from this marine research into a deeper imaginative space that both soothes and shocks. By mixing sound data from the Gulf with extended piano techniques (like banging the belly of a grand piano with a mallet), the arrangement submerges listeners into a world that scientists are only beginning to understand. Alongside half-minute whale moans, there are also seismic air-gun blasts, as the collaboration leans into the petro-industrial horrors that dominate the Gulf soundscape. Diane explains the ways these sounds are mixing in the Gulf, and how it might affect the communication between whales across great distances. All the while, the collaboration holds onto the idea that these whales, despite their vulnerability, are much bigger and older than any of us can imagine, an understanding that can only be reached by listening.

How did you first find your way to the story of the Rice’s whale?

I just became aware that there was this little-known community of whales that the world was like, liminally aware [of], with this really long and contested place in science. I found that really interesting in and of itself. And then as a musician, and as somebody who has been involved in the environmental justice world and decolonial worlds all of my life, I found it really interesting that they were so uniquely impacted by sounds. It was the sounds that were really fucking with them, the sounds of empire and of extractive economies. And there’s this juxtaposition where the ways that the oil industry uses sounds as a means of knowing impact the way that these whales and the other creatures in the Gulf use sound as a means of knowing. And, yeah, I kind of developed this deep love for them from reading about them, and then have really been following their story for years and years. So when in January of 2021 they were recognized as a species, I was not surprised, but I was like, “Oh, this is a moment that’s been in the making.” And it’s been in the making for decades.

It seems so obscure. I guess part of the story is that we don’t know much about these whales. And that’s what’s kind of cool about them. How did you learn about them in the first place? Because they are very obscure.

My first time visiting any ocean was summer 2017. There’d been this mass species loss in the ocean, one of those mass death moments. And I was just staring into the Pacific Ocean and I was going to school for music composition the following fall. And in this moment my life was changing. I had just had these knee surgeries. I was no longer able to farm for a living. And I knew that I wanted to go to school for music, because I was trying to really deepen that part of my life. But I also knew that I wanted to create some kind of path that merged these interests, and that music was useful to our communities and movements I cared about. I remember just staring into the ocean and being like, I gotta make some musicI gotta make some music for the ocean! [Laughs]

It is kind of funny to think about it. But I also know those realizations where you go, “This is really necessary. And this is what I can do. This is what I’m able to do.”

Yeah. I mean, it was really powerful. And really grounding. I also have long been a big fan of Michaela Harrison, who is a brilliant, incredible singer, vocalist, musician, and composer from New Orleans. She has this project called Whale Whispering. And actually, the day after this realization at the ocean, she announced a fundraiser for her project. She’s long been going out into the Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil, and singing with these whales. And she has this deep spiritual and musical, I don’t know how to put it—life?—around communing with whales. I was really inspired by that and just thought about, “What would it mean to really be supporting and connecting with these whales in the Gulf?”

You said that it was the first time you’d been to the Atlantic or Pacific. Where did you grow up again?

I grew up in Iowa, but I’m part of that generation of immediate post-Katrina transplants. I started coming to New Orleans when I was 18, in the fall of 2005 right after the storm, and then I moved here.

I was just wondering if that was part of it. If, when you were growing up, there was something about the ocean.

Yeah, I grew up landlocked. When I came to New Orleans, I went to the Gulf a lot. But for a long time I had people be like, “The Gulf isn’t the ocean, you really haven’t gotten to the ocean.” And so, while I was going to the Gulf all the time, I didn’t think of myself as having gone to the ocean until I went to the Pacific. I just always heard that. But I don’t know, [that] feels anti-Gulf of Mexico. I like thinking of us as another coast.

But I think that’s what’s cool about the Rice’s whales is that people don’t think about the Gulf as a great mystery in the way that the other oceans are.

It’s so full of mystery. These whales are considered critically endangered, meaning a single catastrophic event could result in extinction—that’s the technical language. And these whales are largely thought to be resident whales. So they are thought to not really leave the Gulf of Mexico. I have some magical realism dreams around that, but that’s another subject.

Oh, you could certainly go into your magical realism dreams if you’d like.

It’s interesting because as I’ve followed the whales, I’ve watched the official estimates of population size shift over the course of the past five years: from as low as 15 up to 50. Then there was recently something that suggested there may be as many as 100 individuals in the Gulf. But then in talking with the scientists, they’re like, “Well, that’s probably an unrealistic number.”

A lot of this research is rooted in audio recordings. But there’s this long history of unconfirmed baleen whale sightings in the Caribbean, even in the Atlantic, you know. These sightings are actually pretty few and far between, but I like to imagine that though these whales are really endangered, actually they’re still living their lives… I’m trying to move forward with this sense that the future is theirs.

But what about the feeling that maybe we’re getting to know them at the very end of their existence?

That’s kind of the story that we were told, because when they were recognized as a species, they were also recognized as one of the most endangered marine species on the planet, and that is a reality. But another reality is that their whole case is a story of how we actually don’t really know what we don’t know.

So how did you go from the story of the whales to the music-making?

As a composer, I’ve done research and experimentation in extended techniques, which is like playing an instrument other than how it was originally built. So I’ve been exploring bowing the piano like from a violin bow, or playing the piano with a friction mallet, which is like a bouncy ball on a stick, and then muting the pianos or using electromagnets to sustain pitches. I had a goal to write some ensemble pieces for piano with four or five people playing it inside and out, the whole body.

I named these Experiments in Electro-Acoustic Ecology. It’s really like treating sound as a [way of] understanding and supporting the health and culture of a community or ecosystem. And so, the idea was to pair these recordings of the Rice’s whale and of anthropogenic sound in the Gulf of Mexico with techniques that emulate them using the piano. And then to play those sounds live, but then also to put them in surround sound 8-channel electronics to really immerse the audience.

So if you were to describe in words the way that it sounds, can you do that?

This piece of music has had a couple different formations. We’ve composed it as a trio with me, Clementine Hartman, and Peter Bowling. Clementine and I play the piano, but we actually never press a key. And Peter is doing live surround sound electronics the whole time… This piece of music is in two movements. One is an exploration of the soundscape of the Gulf of Mexico, in particular demonstrating the anthropogenic noise that affects these whales. So we start with Clementine, creating these wave sounds she developed. She actually uses a piece of paper and her breath to make wave sounds on the strings of a grand piano. It creates a whooshing sound that’s been put in surround sound around the audience. We then do a number of techniques to demonstrate the warbley, acoustic smog of industry in the Gulf of Mexico. So we create this ocean soundscape that is pretty immersive. That is then paired with some of the weird underwater recordings of the Gulf of Mexico. We then also start bowing the piano. So we make these bows out of the hair from violin bows, and then that’s woven through the strings of the piano… That is used to really grow this section because the climax happens when Clementine goes under the piano and starts beating the bottom of the piano, the belly of the piano, from the floor with the timpani mallet. And that is to emulate the seismic studies.

The surveying sounds of the oil and gas industry?

The oil industry is undertaking seismic studies pretty much 24 hours a day in the Gulf of Mexico. And what that means is, they are trucking behind a boat a giant air gun that’s pointed to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Every five to 20 seconds, it shoots a blast of air to the ocean floor, and there are receivers that take that acoustic data and record it. They use this acoustic data to map the ocean floor. But it’s been pretty well documented that seismic studies are audible across the whole Gulf of Mexico. If they’re fired off the coast of Texas, they’re even audible off the coast of Florida. So if you listen to an underwater recording of the Gulf of Mexico, most of the time a seismic study is present either as a really strong foreground, a percussive drumming beat, or as a background. Creatures that are in the line of fire or close in proximity can be killed. And then there’s a whole host of physical injury and behavior changes. But even in the furthest proximities, it still contributes to the muddying of the acoustic space that’s available in the Gulf of Mexico. And we all know that marine life uses sound for echolocation, for navigation, for communication, for play, for pleasure, for culture—you know, I think culture is really important, and we don’t talk about that much. So the climax of that section is Clementine, under the piano, beating the belly of the piano with a timpani mallet. It really recreates the situation for the audience. You know, people generally tell me [at that point] they need it to stop. And that’s what we’re trying to get at: that this needs to stop.

What is in the second movement?

The second movement is really about uplifting the songs of the Rice’s whales. Before I ever heard a recording of a Rice’s whale song, I had access to spectrograms, which are visualizations of sonic data. So with the friction mallet we were able to treat these spectrograms as sheet music and learn how to actually play these whale songs on the body of the piano. So the second movement begins by playing their whale songs. [In whale song] there’s a higher harmonic, a middle harmonic, and a deep lower harmonic. And so after the final seismic study, where there’s enough space for that sound to ring out, we begin playing their songs on the piano. Then that is paired with actual recordings of Rice’s whale songs. The goal is to have our acoustic techniques and the actual recording dance together so much that you’re not really able to tell the difference.

The way that you’re describing playing the piano, it does seem almost like a huge animal, like a big whale.

Yeah, it’s a whale.

Had you expected that?

It’s something that just emerged through collaboration and through play. I’m beyond grateful for my core collaborators Clementine and Peter, who have been instrumental in this piece evolving from an initial score of ideas and sketches to actual music and performance art. They very much are co-arrangers, fellow devisers, and sound engineers of this work.

What are scientists still learning about these whales?

They recently started doing recording in the northwest Gulf of Mexico (south of Louisiana), and they’re finding a distinct repertoire that actually is quite diverse. So that raises a lot of questions, like, are these distinct communities? Are these differences in songs seasonal? It’s interesting, because 30 years ago, it was niche to say that they even existed, let alone recognized as a species. Sound recording really created some sort of opportunity to push forward the idea that they could be a species. And now maybe there are multiple distinct populations in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s one of the things that gives me hope. It’s like, the more we listen, the more we learn, and the more questions that are raised. We’ve only really been listening in specific spots.

They’re just these ancient beings. If they are related to the Bryde’s whale off the coast of South Africa or the coast of California, their ancestors crossed great distances and transformed and so on. I think that obviously, we should be looking at the fuckery of humanity and in particular of the industrial capitalist, neoliberal extractive bullshit, you know? But then also, there’s great hubris in centering the story on how we are killing them.

The truth is that we have never known the extent of their presence in the Gulf and in the Caribbean. These whales are up against a lot—not just sound violence, but vessel collision, plastic ingestion, oil spills. But the fact remains that when the scientists listened for them in the northwest Gulf, where there is so much oil activity, they found them. That gives me hope. I don’t really have elegant words for that. But l don’t know, I just have hope. I think that they’ll outlast us.

Diane’s collaboration, Reverie for the Baleen of the Gulf of Mexico of Many and No Known Names, debuted at Tulane University in December. Diane is currently collaborating with the Neighborhood Story Project to create a broadside to be used in local schools and cultural institutions.

Photos by Tyler Rosebush
Illustration by Hugo Martinez

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