Musings: Whally Mousical

 I was reading to the son’s classroom. I had planned out two little sections – one from the Tale of Despereaux and the other a true story of a pod of whales saved from the iced in waters of Siberia. The theme linking the two was music. I started, and the little musicians looked thrilled. I was too.

As I turned to the start of Chapter 4 in which the little mouse who was different finally understands what that honey-sweet sound was. I felt like Despereaux myself as I read about how little Despereaux felt a welling in his heart for the music, and how he slowly forgot where he was, or what he was doing. Slowly, he inched out from his hole, listening, mesmerized to the king playing music. As I read it out aloud to the children, I wanted to stifle a laugh, for a childhood memory peeked out of its deep hole the same way that Despereaux did. 

“And he discovered, finally, the source of the honey-sweet sound.

The sound was music.

The sound was King Phillip playing his guitar and singing for his daughter, the Princess Pea, every night before she fell asleep.

Hidden in a hole in the wall of the princess’s bedroom, the mouse listened with all his heart. The sound of the King’s music made Despereaux’s soul grow large and light inside of him.

Oh,” he said, “it sounds like heaven. It smells like honey.” 

Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux

We lived in the chilly mountainsides, and often times, the cold outside attracted rats and mice into the warm house. Several times, when music was playing in the old tape recorder, we would notice a mouse peeping cautiously and just listening. Curious as to what the noises meant maybe, but maybe not. One of the family would shriek, and the pater would at first try to quieten us down saying it was just a little mouse enjoying some music – so what, or something to that effect, only to have a somewhat more hysterical reaction. 

Almost reluctantly would ensue a hilarious game of hockey sticks against furniture trying to get the mouse. Mice are as nimble as well, mice, and humans are – how do I put this kindly? Clumsy. Well-fed humans have several disadvantages stacked against them as they go about the mouse chase:

* Leaning back in the chair after a good meal listening to music in the background has made them soporific, so while the hockey stick is meant to be a tool, it is often used as prop against which to lean on to catch a breath

* They lack the right motive to catch a mouse. The human’s motive is to see if they can tumble in another gulab jamun into the tummy before bed. The mouse’s is to get to the hole

* Crowd sentiment is hard to gauge. The mouse chaser is in the tough spot of being a warrior and a saviour. While the shrieking indicated that something must be done, if something were done, the shriekers would be devastated and clamor for animal rights. So, the mouse chaser has to diplomatically chase the mouse, but not harm it in anyway.

 By the end of this jolly game of mouse chasing, the furniture has received several whacks from the hockey stick, and the mouse has strolled into its hole, while the music lilts on from the tape recorder. Which takes me to the curious scenario of mice in kings courts. I wonder how a mouse must’ve been treated in the king’s court. Would the musicians stop playing, while the commotion continued, or would they lilt on? The shriekers would be more, and therefore the motive higher. Would the courtiers gallantly prove their loyalty to the king by mouse chasing themselves, or let the warriors go for it?

They say a mouse’s brain is closest in structure to the human brain, so is that why we enjoy music together? 

New Items: Lab Rats Listen to Mozart and Become Maze Busters

So Mozart turns rats into maze-busters. But does it have a similar effect on humans?

I suppose The Pied Piper of Hamelin knew what he was doing. 

The story of the effect of Classical Music on Whales is equally mesmerizing. From the book, The Symphony of Whales, By Steve Schuch

The story, is based on a real incident that happened in the narrow Senyavina Straits of Siberia. Over 3000 beluga whales had been trapped by the rapidly freezing waters in 1984-1985. For seven weeks, the people of the Chukchi peninsula, and the crew of the Moskva risked their lives to save the whales.

The story does not end there. Once the icebreaker ship, Moskva, had cleared the way, the whales had to follow the ship out into the open seas, but they were reluctant to do so. The crew tried playing whale song to lure them. While they reacted to the music, they were not assured of human intent, and were still scared of the engine sound. They lurked in the waters.  Then they tried Classical Instrumental Music.

“The crew found some classical music. First, the sweet sounds of violin and violas, next the deeper notes of the cellos and, deepest of all, the string basses…and way up high, a solo violin…

Everyone fell silent as the music carried over the waters.”

That had done the trick. The ship’s engines started and the whales slowly followed the icebreaker out into the open ocean.

Some musings are whally mousical, and all the more whimsical for it. The children seemed to enjoy the reading too. Their wondrous brain did not once question why a mouse liked music or how whales, mice and humans liked the same kind of music. 

Coming Soon: Musicophilia

Is Earthly Music Universal?

“What is this? Australian music? I thought we were in Africa! “, said the little fellow peering into the dashboard up by the driver’s seat.

“Yes- my young man! We have moved on from the plains of the Masai Mara to the deserts of Australia. Traveling the world during lockdown. Feel adventure in your veins!”

He rolled his eyes. His teenage sister has taught him well. 

“Remarkable isn’t it? How we are able to traverse the world in an instant these days? In the years of Ibn Batuta or Marco Polo, I suppose you had to wait to shimmy your way into the audiences of the explorers to get a glimpse of a world other than your own. “

marcopolo

We had taken a drive to catch the fall colors in the nearby mountains, and I was seated in the front-seat clasping the task of deejay dearly. I am usually entrusted with this important task only after several rules have been put in place.

🎼 You are allowed one Carnatic music not more than 7 minutes long (I do have a bone to pick with Carnatic musicians who take up my allotted 7 minute slot with one line)

🎵 Instrumental – cannot be slow, slow music. (Drivers got to stay awake.)

🥁 Everyone’s got to get a chance at their music

🎻 No weird music

“Yet…just look at us swiping away and traveling the world 🌍 with YouTube music? Lockdown or no lockdown. How remarkable music is no? Transports you straight out of this world into another world altogether!” I said. The husband and children gave me looks of amused tolerance that they seem to reserve for holidays and trips. Indulgence, sure, but also a joy in seeing my whimsy rise to the surface. 

The brilliant Youtube recommendations engine stood on the side panting and scratching its head trying to figure out what to recommend next based on my list of songs. Ahh! That happy feeling you get when you stump an AI algorithm is truly priceless. Scottish bagpipers marched down the dales of Scottish highlands with their music; middle eastern belly dancers flexed their tummies with grace and agility; shepherds tended to their livestock with Bulgarian folk dance music; and royal court musicians of Turkish sultans from the past bravely set forth their music to the unwittingly pulled in audience in the car. 

“Ummm – what music is this?”, said the son when I played the Bulgarian folk song, Izlel e delyo haydutin, By Valya Balkanska.

This, my dear, is what the universe would hear if ever anyone intercepts Voyager on its space voyages, and finds a way to extract the music within. It is part of the Golden Record. It is now hurtling through space making  our earthly music universal. ”

Laniakea

“Please! Appa – what is this? I am happy to see Amma this happy I suppose, but this is too much. Can we have some, like, normal, music? “ asked the teenaged daughter. 

“What?! If I may remind everyone in this car, this coming from one who is constantly the one asking me to try new types of music. Who is forever berating me for listening to toiyan-toiyan music (instrumental music)? Amma jazz it up a bit! Shall I create a playlist for you with my favorites so you can listen to it? – huh?! “

She gave into a high pitched laugh, and said, “Yes I meant different genres as in rock, jazz, country, pop, not bagpipes, bongo drums, and what is this now?! Doesn’t sound like an instrument at all!”

“That’s because it isn’t”, I said happily. “We are listening to whale songs now.”

“Okay…that’s it! All deejay rights revoked for some time now. Whale songs! Pass me that phone!”

“Nope!”

And to this musical, lyrical bickering, was added the sounds of harmony, resulting in an orchestra of noises. The trees, that night, as they passed their messages to one another, rustled in excitement. How long since they had heard natural sounds of whales?

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The Magic of Story-Telling

“Stop being a Jellyfish!” said the husband.
“I knew you were going to say that – you are such an open book yourself!” said I.

We both giggled like children at our own pathetic joke. T’was the time for hulking men with or without mustaches and serious women to quack like ducks, twirl like fairies, flex those non-existent abs, and find that little teeny bit of whimsy that adulthood so expertly hides away beneath the layers. Halloween was here.

 

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T’is the time people astound you with their imagination. Who doesn’t like having 3 spidermen knocking on your door all at once? Or to see the twin toddlers dressed as Nemo & Dory? The super-heroes and ninjas cowering behind their larger siblings in Vampire clothing, or the witches cackling hard?

There is something so uniquely beautiful about Halloween – the one festival where we can display our idiosyncrasies with grace, be accepted for whatever we are. You want to be a skeleton? That should be fine. Here is some candy for you. Really, buddy? You want to go out in the world in that costume? Well, if this appeals to you, then I suppose you deserve some candy anyway!

How many times in our lives do we get that kind of universal approval?

The husband and I were very proud of our last minute Halloween costumes: an open book & a jellyfish.

The little fairy lights I had taped into place made the jellyfish glow, and I received many compliments – I must say I glowed all evening with the praise, though I did credit the Internet with it.

When people asked me where I got the inspiration from, I replied truthfully that I have always wondered what it must be like to live under the sea, and they invariably laughed at my answer.

But it’s true. Every trip to the aquarium rekindles the magic of another world – right here with us. Reading Gerald Durrell’s essay about scuba diving is enthralling.

I have often wondered how we would have adapted if we had evolved under the ocean. Would we have figured out the laws and physics of the Universe to the extent we have, or would the medium have made little difference in understanding. The Octopus’s evolution to have more neurons than us is truly astounding.

Quanta Magazine: What shape is the universe? Closed or Flat?

It is why I like reading about the intelligence of dolphins and whales: the fact that they have epics the sounds bits of which are roughly the equivalent of our Iliad is amazing. Quote from Carl Sagan’s essay on Whale song:

If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

What must their epics say? For all our anthropological worldview, I wonder whether humans figure in them at all. That will be a fine thing to hear – a Dr Dolittle who finally translates a Whale Epic, only to find their world far richer than our own.

Keena_drawing
Art work by Daughter

I recently re-read the Voyages of Dr Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed visualizing myself sailing the seas with his motley group – either by skimming along like a porpoise, or better yet by getting a place inside the giant snail’s back as it sailed along smoothly churning the ocean as it went.

Swimming with Dolphins

We are all children of stories. We need epics and tales of fantasy. Our very own imaginations need an outlet, and Halloween gives us just that. I know my enthusiasm rubs off on the children as they go about planning their costumes. While I am out with a big smile on my face, a number of people give me an indulgent smile as if to say “Aren’t you a bit old for this?”

Mary Oliver gently reminds me to react with this nugget of wisdom:

“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” 

― Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Privately, I am happy that our inner child never really leaves us.

Authors:

Classical Whale Symphony

Soft instrumental music was lilting in the background, and the sun’s watery rays were streaking in through the recently rain-washed window-panes. It was a beautiful week-end morning, and the kitchen was bursting with activity. The children were helping by putting away the dishes as noisily as possible. I was making a mess of things by changing the menu nimbly depending on what my refrigerator had. (Grocery shopping had taken a backseat the past few days and rations were thin on the ground)

The children were giggling about something when the teenage daughter said to hearty nods from her little brother. “By the way, what is this blasted toing-toing music you are listening to?”

“Melodious and uplifting for the soul, my dears. Classical Instrumental Music. Changes the way neurons interact.”

She shook her head, “Changes the way my nerves react!”and changed it to something that made my eardrums pick up the dishes and bang them viciously inside my head, while she chatted. Teenagers, I tell you!

“Whales like Classical Music.” , I said weakly.

“Well, I’m not a whale am I?” said she giving me a fish-like look- not the fishy look, the glassy gleam. I saw the piscean divergence in the gene and agreed. Though she could be, given her favorite doodles are themes under the sea

Art work by the Daughter:

Ever since I read in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos about Whale Songs, I have been enamored with the language of music, and the myths of the whales.

Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan on the Humpback Whale songs:
These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I was naturally was attracted to the book, The Symphony of Whales by Steve Shuch. It is based on a true story in a village near the Arctic circle. The onset of Winter had been swift, and a pod of whales found themselves iced in near Siberia. Unable to get out in time, the whole pod faced death in the iced-in waters.

symphony_of_whales

According to the book, a child, Glashka, who had always been blessed with the ability to hear Whale song heard them over the sound of the snowy storm. That night, they came to her in her dreams, and she knew they must be in trouble.

The next morning her father gathered the villagers and off they went to a sound over 30 miles away by dog sleigh looking for the pod of whales. It was true. The whales were in trouble. The pod had not anticipated the icing in of the waters so quickly, and were facing death. The villagers from all the neighboring villages started chipping at the ice to cut through the blocks of ice, so that the whales could surface and breathe.

“Look!”, said Glashka’s grandmother. “See how the whales are taking turns, how they give the younger ones extra time for air.”

The village elders had also radioed for help. A ship, an icebreaker, Moskva, was on its way to help.

The story, is based on a real incident that happened in the narrow Senyavina Straits of Siberia. Over 3000 beluga whales had been trapped by the rapidly freezing waters in 1984-1985. For seven weeks, the people of the Chukchi peninsula, and the crew of the Moskva risked their lives to save the whales.

The story does not end there. Once Moskva had cleared the way, the whales had to follow the ship out into the open seas, but they were reluctant to do so. The crew tried playing whale song to lure them. While they reacted to the music, they were not assured of human intent, and were still scared of the engine sound. They lurked in the waters.  Then they tried Classical Instrumental Music.

“The crew found some classical music. First, the sweet sounds of violin and violas, next the deeper notes of the cellos and, deepest of all, the string basses…and way up high, a solo violin…
Everyone fell silent as the music carried over the waters.”

That had done the trick. The ship’s engines started and the whales slowly followed the icebreaker out into the open ocean.

Would this heartwarming episode make it into Whale Song? That humans can be helpful too? I don’t know, but I do hope it makes it into our myths – maybe as one embracing a humane side to humans.

Dum inter homines sumus, colamus humanitatem – Seneca

As long as we are human, let us be humane

Read also:

Cosmic Nature of Living

Weaving The Sequins of Time

New York Times Archived Article on the Incident

Mermish Dreamish

“Ohhhwwwnn! What do you want us to get you from the labally?”, the son’s voice wafts upstairs to his teenage sister. She cannot make it to the library and her little brother feels bad for her, like she has been denied candy on Halloween. 

“Anything on Mermaids dobucles! From the Teen section.” 

The son and I exchange knowing smiles. 

“Okay!” 

I watch amusedly as the half teen swells with self importance: Oh! The glory of being given the esteemed task of picking out books for his teenaged sister from the teen section. 

“Mermaids! Really? Again? Still?” I ask, and I get a “Yessss!” accompanied by an eye roll, that I cannot see but can imagine, in response as we head off. 

keena_mermaid_doodle
A random doodle by the daughter when she was knee-high

The oceans and seas enthrall her, they exert an influence on her like no other. And it started young. Thousands of viewings of Finding Nemo, hundreds of The Little Mermaid later, her first choice for drawing anything is still marine. 

Keena_drawing

I can hardly blame her, I find the oceans fascinating myself.
Gerald Durrell’s Enchanted World Essay
Carl Sagan’s Essay on his interactions with Elvar The Dolphin
Epic of Whalayana – Carl Sagan

I have been seeped in books on Whales of late. Ever since I read Carl Sagan’s beautiful notes on these gigantic, intelligent and curious creatures, I have become half mermaid myself. I see the allure that sets the daughter’s heart beating. Regular readers know that I have often described that child as one who should have been born a mermaid.

Nick Pyenson : Spying on Whales:

Astronomy and Paleontology are sibling fields really: they take human imagination to places where no person has ever been.

Some writers have the knack of saying the most profound things in passing. 

It is true isn’t it? The reason we gaze longingly at the night skies, charting out the constellations, having myths that surround them is the same reason we have stories of oceanic splendor. The reason we listen in awe about Noah’s Ark, Mastya avatar, Kurma avatar and myths of a milk churning ocean coughing up ambrosia for things that seemed nigh impossible like immortality is the same reason we imagine The Great Big Hunter going after the seven sisters. It is magnificent and unimaginable.  

“This must be something to do with the Sea. It has the word Tempest on it and there is a mermaid like thingy on the front. “, said the little fellow handing me the book he had picked out for his sister. 

“Should we get one or two more just in case?” 

We agreed and off we went looking for mermaid like ones, oceanic tales. I fell back upon Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne in case all else failed. That was the choice that earned me a loving “MOM!” look.

We needn’t have worried, the little fellow was given glowing tributes for selecting the best mermaid book, and we all settled down to read that evening. 

Taking a deep breath we dived deep into the rich oceans. 

I was trying my best to keep up with Nick Pyenson and his colleagues as they tried to find and relocate some of the largest whale fossils on record. More than 2 million whales had been lost to Whaling in the beginning of the 20th century, and only about 200,000 remained. What have we done? Another silent lament in my mind that will not have an answer. 

The son had a thoughtful crease after reading his book, A Symphony of Whales by Steve Schuch. I could well imagine his feeling. It is one of those books that in ten flips of the page leaves you wondering and marveling at so many things – the climatic conditions because of the geography of the story, the sounds of nature surrounding the little village, and the sounds of the living in the churning waters calling out to little Glashka who is a little girl blessed with the ability of hearing different frequency voices like the song of the whales stranded in the bay and iced in. Accompanied by illustrations that take you to the little Arctic village, this book was the perfect marine choice for the little fellow.

 

 

Little yawns appeared on our faces and we smiled sleepily. When we resurfaced from the waters, feeling refreshed after a cool dip in the oceans, we slept dreaming the dreams of the unimaginable. It was marvelous.

The sea is as near as we come to another world. – Ann Stevenson