Concert 6

Whalesong at Sunset

Sept. 4 & 5  |  7:15p  |  Libe Slope


Annie Lewandowski

Cetus: Life after Life (2018)


Elisabeth Wang, chimesmaster

Program notes


In early autumn 2017, I began meeting with bioacoustics researcher Katy Payne at her home in Ithaca to listen to recordings of humpback whale song Katy and Roger Payne recorded from 1969-1988 in Bermuda and Hawaii. While many animals sing structured songs, the Paynes made the groundbreaking discovery that humpback whale songs evolve, progressively and continually, over time, with all singers in a population participating in the changes. There are changes in pitch, duration, and rhythm that occur as male whales mimic and develop each other’s song during the breeding season. Innovations enter the song at the micro level within each season, and at the macro level across spans of months, years, and decades. This is a striking example of composition in a non-human animal.

In “Cetus: Life After Life,” extracts of Hawaiian whale song sessions from 1977 and 1981 are broadcast through four speakers facing out from the top of McGraw Tower in duet with the Cornell Chimes. The piece begins with the 1977 recording. When the chimes enter, they follow the contour and development of one of the humpback whale song themes recorded throughout the 1977 season. At the completion of a 1977 selection, the chimes make a dramatic shift in texture, color, contour, and rhythm, reflecting the cumulative innovations that occurred in whale song during this four-year period. After a brief chimes solo, a recording of whale song from the same Hawaiian population, now in 1981, enters. The chimes and whale song duet for the remainder of the piece, modeling how humpback whales must be listening while singing, simultaneously but independently — the chimes performer listening and integrating subtle changes inspired by the 1981 recording into her song. The 1981 recording was specifically chosen for “Cetus” as it offers a special window into whale behavior – four minutes into the song, the sound attenuates as the whale swims to the surface of the water to breathe, reminding the listener that whales, like humans, are mammals. Developed for the Cornell Council for the Arts 2018 Biennial: “Duration: Passage, Persistence, Survival.” Generously funded by a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts and the Cornell University Department of Music.

Listen to Cetus:  Life After Life

About the artist

Annie Lewandowski is a composer and performer working in song and improvisation. She has performed and recorded with musicians including Fred Frith, the London Improvisers Orchestra, Caroline Kraabel, Theresa Wong, Tim Feeney, CAGE, Sarah Hennies, Spinneret.s, and Doublends Vert, Emma Zunz, Xiu Xiu, The Curtains, Former Ghosts, and Yarn/Wire. Her band Powerdove has released ten recordings, including Machination (Murailles Music, 2021) and Bitter Banquet (fo’c’sle records, 2018). In 2017, Lewandowski began studying humpback whale song with pioneering bioacoustician Katy Payne. Her 2018 composition Cetus: Life After Life, for humpback whale song and chimes, traces the evolution of Hawaiian humpback whale song from 1977-1981. She is currently working on Siren – Listening to Another Species on Earth with artist and coder Kyle McDonald exploring the meeting of multiple intelligences – human, humpback whale, and artificial. Siren will be presented on Martha’s Vineyard, at Cornell, in New York City, and at MASS MoCA in 2021-2022.  Lewandowski has performed across the United States and Europe, including at the Casa da Música (Porto, Portugal), the Hippodrome (London), Musica Nelle Valli (San Martino Spino, Italy), the Great American Music Hall (San Francisco), the Frieze Arts Fair (London), Avalon (Los Angeles), and REDCAT (Los Angeles). She is a 2014 Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellow, and has been awarded grants from the Cornell Council for the Arts and the Atkinson Center for Sustainability. In 2019, she contributed to the creation of Pattern Radio, Google Creative Lab’s webtool for teaching AI to recognize patterns in humpback whale song.