Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

A duet of whale songs and chimes will be performed atop McGraw Tower on Friday evening.

October 17, 2018

Chimes Blast Professor’s Whale Song Duet Across Cornell Campus

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If you were one of the students drawn to Ho Plaza by the mysterious sounds generated from atop of McGraw Tower on Sunday, rest assured that our beloved chime bells are not malfunctioning. Instead, it was the rehearsal for a chimes and whale song duet.

The piece, titled “Cetus: Life After Life,” will be performed on Friday evening starting at 6 p.m.. It will start with whale songs — forms of whale communication that follow specific sound patterns — recorded in 1977, followed by the duet of chimes and whale songs and conclude with whale songs from 1981.

These recordings of whales came from a single Hawaiian humpback whale population. As its song evolves over time, the chimes music will also reflect these changes.

The composer, Prof. Annie Lewandowski, music, said she was thrilled to hear the echo of whale songs and chimes “over the Cornell landscape.”

“[The music] had existed in my imagination,” Lewandowski told The Sun. “I just wanted to bottle up that feeling so I could take it out every once in a while when I needed a good laugh of delight.”

For Lewandowski, the chimes and whale songs have similar effects on their environment. She said that she was struck by the “resonance and depth” of the whale songs, which reminded her of how much the chimes are an essential aspect of the Ithaca community.

“Writing a whale/chimes duet was a natural fit for life in Ithaca,” Lewandowski said. “The chimes are a lovely, everyday aspect to life here — I can hear them in my office, where I live and on my walk to school. It was exciting to combine these resonant and rich elements in a piece for this campus.”

Last winter, Lewandowski started working with Cornell bioacoustics researcher Katy Payne ’59 on this performance, which is part of the 2018 Cornell Council of Arts Biennial. Lewandowski hopes on joining Payne — who recorded the original whale songs — in Hawaii to find that same humpback whale population again and hear how the whale song transformed.

Lewandowski was drawn to the whale song because of the animal’s “incredible ability to compose spontaneously, to listen, and to innovate”.

“It brings new life and ways of thinking to two areas that are near and dear to my heart and research, songwriting and improvisation,” she said.

According to Lewandowski, the most difficult part of preparing for the performance wasn’t the composition itself or finding the right whale song recordings, but moving four large speakers to the top of the clocktower, which has no elevator. She had students move the carry the speakers up the tower’s 161 steps.

“That was brutal for them. And for that I want to thank them,” Lewandowski said.