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Public Lecture Series with Scott McVay, Olivier Adam, and David Rothenberg


What We Know and What We Don’t Know

The sounds of the humpback whale were discovered by the US Navy in the 1950s, kept classified for more than a decade, and first analyzed and understood as song in 1970 by Roger Payne and Scott McVay, then presented to the public in the journal Science.

What have we found out about it since then?

It is the longest music sung by any animal (including humans) sometimes lasting up to 24 hours. In any ocean, whales sing the same song, but they evolve it together from year to year. Each ocean has a different song. Only the males sing, so it is assumed it is to attract the attention of females. But no human has ever seen a female whale show any interest in this phenomenon.

Celebrated by musicians from Pete Seeger to Charlie Haden, from Alan Hovhaness to George Crumb, the song of the humpback whale remains a mystery beloved of humans, and it is this musical ability of these magnificent creatures that led people all over the planet to rally to save them in the 1970s.

Join three people at the heart of this journey to learn what we know and what we don’t know about the song of the humpback whale, sixty years after its initial discovery.

Scott McVay, born 1933, the co-discoverer of the song of the humpback whale, formerly Executive Director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Founding Director of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, past president of Chatauqua, a veritable survivor of the field of whale research and conservation, just published his memoir SURPRISE ENCOUNTERS WITH ARTISTS AND SCIENTISTS, WHALES AND OTHER LIVING THINGS. He will tell us what it felt like to first figure out that the whales were singing structured phrases and patterns, and how he has followed this story for nearly fifty years.

Olivier Adam, Professor of neuroscience at University of Paris Orsay, visiting professor at Mt Sinai Hospital Physiology Lab, is working on figuring out exactly how humpback whales make their sounds. No air leaves the whale… but he thinks he has figured out how they do it.

David Rothenberg, professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, author of THOUSAND MILE SONG, about playing music live with whales, and the just released NEW SONGS OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE, an attempt to update the original SONGS OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE, released by the New York Zoological Society in 1970 and still the best-selling nature recording of all time. In the new project Rothenberg, together with ex-Google visualizer Michael Deal, have figured out a whole new way to visually explain the songs of whales.

The song of the whale makes some people laugh, moves others to tears, and we still have hardly any idea what it is for. Join us as we share the latest exciting discoveries on what’s going on deep in our oceans. As Pete Seeger sang:

I didn’t just hear grunting,
I didn’t just hear squeaks,
I didn’t just hear bellows,
I didn’t just hear shrieks.
It was the musical singing
And the passionate wail
That came from the heart
Of the world’s last whale.

Rothenberg playing live with whales
His new visualization of the humpback song
A humpback whale song recorded in Madagascar by Olivier Adam
Scott McVay speaking on his work with whales at the World Science Festival
McVay’s new book

Date: Monday, June 13th

Time: 6:00 pm Reception, 7:00 pm Lecture

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

Member Ticket Price: $10

Guest Ticket Price: $25

Student Ticket Price:

$5 with a valid Student ID

Reservation Notes:

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