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Whale Fall : for flute, percussion, electric bass, piano, violin, 'cello, and electronics

by Daniel Portelli (2021)

Work Overview

Whale Fall confronts the instability our ecosystems, comparing the decaying process of a whale carcass as it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, with the moral decay of our society. This idea is transferred to the music as falling lines and decomposing sounds, full of violence and hopelessness. The instrumental articulations in the music coalesce in speculative dialogue with the sounds of the bowhead and the minke whale - two highly intelligent and empathetic creatures found in the arctic and subarctic seas who have suffered significantly from commercial exploitation. A whale's primary way of navigating the world is through sound - spending most their time in darkness, and have some of the widest hearing ranges of any mammal - some species capable of hearing at seismic or hyper-ultrasonic frequencies. They have self-recognition, complex social lives, express empathy, grief, maternal love, and even belong to different cultures.

The skin of a whale is very sensitive to touch. Some may think it is tough and thick due to their size but whales are able to sense touch all over their bodies. They experience changes in atmospheric pressure, which helps us to understand their physiology and how their brains are structured to orientate themselves in their environment. Maurice Merleau-Ponty tells us that when we perceive depth, we are perceiving a sensuous cartography of dynamic relationships that is a mutual envelopment (the intertwining of self in space). They are creatures who are ensouled, and agential - deserving of what we call personhood and sovereignty, mainly as a systemic structure to protect them from us and the tourist mentality of animal objectification. The music I wrote starts by simulating 'acoustical smog', or underwater noise pollution, which they are highly sensitive to and had to endure relentlessly throughout their lives, then, a falling decaying whale as it falls to the depths of the sea floor, and the final section 'The Infinity Chamber' imagines an inner ear bone of a whale resting on the seabed, forever listening to the changing acoustics of the ocean.

Work Details

Year: 2021

Instrumentation: Flute, violin, cello, electronic bass, piano, percussion, electronics, video, dream recall recordings.

Duration: 8 min.

Difficulty: Advanced

Commission note: Commissioned by Ensemble New Babylon.

First performance: by Ensemble New Babylon — 4 Jul 21. Bremer Shakespeare Company, Bremen, Germany


Performances of this work

4 Jul 21: Bremer Shakespeare Company, Bremen, Germany. Featuring Ensemble New Babylon.

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