In the 1990s, artists such as Aphex Twin, Oval and Autechre made waves by taking electronic music to squelchy new places. Their music lurched from rhythmic to arrhythmic to ambient, often in the same song, punctuated with pops and squawks.
As it turns out, artists had been making that music for millions of years. But, until recently, no one was listening.
“You can find things in your own backyard that no one’s paying attention to,” says David Rothenberg on a warm December day behind Haldane High School in Cold Spring. The day before, a rainstorm had flooded parks, shut down roads and swollen the pond we were standing in front of. At our feet, a wireless speaker was broadcasting a concert that could have been recorded in the chill-out tent at the Glastonbury Festival, circa 1995.
The music was coming from a microphone that resembled a hockey puck that Rothenberg had thrown into the water. Some of the rhythmic clicks were the sound of microscopic bubbles being released as plants photosynthesized sunlight into food. Some of the irregular pops were from insects. But the origins of about 90 percent of the sounds are a mystery, even to scientists.
“It’s humbling,” says Rothenberg. “You can still go to the woods behind your house and hear things that no one can identify.”
Tracking down the music of the natural world isn’t a recent hobby for Rothenberg, who lives in Philipstown. A jazz clarinetist, he has written several books that document his global travels to study the music of birds, bugs and whales.
When the pandemic struck, Rothenberg’s thoughts returned to an anthology he co-edited, The Book of Music & Nature. In one essay, David Dunn, a composer and sound artist, described recordings he had made of vernal ponds.
“I have finally reconciled myself to the gut feeling that these sounds are an emergent property of the pond: something that speaks as a collective voice for a mind that is beyond my grasp,” Dunn wrote. “Now when I see a pond, I think of the water’s surface as a membrane enclosing something deep in thought.”
Intrigued, Rothenberg began tossing his microphones into ponds but heard nothing. The artist Zach Poff revealed the answer: Rothenberg was using mics designed to hear whales at a distance. Poff offered to build him a close-contact mic.
What happened next is the subject of Rothenberg’s book, Secret Sounds of Ponds, published this month. It is filled with links and QR codes that take readers to pond recordings and an online store to order underwater mics for pond explorations.
Rothenberg knows, thanks to European researchers, that the loudest sounds in local ponds are made by the males of an insect called a lesser water boatman. It’s not clear how the bugs can be so relatively loud, or why they’re making sounds in the first place. Rothenberg notes that if you fish them out of the pond, they instantly fall silent, which may be a clue. Scientists do know how they’re generating the sound: By rubbing their penises against their bodies.
As unusual as the lesser water boatmen may be, their calling card has been identified. In a recording made at Lost Pond at Manitoga, there’s a flourish of clicks every 40 seconds that sounds like a woodpecker using echolocation. At Savoy Mountain State Forest in Massachusetts, a dense rhythmic thrum slowly increases in intensity and speed over the course of a few minutes, like a DJ dialing up the beats.
When Rothenberg sent the recordings to scientists for help, they essentially shrugged. First, there aren’t many scientists studying freshwater bioacoustics. Second, those in the field focus less on individual sounds and more on the cornucopia. Can we identify whether an ecosystem is flourishing or struggling by listening to it? Does pollution or disease have a sonic signature?
On that December day, the sonic signature of James Pond behind Haldane was leaning toward minimalism, in part because of the cold. Hoping to find a busier groove, Rothenberg reeled in his mic, only to find a confused newt clinging to it. As it happens, newts eat lesser water boatmen. Perhaps the musicians had been devoured.
After throwing the mic into deeper water, Rothenberg connected an iPad to a second speaker. He recorded what the mic was picking up, chopped it up and broadcast it toward the pond in loops. Slowly, the sounds began to swell. More clicks and thrums joined in. New sounds, louder and stranger, joined the chorus. It went on for long enough that it seemed foolish to chalk it up as to a coincidence.
What was it? Was the pond jamming with Rothenberg, speaking to him or something else? Rothenberg’s work demonstrates that while we know why some animals make certain sounds, the reasons behind most animal songs are unknown. Because only male humpback whales sing, the assumption is that they must be attracting mates. But there’s no indication that female whales respond. Maybe whales, and ponds, like people, just like to sing.
In 1970, the album Songs of the Humpback Whale was released. The haunting recordings spawned New Age movements, a Star Trek movie and a global effort to save the whales. Fifty years later, Rothenberg and Dunn are part of a growing “pondcore” scene that includes artists such as Leah Barclay, Action Pyramid and Jack Greenhalgh. It’s possible this movement could inspire people in the same way as the humpback songs.
Early in his book, Rothenberg recalls attending a 2019 conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where scientists discussed using artificial intelligence to “translate” the language of dolphins, perhaps enabling interspecies communication. The room broke into applause. But when Rothenberg wandered into the lobby he ran into a skeptical Peter Gabriel, who suggested that “speaking” with animals shouldn’t be the goal. The music should be enough.
“With music, people dance, fall in love, sing along,” the musician told Rothenberg. “With words on a page, you make enemies. People turn their back on you and get ready to argue.”
Rothenberg will speak about Secret Sounds of Ponds at 8 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Stanza Books, 508 Main St., in Beacon. Listen to his pond recordings at on.soundcloud.com/iYWBu.
Behind The Story
Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.