Bunch Of Fives: Xavier Velastín | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Taking place on Tuesday 3rd August at Alphabetti, Newcastle as part of Newcastle Fringe Festival, is [whalesong], a subversive and subversive piece of sonic theatre about the noise in the oceans by sound designer, technologist and whale lover Xavier Velastín. The performance incorporates underwater singing, deep time, hacking, machine learning and a lot of bubbles, and is all told from the perspective of a sort of queer cyborg whale. 

We catch up with xvelastin to find out about his five favourite whales…

1. Beluga Whale
Seriously, check google images for “beluga whale. Just look at how goofy it is! How can you not love it? Even better, they coexist with narwhals (that’s right, sea unicorns) and there have been examples of them raising each other’s orphaned young and having hybrids called narlugas. But the reason I think beluga whales are the coolest thing ever is their vocalisations – a rich polyphony of beeps, whistles, clicks, chirps, pops and squeaks used for communication in their highly sophisticated and complex social groups. They’ve always just blown my mind. Most humans can only focus on a couple of pitch streams at any one time but belugas, probably because of the importance of both sound and socialisation in their habitat, listen and respond to many all at once. A lot of [whalesong] is directly inspired by the tone and pattern of beluga voices.

2. Sperm Whale
There are many reasons sperm whales belong in my top five. Apart from the frankly hilarious name, they are the last of a sub-family of toothed whales, they’re immense deep ocean hunters that prey on giant squid, they sleep upright with half of their brain at a time, and their clicks are so loud that at close range they could break a human body apart (although they seem to know this, so they don’t). Sperm whales are the loudest animal currently alive, although seismic airguns, sonar arrays we use for oil prospecting, are louder. We almost hunted them to extinction for their blubber and valuable oils used for consumer cosmetics and household lighting. Unlike other baleen whales, sperm whales would fight back, unluckily for the mostly poor sailors who were sent to hunt them.

3. Fin Whale
Over the past 18 months, I’ve missed bass more than friends. Fin whales pulse at frequencies lower than we can hear or even really feel. When the sound is that low, everything gets a bit weird. Sound waves physically interact on a human-perceptible scale, modulating each other to create extra harmonics or cancelling each other to create nodes of silence depending on the listener’s position. They bypass ears and go straight to rattling your bones. The low pulses of fin whales travel much further than the beluga’s chirps and beeps, and are meant for long-range communication and environment detection. Humpbacks get all the glory but if you ask me, it’s gone to their massive heads, and the fin and blue whales have the more impressive and interesting songs. For us to properly hear a fin whale’s pulse, we’d have to speed it up around five to ten times, which I’ve always found kind of rude: instead of changing the way they sing, maybe humans should change the way we listen. You can attempt this to some possibly-fin whales singing pulses you can’t hear: 

4. Whale Shark
Sooo, I’m part of a facebook group called Whale Nerds United, where most people post about orcas ie. killer whales ie. dolphins and NOT WHALES – sorry. When I was a child I used to correct people on that, which goes a little way to showing you just how insufferable I was. Anyway, someone new to the group had asked whether they can post pictures of whale sharks (which are sharks, ie. fish, ie. not mammals, ie. not whales) and I replied saying how the moderators can’t be that strict on definitions seeing as the page was filled with orcas, and then one of the admins dm’d me and clarified that a whale shark was in fact a cross between a whale and a shark. So, in the inclusive spirit of Whale Nerds United, my fourth whale is a whale shark.

5. Pilot Whale (yuck!)
This is an extract from the parallel universe version of this article about my bottom five whales. And top of that list is the pilot whale. I mean… look at it here. It’s clearly a dolphin, and therefore a smug bastard. Everyone bangs on about pilot whales beaching in their thousands like it’s a terrible indictment of climate change but it isn’t, nobody knows why, there’s loads of them anyway, they’re not even endangered. Smug pricks. And because they’re so-called “whales”, local whale-spotting tour guides (yes, small, independent businesses in an industry barely staying afloat after the pandemic) tell you you’re going to see a whale and instead you see these anticlimaxes bounding about the place happy as can be. I bet they even get a cut of the profits. Rest assured there will be NO PILOT WHALES AT ALL in [whalesong].

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