In his series Too many birds, Ruben van Dijk highlights overlooked albums, new and old, that renegotiate our human relationship to all that is non-human. What can we take away from these albums that might make us look a little differently at the natural world around, and within us? This time: the gleeful interspecific jazz of Playing Music with Animals: Interspecies Communication of Jim Nollman with 300 Turkeys, 12 Wolves and 20 Orcas (1982), a hard-to-describe, one-of-a-kind record by composer and environmental activist Jim Nollman.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
It's quite telling that when Jim Nollman went and recorded himself singing the Scottish folk song ‘Froggy-Went-a-Courting’ surrounded by three-hundred tom turkeys, in an attempt to harmonise with their incessant gobbling, it was a turn towards the conventional for him. Nollman, who grew up on the East Coast, had made his way to the San Francisco Bay Area as a young adult to immerse himself in the city’s infamous improv scene. (In college, tasked with creating the music for a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nollman used “recordings of people rubbing glass milk bottles together, bending slabs of plate steel, and playing with springs.”) By 1973, when he first made his ‘Thanksgiving recordings’, he was already on his way out, a musician in his mid-twenties “looking for something to hang a career on”.
‘Froggy-Went-a-Courting’ had Nollman playing with an ensemble – for the first time in his professional career. He’d struck gold, never mind the fact that he would, from then on, always be the sole human member in any of his ensembles. By the time he released Playing Music with Animals on Folkways Records in 1983, Nollman had become a regular Sun Ra among the turkeys, wolves, and whales of the Pacific Northwest, successfully playing with animals, communicating with them as equals – for “man is no longer the crown of creation; nature itself is the crown”, says Nollman.
Listening to the ‘interspecies’ improvisations on Playing Music with Animals – some abrasive and vexing, others surprisingly beautiful – you realise Nollman was always the most devout and reverential musician around, whether singing on a farm, playing the vihuela in a wildlife refuge or a waterphone in the open Pacific. The intention was never to intrude, but to highlight how music was “more universally understood than any single human language, and arguably, as profound.” Nollman, writing about ‘Vihuela and Wolf Pack # One’ in the album’s liner notes: “[The wolves] were not given too much improvisatory call and response and would promptly stop singing if we humans got too radical in our own response to them. I felt honoured whenever they would sing in harmony with my own playing.”
I was curious how Nollman looked back on these methods now, forty years after the album’s release, and so I reached out. He currently resides on San Juan Island, Washington, retired after a lifetime of working for Greenpeace, National Geographic, the U.S. Navy, and playing and recording with many more animals. We exchanged several emails.
It has been forty years since you released Playing Music with Animals. How do you look back on the album now? Which moments from recording the album have stayed with you most?
“In general, I recall how difficult it was at that time trying to predict what animals might be willing to respond to my own music in a manner that would be just as coherent to a human listening to the recordings. It actually took me ten years to research and then explore the potential of improvising music with many different species. The great successes from the 1970s and early 1980s were turkeys, wolves, and orcas. During that same time, I also field recorded sessions with many other species including bobwhite, kangaroo rats, and spinner dolphins. Those were a few of my duds. What I remember best about those years of the sessions were the breakthrough recordings that seemed so obviously examples of interspecies communication that I didn’t feel any need to make claims to the listener about what I thought was happening. If it was happening, the listener would hear it.”
You were a conceptual, rather experimental artist a few years before you made this album. What first drew you to start doing jam sessions... but with non-human band mates?
“I played blues in a New York City club when I was a teenager. In college, I learned the craft of composing and recording music for theatre and dance groups. I rarely used traditional instruments, preferring to use ambient sounds to create a unique sonic space. In those days before computer technology, that meant learning how to play a tape recorder like an instrument, cut tape creatively, and design speaker arrays to give the music a sense of space. I eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where I was welcomed into a tribe of young composers busily building on John Cage’s legacy. Unlike most of the other ‘New Music’ composers, I wasn’t classically trained nor did I read music. Naturally, I sought a less intellectual and classical expression of the remarkable concepts that were getting composed all around me. After I dreamed up and realised my Thanksgiving day piece with turkeys, it received enough unexpected attention outside the scene, to make me realise that, as far as conceptual music goes, I had a hit on my hands. I mean it occasionally gets played on Thanksgiving day national radio to this day. That’s a big deal for a young musician sniffing around the edges of what our culture calls music. I started expanding on the general context of what I accomplished with turkeys in one afternoon, to include other animals, longer durations, more collaborators from the environmental, shamanic, and scientific worlds. I think that’s how lots of unplanned careers unfold. In my case, one adventure led to the next, and usually included enough remuneration to let me make a career out of it.”
You have fought to stop overfishing and the mass murder of whales and other sea mammals, but throughout your career you have also made a point of placing yourself in close contact with these animals, with a lot of the work you've done being set directly in their habitats. With the "universal Ethic of interdependence", that you first advocated for in 1982, in mind, how do you make sure that when living alongside other species, you're not a disrupting or harmful presence?
“I spent almost every August for twelve years making music with the same pod of orcas who live in the inland waters off Vancouver Island, Canada. These expeditions were a team effort undertaken by the non-profit I founded, named Interspecies. We chartered a big boat into which we installed a recording studio with two underwater microphones (hydrophones) and two underwater speakers. We anchored the boat in a small cove a ways off the main channel in which the orcas travelled. Months before we left home, I would put a message in the newsletter I was writing in those days, saying that if anyone had a good idea about what they want to communicate to wild orcas, tell us what it is. If our group likes it, you can come onboard and try it out with the orcas. Over the years the group included several Tibetan Lamas, many children, some well known musicians including a Grammy winner, a guy who chanted the Jewish Kaddish. Because of where we anchored, the orcas would have to swim out of the main channel and into the cove to interact. In other words, they would have to come to us. Our amplification system was about as loud as a 20 HP outboard motor underwater, so there was no way the music could hurt them. We only performed our music into the water after dark, because that was when all the other boats went away for the night and we needed quiet to record. And here’s the important part. During the fourth or fifth year, I finally realised that when the orcas came close to the boat, it was always the same two orcas, a mother and her son. The rest of the 100 orcas in the vicinity just weren’t very interested. You can hear some of the best recorded interactions between my guitar and the orcas, on the 2020 release of Music for Swimming and Flying on the Other Minds label.”
You have been playing music with animals for 45 years now. Do you think your work has had any effect on the culture, either aesthetic or environmental?
“It has certainly had its effect on the art–for-nature movement which, by now, has taken such a firm hold on the mainstream art world. Yet, the very idea of playing music with nature, or making art in nature, or even conceiving performance events for protecting nature didn’t exist when I started. I recall doing research when I first started this endeavour with turkeys back in the 1970s. The only artist who was even vaguely playing with similar natural elements, was Robert Smithson and his Spiral Jetty. Later came Christo, Andrew Goldsworthy, etc, and so forth. During that early period, my main supporters were intellectual promoters of the consciousness movement, plus Greenpeace, plus a few Hollywood producers of American reality-based TV who viewed me as a clown, and especially my work with turkeys as a slapstick version of a classic circus stunt. This early effect gradually transformed so that by the mid-1990s, sponsors of my music with animals included such august groups as the European Union, National Geographic, Threshold Foundation, The Russian Academy of Sciences, etc. The last major project I joined before retiring was a multi-year contract with the US Navy. You may recall the news about sonar killing whales. The Navy’s project director needed someone with hands-on experience of interacting with whales acoustically. I was very surprised when he assured me that no whale biologist in the entire world had as much experience of interacting directly with whales through sound as I did.”
Harmonic, egalitarian co-existence with non-human species seems to be even more necessary now than it was forty years ago. For people discovering Playing Music with Animals now, what do you hope they take away from it?
“You said it as well as I could. Harmonic, egalitarian co-existence with non-human species is necessary.”
Playing Music with Animals: Interspecies Communication of Jim Nollman with 300 Turkeys, 12 Wolves and 20 Orcas is available for purchase through Smithsonian Folkways.