UK Researchers Use Mendelssohn To Highlight Plight Of Disappearing Humpback Whales

By Anya Wassenberg on October 24, 2022

There are approximately 30,000 notes in the original score for Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. Coincidentally, there was roughly the same number of humpback whales in the oceans at the time it was written in 1829.

By 1920, about two-thirds of the world’s humpback whales were gone. Today, they are at risk of disappearing entirely.

That’s the dramatic decline that University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Matthew Agarwala wanted to illustrate in sound. He and his colleagues were frustrated at public apathy over disappearing North Atlantic humpback whales and other species. Agarwala came up with the idea of using sound to bring that point home in a way that would resonate with audiences.

Dr. Matthew Agarwala and his team observed that nature was effectively silenced by the activities of human civilization and industrialization, and that’s where the idea of dropping out notes at the rate that humpback whales began to disappear from the Earth’s oceans originated.

He worked with composer Dr. Ewan Campbell on the project, which zeroed in on Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. Mendelssohn’s piece was chosen because it was inspired by the composer’s trip to a sea cave, and captures the raw beauty and power of the oceans that he experienced at a time just before the industrialization of fishing.

Campbell devised a system of demonstrating the progressive loss of whales. He divided Mendelssohn’s score into sections he used to mark out the decades, eliminating the notes in direct proportion to the loss of whales in the sea. It’s dramatic, and gives audiences a way of understanding the enormity of that loss.

After 1:51, only one in every 16 notes remains.

The piece, called Hebrides Redacted, was performed by the Wildnerness Orchestra, a 38-member ensemble, at the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire in August to a standing ovation.

“It really was an uninitiated audience at the Wilderness Festival — people were there for a good time, not to be told that the world is falling apart through the medium of music from the 19th century. But somehow it worked,” says Campbell, Director of Music at Churchill College and Murray Edwards College, Cambridge in a media release.

“Over the past century we have seen nearly a million species pushed to the brink of extinction — nature is going quiet,” said Agarwala, an Economist at the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

He added, “Researchers — including me — have been sounding the alarm about the consequences of biodiversity loss for a long time, but the message isn’t landing. Music is visceral and emotional, and grabs people’s attention in ways that scientific papers just can’t.”

Hebrides Redacted closes with a look into a possible future, and what’s needed to help the humpback whales rebound. It’s a positive message after the dramatic illustration of loss.

“We can see when the oceans are better managed, whale populations can start to rebound,” says Agarwala.

“At its nadir, the score is thin and fragmented, with isolated notes reaching for a tune that is only partially present. But even in the face of devastating destruction, nature is resilient and always beautiful, and so even when two-thirds of the music is absent there’s still a delicate beauty, though a pale imitation of its once dramatic glory,” said Campbell.

“Redaction is a word normally associated with censorship, and silencing history. I find it really apt for this piece of music — we’re showing how human activities have silenced nature.”

A short film about the project was screened at the Cambridge Zero Climate Change Festival in October 2022.

After the overwhelmingly positive reception of the project so far, Agarwala and Campbell plan on many more musical collaborations that aim to inspire listeners — including politicians and others — to act on climate change.

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