Arts & Culture

When music meets ecology: Biologist George Halekas speaks in Gig Harbor

Sound ecologist George Halekas recording spinner dolphins.
Sound ecologist George Halekas recording spinner dolphins. Courtesy

Fifteen years ago, George Halekas had an experience that’s unusual for a scientist — suddenly seeing his data as art. A wildlife biologist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Halekas was part of a team studying bird habitats, and after mornings of rising at 1 a.m. to capture the dawn chorus he realized that what he was recording was music: a complete soundscape full of beauty and intention.

Now retired and based in Deer Park, Halekas has not only recorded soundscapes from birdsong to whalesong, he has experimented with playing human music to wild animals. Touring the state courtesy of Humanities Washington, he’ll visit the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor on Friday (June 3) and Harstene Island on Sunday to show how music and ecology connect.

There’s nothing new about recording animal sounds, of course. And recently scientists have begun studying soundscapes — the totality of all sounds in any given place and time — and what they tell us about animal species.

But Halekas is going somewhere different. Analyzing his audio samples through visual software, collaborating with composers and experimenting with bringing human music to wild creatures, he’s come to a much bigger conclusion than just the sonic beauty of our Earth.

The News Tribune spoke to Halekas about his work, his presentations and how music can cross boundaries between species.

Q: How did you go from being a biologist to recording wildlife?

A: The breakthrough came for me when I (participated) in the U.S. regional forest bird survey in Oregon and Washington. … I’d arrive at the first (recording) point at 6 a.m. and start recording about dawn. And this transition between night time to dawn chorus was one of the most powerful times for capturing the diversity and beauty of natural soundscapes. … I learned how to listen to the entire soundscape community, and hear how individual singers were calling out to each other. ... I could hear the musical quality of these soundscapes, and I wanted to record them for both research and the enjoyment of playing them.

Q: You still work on conservation projects like state wolf management. How often are you out there recording?

A: It’s seasonal. Here in the Northwest, the most dynamic time of the year for soundscape vibrancy is the spring. … I may be going out maybe three or four weeks (in a year).

Q: So when you get a sound recording and you get it home, what do you do with it? How do you study it?

A: I listen to it. I also put it on a sound analysis program called Raven, which is developed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. (This) gives you a visual picture of the sound as it unfolds and enables you to get more detail and study the nuances.

Q: Do you ever analyze your recordings musically?

A: I have a strong interest in music, particularly contemporary classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and I’m fascinated by the different techniques that different composers have used. I’m hearing those techniques in natural soundscapes, and that helped me to easily make the transition to viewing natural soundscapes as musical expression. So when I do listen to musical soundscapes I really enjoy hearing polyrhythms (the simultaneous use of different rhythms). I enjoy hearing polyphonic expressions by different singers that are sung simultaneously.

When you look at a spectrogram you can see that the sounds have some spacing around them so that singers don’t mask each other out. They sing in between each other’s songs, on different frequency levels and by environmental spacing as well. So that some birds may choose to sing from the top of trees, others may sing … from the air, other birds may sing lower in the canopy. There’s a real environmental community going on. It’s very intentional; it’s not random.

Q: In human terms, a symphony rather than a cacophony. Why is that?

A: It all started in terms of communication. Birdsong has been tied to everything from male birds trying to attract a female mate to males trying to defend a territory against an adjoining male singer. But in my perspective, evolution has been going above and beyond immediate survival-of-the-fittest approach. … That’s expressed perhaps most abundantly in the arts of humanity. But it’s also there with some of the bird singers, and particularly with some of the marine mammals like humpback whales, where there’s such an expression that goes above immediate survival needs of communication that to me it’s an example of evolution moving beyond a strict survival-of-the-fittest to an appreciation and expression of beauty.

(Whalesong is) an example of evolution moving beyond a strict survival-of-the-fittest to an appreciation and expression of beauty.

George Halekas, sound ecologist

Q: What sort of possibilities does that open up for communicating across species?

A: Well, I think that music has an incredible power and is one of humanity’s finest achievements. Music has the power to transcend cultural boundaries and political boundaries, and I believe it has the power to transcend boundaries between species. Certainly the power of music to express every human emotion — we can come to tears on hearing a piece of music sung in a language we have no understanding of.

In my presentation, I begin by talking about music of hunter-gatherer societies in Ice Age times, and there the music was shared within the community. The music served a very strong social cohesion role, and played a role in synchronizing physical activities just like music does for a symphony orchestra member. But that music was shared in the open environment. It was a music that was part of a soundscape which was an interactive soundscape of sounds … an intentional soundscape. So to me, sharing music with animals is really going back to the roots of how we as a sound community evolved.

To me, sharing music with animals is really going back to the roots of how we as a sound community evolved.”

George Halekas, sound ecologist

Q: Tell us about your experiments with playing music to wild animals.

A: I helped out on a small film project on dolphins in Costa Rica. … During the daytime I brought an underwater boom box with an iPod … full of music that I thought the dolphins might enjoy hearing, because I had an appreciation of how important sound was in spinner dolphin society. Dolphins breach fairly frequently, so I could actually play music off the bow of the boat and know that they could hear. … One evening the dolphins came right up to the Mozart sonata for two pianos I was playing. Spinner dolphins are called that because they do a lot of jumps to make as big a splash as they can: it’s one of the sounds they have. … They came right up to where I was playing the music, jumping against the bow and splashing, trying to splash me. It was such a rewarding feeling.

The humpback whales were more of a challenge to play music to, because they tend to breach less frequently. So I was forced to get in the water and project sounds into the water. ... The response I had there was very much of curiosity. …They weren’t threatened by the sounds. For them to hear music was something totally different from the usual (human) sound projection. … It felt wonderful to be able to project some of the finest music of humanity to them instead of having them just deal with motorized boat noises.

Q: What’s your ultimate goal for your work?

A: To increase people’s awareness of the beauty of the soundscape we have here on Earth. It’s a real treasure. And it’s a treasure at risk. So I’m certainly hoping that as people appreciate the incredible beauty of the soundscape we have, they’re also going to be more aware of … just how many impacts are changing our environment. By making this connection with animals I hope it helps to get people to understand that we’re part of an integrated environment with a sound component that is an expression of the overall health of the ecosystem, and that we need to take care of it not just for our own survival but for the survival of the planet as a whole.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

George Halekas: The Ecology of Sound

When: 6 p.m. Friday (June 3).

Where: Harbor History Museum, 4121 Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor.

Cost: Free.

Also: Guest performer Gary Stroutsos, flutes.

Information: 253-858-6722,,

When: 1 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Harstene Island Community Hall, 3371 E. Harstine Island Road N., Shelton.

Cost: Free.

Information: 360-427-1017.