Peter Zinovieff: South Pacific Migration Party – whales meet electronic waves
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A group of humpback whales are the only non-human singer to have a multi-platinum album to their name. Humpback whale songs was released in 1970, based on Cold War underwater recordings by the US Navy, a submarine hunter.
A surprise success, the album brought the phenomenon of whale singing to a mass audience. He raised public concern over the fate of these totemic mammals, which at the time were hunted to the brink of extinction. If any of the album’s original artists are still alive, possibly touring the oceanic equivalent of the oldies circuit, it will be in part thanks to the album’s role in blunting the harpoons of commercial hunting at the whale.
South Pacific Migration Party is a similar project. Instead of humpback whales, it is based on the vocalizations of blue whales. Their songs tend to be shorter and less structured than the Humpback Whales, which are renowned among the most elaborate composers in the animal world. Yes Humpback whale songs was cetacean progressive rock, then South Pacific Migration Party is closer to underwater ambient music.
His troop of blue whales was recorded by oceanographer Susannah Buchan off the coast of Chile. Their reverberating rumblings and whistles are accompanied by the electronic work of a human musician, Peter Zinovieff.
Zinovieff, who died in June at the age of 88, played a whale-like role in British musical history: an important presence whose work was mostly done out of sight, under the waterline. The company he co-founded in 1969, Electronic Music Studios, designed some of Britain’s first synthesizers. He tried to teach Ringo Starr how to use one. (“He wasn’t particularly good,” Zinovieff recalls.) Other patrons included Roxy Music, King Crimson, The Who and Pink Floyd. The dark side of the moon was made with one of Zinovieff’s machines. Its prototype was housed in its garden shed.
Zinovieff also made his own electronic music. A reluctant businessman, he was more interested in programming a computer to create new sounds than in selling synthesizers. His career as a composer became particularly active in the last decade of his life.
Sadly, he didn’t live to see the release of South Pacific Migration Party. It is based on a performance piece created at an art exhibition in Athens in 2017. A 30-minute suite of five movements, the album creates a dialogue between Zinovieff’s abstract computer music and the thrilling tones of the social interaction of whales.
While Humpback whale songs presented its non-human singers as inhabiting their own acoustic world, unaccompanied by other sounds, here we are faced with a mixture of animal, human, organic and technological elements. The gurgling water merges with the oscillating electronic waves. Dark, dense computer drones evoke a pressurized sense of ink depths. The sounds of the whales sound like strange signals from another world rather than the anthropomorphic notion of a “song.”
Although still threatened, whale populations have recovered since the ban on commercial whaling in 1986. South Pacific Migration Party raises the specter of a different threat. Worsening noise pollution from shipping has contaminated the ocean’s underwater soundscapes, forcing whales to find new sound frequencies to communicate or even silence them altogether. While not much seems to be happening in this atmospheric album, there is actually a lot going on. He imagines a coexistence between the technological sound world of humanity, forged by people like Zinovieff, and other acoustic systems of life, the sounds of the biosphere.
‘South Pacific Migration Party‘is published by the Association for Depth Sound Recordings