for string quartet and digital acoustics
A Five Year Study of the Sound of Wolves
I have studied the mysterious voices of wolves in the wild. Here is an example of an early digital acoustic composition that I presented at the International Wolf Symposium in Minneapolis in 2017.
Artaria String Quartet 2021 Festival Concert
Sacrum Creaturae (String Quartet No. 2) for string quartet and digital acoustic commissioned and premiered August 18th, 2021 at the Stringwood Chamber Music Festival by the Artaria String Quartet, profiles three endangered creatures: wolves, dolphins, and birds in the three movements of this string quartet. Each of the digital acoustics, the recorded and processed sounds of wolves, dolphins, and birds, explore the sounds of these creatures from three perspectives. Canis Lupus-Nocturne developed through the exploration of wolf howls, growls, snarls, barks, and choruses. My goal in integrating the sounds of wolves with the string quartet was to make them equally passionate and expressive driving the dynamic and emotional climaxes of the music with equal intensity. Programatically, I have placed the wolves deep in the forest, in an environment that allows the string quartet to evoke the mystery and primal energy associated with these animals. I make musical references to the controversy of re-introducing these animals in the wild and the history of violent annihilation by hunters. Delphinus-Cradlesong comprises the slow, middle movement of this piece. The cradlesong is literal and is inspired by the recent discovery by marine scientists that a mother dolphin will sing to its unborn calf so that it bonds with the mother and is familiar with her voice after birth. I have essentially orchestrated my Cradlesong for solo piano for string quartet and the whistling sounds of a mother dolphin singing to its calf. The final movement, 21 Birds, incorporates the bird calls of 21 birds in the Driftless region of the upper Mississippi, integrated with the thematic music of the string quartet. I treat the birds as 21 soloists and as an orchestra of birds accompanying the quartet. In the performance with the quartet, I have employed various special effects, such as reverberation, echo, and delay to blend the two acoustics. The performance of the piece involves a very high-quality sound system that envelopes the audience in a three-dimensional sound environment.
The Sound of Wolves, Dolphins, and Birds
Ray Shows, Violin
Nancy Oliveros, Violin
Annalee Wolf, Viola
Patricia Ryan, Violoncello
Described as an “exceptional ensemble with impressive confidence in its interpretations” and “Minnesota’s foremost teaching and performing string quartet”, the Artaria String Quartet recently celebrated its 30 year of chamber music concerts. Winners of the 2004 McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians, and named 2013-14 Minnesota Public Radio Artists-in-Residence, Artaria was also featured on Twin Cities Public Television as part of the “Minnesota Originals” series.
Artaria’s refined and thoughtful playing has brought them to major venues throughout the United States and Europe, on national television and public radio stations, and at top summer festivals including the Banff Centre in Canada, Festival de L’Epau in France, and the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, MA.
Artaria has earned numerous awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, and the Minnesota State Arts Board for excellence in performance and educational outreach. Directors of the Artaria Chamber Music School, a premiere weekly string chamber music program in Saint Paul; and Stringwood Chamber Music Festival, featuring the ASQ and renowned guest artists every June in Lanesboro, MN; they are founders of the Saint Paul String Quartet Competition, which showcases the nation’s top high school age string quartets each April.
Greater Prairie Chicken
Le Conte's Sparrow
Red Shouldered Hawk
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
A new short film asking @SecHaaland to relist the wolf under the Endangered Species Act.
The theme of the animal spirit in the wild manifests in Jack London’s Arctic novels and are potent sources of musical inspiration. The Call of the Wild (1903), chronicles the journey of a half-breed husky named Buck, who begins as a slave to several cruel owners in Alaska and eventually becomes a sled dog for a loving master, John Thorton. Buck emerges through struggle and primordial instinct as a leader in the wild in an environment that eventually frees him from the bonds of mankind. Throughout the novel, the most important passages that rise above the fundamental quest for survival, describe a primal lure in very poetic and musical terms. Indeed, London’s description of the richly soulful howl of wolves that allures Buck, speaks to the very meaning and essence of life and to its cosmic source. White Fang (1906), the companion piece to The Call of the Wild, chronicles the transformation of a wild animal driven by the hunger to survive from the rewards of being faithful to man. Love of Life (1905) places two gold miners returning from the wilderness in the path of a hungry pack of wolves. As their journey progresses, the miners begin to associate the sound of wolves howling with the terrible threat of their demise. These three novels offer numerous transformative passages as sources of artistic inspiration, and this essay will inquire into the musical composition indirectly inspired by the sounds of wolves.
Nature has provided a source of inspiration for artists throughout the ages. In the Romantic era, Beethoven confessed his love of nature when he said, “How happy I am to be able to walk among the shrubs, the trees, the woods, the grass, and the rocks! For the woods, the trees and the rocks give man the resonance he needs.” (all-about-beethoven.com) These three works of Jack London celebrate the value of animals in nature, which is demonstrated particularly well by the pairing of man and husky in the Alaskan wild for survival. London was personally familiar with the science of seeking food, warmth, and transport in a frozen environment having spent some time in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. London’s individual perspective of man and dog as partners in the quest for fulfillment beyond survival is fundamental to the development of the plot in each of these three novels. Jack London’s writing is often transformational—it is fueled by something that drives the characters from one state to another.
As a composer, I have been on a similar quest to create a unique musical language that is transformative and effectively expresses the untamed wildness and mystery of nature. The identification with the wolf, both its power and its weakness, led me to an unexpected path of discovery. In my search for a primal source of music, I found in the howl of wolves a seamless integration of passion and the profundity of nature. Before I delve into the passages in London’s works which were the impetus to my discoveries, an examination of the science of sound as perceived by the brain will be informative.
“Music is primal. It affects all of us, but in very personal, unique ways,” said Burdette, a neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. (Burdette 2017: n.p.) It can be argued that each of our interactions with music are completely different. However, it remains that music has an equally powerful effect on the brain regardless of how each of us interprets it. Fundamentally, music and the emotions that are evoked, stimulate our memories. Our brains can react to music positively or negatively as liked or disliked, but the degrees in between often relate to the intensity of the emotion felt or what is associated with the memory and whether it was a pleasant or unpleasant memory. Moreover, experiencing sound in the natural world elevates this response from being purely emotional to a response that resonates with the spirit. To be moved by art in this context, for example, by the sound of wolves resonating in the natural acoustic, can be astonishing as expressed in this description in the Love of Life: “…the call, the many-noted call, sounding more luringly and compelling than ever before” (London 1981: 44) The howl of wolves heard in the wild can range unmistakably from awe-inspiring to terrifying particularly as it relates to survival. What then does science say about why and when wolves howl amongst themselves?
Within the last 20 years, extensive, focused research on the howl of wolves has revealed some interesting facts about why and when wolves howl. The primary reason wolves howl is to communicate with one another when they are roaming through vast territories hunting for food. Since howling can be heard for miles, wolves are able to reconnect with the pack when they have been wandering far away in search for prey. Howling can also serve as a reunion call when a pack member has returned. Each wolf produces its own unique quality of sound when it howls and this can identify them individually (Palacios et al. 2007: 607). When a lone wolf howls and is identified as being a member of another pack it alerts the rival pack that a threat is near. The sound quality of wolf howls have been studied extensively (Harrington 2000: n.p.) and has revealed some interesting observations about the range of frequencies in the howling. When wolves howl together in a chorus they are able to modulate the frequencies in such a way as to create a more complex sound that tricks a rival pack listening into believing there are more wolves present. This phenomenon is called the Beau Geste Effect (Harrington 2000: n.p.) and provides evidence of a collective defense intelligence among wolves. Wolf packs each have a specific range of frequencies among them that identifies them as a group. When a rival pack trespasses on their territory, the defending pack will howl at a lower pitch indicating to the intruders that they are ready to fight. Outside of communicating with other pack members, wolves often howl on their own in what appears to be purely for their pleasure and individual expression. It is this phenomenon that humans most identify with as the wolves appears to be expressing themselves and declaring: “I am” or “I’m howling because I can.”
Indeed, this fascination has inspired literature and folk tales through the ages. In folklore, wolves are often portrayed as conniving and evil. The timeless stories, Aesop’s Fables, which are believed to have been written in the mid to late sixth century, portrayed the wolf in over two dozen moral tales. For example The Lamb and the Wolf, and The Nurse and the Wolf depict the wolf as a threat; The Shepard and the Wolf, as cunning; and The Wolf and the Crane, as defiant. (Aesops 1999: n.p.) This stereotyping of wolves as malevolent beasts has its roots in the Christian New Testament: ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves’ (King James Version, Gospel of Matthew 7: 15) One of most dramatic allusions is found in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
“There seemed a strange stillness over everything; but as I listened I heard as if from down below in the valley the howling of many wolves. The Count’s eyes gleamed, and he said:-‘Listen to them–the children of the night, What music they make.!”
In my own region of Wisconsin, USA, Robert E. Gard and L.G. Gard’s book, Wisconsin Lore, and The Beast of Bray Road by Linda S. Godfrey the wolf is profiled as a large wolf or doglike creature with human features that was first reported as sighted in Elkhorn, WI, in 1949. The story describes this creature as a beast that stands up on its hind legs and has been spotted eating with its front paws turned upward like human palms. Tales like these and the classic conflict between farmers and predators has continued to demonize the wolf in this region. An American survey conducted in the years 2001-2009 found that “656 of the respondents had an increasing fear of wolves despite years of conservation efforts with the state of Wisconsin”. (Treves et al. 2013: 320) However, a rising awareness of the importance of wolves in stabilizing the natural ecology has brought the wolf into the spotlight as a partner in keeping nature in balance. Perceiving the wolf as an important part of the fabric of nature versus a singular demon reflects London’s vision in his literature, which highlights the romantic bond between man and the wolf through the common quest for survival in the wild. In this way, literature can change the way we perceive ourselves in the universe creating an opportunity to understand ourselves through the inspiration of the writer.
London’s word paintings remind me of the work of the American artist Andrew Wyeth. Portraits of the people in his life, and the settings that he paints them in, show equally the dreams of the sitters and the painter himself. London’s writing in The Call of the Wild similarly incorporates the dreams of his main characters, John Thorton and his husky, Buck. Throughout the novel the most important passages that rise above the fundamental quest for survival describe, in graphic terms, the mysterious environment that man and wolf find themselves in together, simultaneously describing the rich sonority of the howls and the man’s interpretation of the howl as a sad song. A sad song in a minor key-the most natural of tonalities that resonates with the past so well and certainly the sadness and lament of a world that is still and frozen: (London 1981: 15)
“With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. It was an old song, old as the breed itself-one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad.”
In White Fang, the theme of sadness, one that is arresting in the silence, gives a special meaning to the darkness in nature: (London 1981: 3)
“A long wailing cry, fiercely sad, from somewhere in the darkness, had interrupted him. He stopped to listen to it: then he finished his sentence with a wave of his hand toward the sound of the cry, “—one of them?’”
Is it only man who interprets the sound as sad? Do these same intervals and timbres heard by the wolf have the same effect on its brain that evokes sadness? Perhaps what man interprets as sad, the wolf registers as loss, as in the memory of a pack member that died or some game that got away. What, then, are the more fundamental common responses by man and wolf to the sound of howling? In The Call of the Wild there is a passage that expresses a primal quest to connect with our ancestors that is common to man and wolf: (London 1981: 12)
“And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark.”
London then develops the theme in these descriptive passages from purely emotional and sensorial to examining the impetus behind the howling as an expression of ecstasy for life at its peak.
In The Call of the Wild, London suggests that wolves in the wild, besides howling to communicate, are howling in agony of pain, or because they are hungry, or howling because they know they are alive as this passage suggests: (London 1981: 18)
“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise, And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is more alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the depth of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time.”
In a similar passage in White Fang the effect of the call of wolves has a similar effect on man as they perceive a desperate vitality in the wolf’s cry: (London 1981: 2)
“An hour went by, and a second hour. The pale light of the short sunless day was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air. It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note, where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. …A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle like shrillness. Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snow expanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, also to the rear and to the left of the second cry.”
In both of these descriptive passages it is important to note that silence is the paramount element in rendering the howls as uniquely expressive.
What makes the sound of wolves howling in nature so dramatic and spellbinding is the manner which it penetrates the silence. Equally dramatic are the passages in London’s novels that pair the envelopes of sound and silence with light and darkness. For example, in these passages in White Fang: (London 1981: 4)
“Cry after cry, and answering cries, were turning the silence into a bedlam. From every side the cries arose, and the dogs betrayed their fear by huddling together and so close to the fire that their hair was scorched by the heat. …At once began to rise the cries that were fiercely sad-cries that called through the darkness and cold to one another and answered back. …At midday the sky to the South warmed to rose-colored, and marked where the bulge of the earth intervened between the meridian sun and the northern world. But the rose-colored swiftly faded. The grey light of day that remained lasted until three o’clock, when it, too, faded, and the pall of the Arctic night descended upon the lone and silent land.”
In the final section of The Call of the Wild, London underscores the final transformation from domestication to animal in the wild by defining the distant howl as a beckoning that must be answered. (London 1981: 34)
“So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.
The multi-faceted descriptions of wolves howling in the wild found in London’s Arctic Tales, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Love of Life illuminate the transformative themes of courage, resourcefulness and strength from human beings in the form of the wolf and half-breed in the wild. These passages illuminate the transformative themes from four perspectives. Emotionally, as a sad song in the wild; physically, as the wolves drive from one state of existence to another; spiritually, as they express ecstasy for life at its peak; and naturally, as in the way sound is rendered in silence. For some time as a composer I have been pursuing an approach to composing that embodies all of these characteristics in one style of composition. These aesthetics were foremost in my mind when I composed a work for string quartet and digital acoustics composed of the sounds of wolves crying, whining, growling and howling both solo and in chorus. The piece Canis Lupus-Nocturne, is part of a larger work, Sacrum Creaturae (Sacred Creatures) and is inspired by three species at risk in the natural world: wolves, dolphins, and birds. A recording from the premiere of Canis Lupus-Nocturne can be heard on my website: williamneil.net. A description of the music follows.
The piece opens with a tremolo minor chord that is played so softly as to emulate the pure murmuring of sound in the wilderness. The minor triad embodies a universal tone of sadness that colors the unfolding chorus of wolf howls in this movement. A single howl is heard in the distance and then a second wolf joins in the chorus. In my studio, each of the individual wolf calls were digitally tuned to a single note. The tension than rises over time as they howl in and out of tune with one another, rising and falling from the silence. A solo violin enters over the wolves calling in chorus. The chorus builds as the sound moves closer into to the foreground. The violin solo slowly oscillates over chorus of violin, viola and violoncello of the quartet and together the two parallel choruses of wolves and strings begin rising in volume and density. The music pauses and the space is silent for a moment. A violent and loud interruption in the quartet breaks the silence. When the wolves return, their chorus is at its peak, the quartet begins to fade away. This passage ends with a compressed succession of minor triads in the string quartet capsulizing the sadness expressed by the minor chord and the minor third interval prevalent in the howl of the wolves. With the wolves now absent, the quartet develops this opening music in pure musical terms. The wolves return in a cacophony of growls and barks that underscores the primal fire in these animals, passionate in their will to survive. At the very peak of the movement all of the primal elements, the agony of survival, and ecstasy for life are unleashed. The simple chorus of wolves is now magnified digitally into a thunderous chorus of sound accompanied by the string quartet in unison and octaves. And then, in a descending cascade, all of the voices dramatically unwind in a counterpoint of cries, whining and howling that diminishes to a quiet murmur. Finally, the sad minor chord from the beginning returns and is softly struck and fades into silence.
The success of this premiere performance has opened up the possibility of further exploration in this genre of blending sounds from the wild within a musical composition. Just as London has conjured a story of life’s origin from the perspective of the wolf, I look forward to continuing to develop an unique musical language that can tell this story of primal being in musical terms. In closing, Jack London should have the final word regarding pursing one’s passion: “I’d rather sing one wild song and burst my heart with it, than live a thousand years watching my digestion and being afraid of the wet.”
London. Jack. 1981. The Call of the Wild. Ed. Andrew Sinclair. London: Penguin Books
London. Jack. 1981. White Fang. Ed. Andrew Sinclair. London: Penguin Books
London. Jack. 1981. Life of Life. Ed. Andrew Sinclair. London: Penguin Books
Burdette. Jonathan. 2017. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. 2017. Science Daily.
Palacios, V., Font, E. and Márquez, R. (2007),‘Iberian wolf howls: Acoustic
structure, individual variation, and a comparison with North American
populations’, Journal of Mammalogy, 88: 3, pp. 606–13.
Harrington, F. H. (2000), ‘What’s in a howl?’, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ wolves/howl.html. Accessed 11 September 2015.
Aesop. (1999). The Lamb and the Wolf. In D.L. Daily (Ed.)
Aesop. (1999). The Nurse and the Wolf. In D.L. Daily (Ed.)
Aesop. (1999). The Shepard and the Wolf. In D.L. Daily (Ed.)
Aesop. (1999). The Wolf and the Crane. In D.L. Daily (Ed.)
Stoker, B. (1997), Dracula, New York: Norton Critical Editions.
Gard E. Robert & L. G. Gard. 1962 Wisconsin Lore. Madison: Wisconsin House Ltd.
Godfrey. Linda S. 2014 The Beast of Bray Road. Amazon Kindle
Treves, A., Naughton-Treves, L. and Shelley, V. (2013), ‘Longitudinal analysis
Image by Elliot Medow used by permission.
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