No matter how avant garde the ideas that circulate through Columbia’s campus are, odd looks will still be exchanged if someone dares to claim that whales can talk.
Last Saturday in Dodge Hall, professor Gavin Steingo, a Princeton professor of music and the keynote speaker of the Columbia music department’s Columbia Music Scholarship Conference, spoke on precisely that topic: the speech of whales and dolphins. His presentation revolved around the work of Dr. John C. Lilly, an American researcher of the nature of consciousness.
CMSC, which is now in its 15th year, featured eight different speakers alongside Steingo who presented their research on topics ranging from the intersection of technology and music to the history of the anatomy of ears and listening to sound. The theme of the conference this year was “Music As/In Motion.”
Professor Steingo’s keynote address was the final speech of the night and addressed Dr. Lilly’s claims on the similarities in the intellectual capacities of dolphins, whales, and humans. Through his research, he aimed to prove that humans’ inability to communicate with whales and dolphins is purely a matter of media difference. Because humans cannot hear or make the sounds that dolphins do and vice versa, communication is impossible.
However, Steingo claimed that in his studies it emerged that that dolphins do in fact attempt to mimic human speech to communicate. He played two audio clips––one of a human speaking and another of a dolphin mimicking. Oddly enough, there were lilts in the dolphin’s “voice” that almost sounded like human inflection. The medium of sound, the very canvas of music, was explored in a novel context by Steingo’s presentation.
The far-reaching ideas that Dr. Steingo presented in his presentation capped an entire day of scholarly musical exchange with academics from universities across the country, including Columbia, Cornell University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Chicago.
Other topics represented at the conference included music in dance, acoustics, and sound recording. Some presentations, such as University of Oregon researcher Chelsea Oden’s “Dance as Political Activism: Two Popular Choreomusical Responses to the Orlando Shooting,” appeared to tie music to social and political phenomena as well.
In the unassuming rooms of Dodge Hall, around boxes of coffee, platters of fruit, and bottles of wine, some of the top music academics from across the country and the world met to share their cutting-edge research, much of which is perplexing and often downright bizarre. But judging from their obvious passion and dedication to their field, it does not seem impossible that perhaps one of them will one day find a way to communicate with dolphins.