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Conversations with Whales

Using music, storytelling, and the mythical proportions of whale songs to grapple with climate change in the fastest-warming U.S. state.


Alaska has experienced more warming in the past four decades than any other state. In the small island community of Sitka, the effects of climate change are omnipresent and immediate: industrialized fishing and the disruption of the salmon life cycle profoundly affect both human and non-human Sitka residents, including the local migratory humpback whales and other cetaceans that pass through Southeast Alaskan waters.

With the help of our partners, we have set out to create music that reflects the lived experiences of this community and its interactions with whales in our irreversibly changing environment. Rather than attempting to encapsulate the human and environmental consequences of climate change by painting with broad strokes, Conversations with Whales explores the unique chemistry between Sitka, its inhabitants, and its natural surroundings, blending their words and sounds into music rooted in real people and real changes.

This thirty-minute newly composed work will be performed with free admission on July 31, August 1, and August 2, 2020, in Sitka, Alaska. The core components of the project are…

  • Field recordings of humpback, sperm, and killer whales Southeast Alaska provided by the University of Alaska Whale Lab and integrated into continuous sound design by Emil Ernström
  • The story of Natsilane, the human creator of Blackfish (Killer Whale) in Tlingit and Haida legend, told live by Chuck Miller, an Alaska Native storyteller and Culture and Community Liaison II for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. Chuck Miller and Alaska Native activist Lakota Harden will be consulted throughout.
  • A libretto compiled primarily from the works of Sitka-affiliated writers, particularly cultural anthropologist Richard Nelson and Holly Hughes, author of Sailing by Ravens, curated and combined by Ariadne Lih
  • Nate Barnett’s setting of this libretto for SATB quartet, integrating storytelling and whale song and performed by the singers of The Uncommon Music Festival

The piece will start with killer whale whistles and the legend of Natsilane and Blackfish. Then, with music that spans from whale songs played alone, to solo prose settings interwoven with whale songs, to four-voice verse chorales that provide introspection and emotional commentary, this piece deals with the pain of seeing such miraculous creatures struggle and die due to human activity. But wonder, curiosity, and love for these animals persist alongside grief and guilt. Faced with inevitable earth-shaking change, we can return and hold tight to values that are central to the ancient Alaska Native storytelling tradition: stewardship of the air, land, and water, and holding each other up, as humans, with humility and respect.

Aaron Minks Film will record the performances and create a four-minute music video documenting the project. An initial screening of the performance video will take place at Sitka WhaleFest in November 2020.

This project was inspired in part by our 2019 public Whale Music workshop, presented with the UAS Whale Lab and Sitka Sound Science Center, when several Native participants encouraged us to seek out Native whale stories. The Uncommon Music Festival has been commissioning and performing music rooted in the Sitka community since 2016.

Project Media

The Edge of a Season – Live
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Commissioned for the 2018 Festival
Music for SATB quartet and guitar by Jonathan Woody
Poem by Carolyn Servid

Author and longtime Sitkan Carolyn Servid her poem aloud at the workshop and concert premieres of this piece, and we performed the piece outdoors in Sitka National Historical Park, where Servid wrote the poem decades ago.

This piece illustrates our capacity to create and perform music that resonates with Sitka and its natural surroundings, choose meaningful texts, and work with multiple collaborators. Full track: bit.ly/EoaS-YT.

The Air is Above You – Live
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Presented in the 2019 Whale Music workshop at the Sitka Public Library
Music and text by Nate Barnett
Sound design by Emil Ernström

One of five miniatures presented in our 2019 Whale Music workshop, which explored the interactions between human voices, whale songs, and texts that describe or take the perspective of whales. This piece imagines the first words of a humpback mother to her newborn calf. Overwhelming positive reactions to the workshop helped inspire this project.

Hear the full track and other miniatures: bit.ly/WhaleMusicSamples.

Marvellous Error – Live and unedited
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Music by Edie Hill
Poem by Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly

Edie Hill arranged this piece for the Uncommon Music Festival as a gift. It became central to our 2020 season, representing our commitment to building relationships with composers, our love of powerful English texts, and our detailed ensemble work as a vocal quartet. The quartet sings tutti at 2:05.

The performers – Ariadne Lih, soprano, Sylvia Leith, mezzo-soprano, Nate Barnett, tenor, and Will Doreza, baritone – have been confirmed for Conversations with Whales.

Start and End Dates



Sitka, Alaska

Project Created By

Sitka, Alaska
An annual chamber music festival in Sitka, Alaska that promotes equitable, accessible, community-building classical music through gender-balanced and racially diverse programming, free community events, and close community partnerships. With an SATB vocal quartet, a guitarist / lutenist, and an organist / pianist, we offer one week of FREE musical events every year, aimed at Sitkans…

In Collaboration With

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Montréal, CANADA
Sound designer


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