Jim Nollman

Resident archivist Jack Dangers talks to the animals with Jim Nollman, whose 1982 album sees him playing heavy metal guitar underwater to a pod of orcas

‘Playing Music With Animals: The Interspecies Communication Of Jim Nollman With 300 Turkeys, 12 Wolves, 20 Orca Whales’ is the best field recording album I have. The title says it all, really. This is Jim Nollman singing and playing to, and with, various animals. 

It starts off with him performing ‘Froggy Went A-Courting’ to 300 turkeys who all start gobbling along with him. In the booklet that comes with the album, he says he was once attacked by turkeys “for getting too frenetic”. Then he plays a vihuela, a large 12-string mandolin-like instrument with a bottleneck, to wolves who all howl along. He and cellist Sybl Glebow spent five days in a wolf preserve trying to play with and record the wolves. They really go for it when they hear a cello.

He plays a waterphone underwater to orcas. At one point, he plays guitar through an underwater speaker and poses the question, are the orcas teaching him their language? The proposition that orcas are capable of language raised quite a controversy, when presented at a session of the International Whaling Commission.

The track ‘Heavy Metal (Guitar/Orca)’ is part of a “dialogue” between guitar and orcas which, he says, lasted for several hours. They seem buzzed by the energy, though it’s not very heavy metal, really. ‘Orca Reggae’ isn’t particularly reggae either. Nollman concludes that the orcas could learn the rudiments of jazz improvisation given enough time.

‘Playing Music With Animals’ ends with ‘Music To Eat Thanksgiving Dinner By’, a three-flute improvisation with the 300 turkeys edited from a two-hour piece, which makes his position about animals and the interdependence of species pretty clear. 

The album is rare and sells for between £80 and £100. Like many releases on the Folkways label, you used to be able to pick them up for a few dollars. Even in the early days of eBay you could get them for five dollars. I knew a guy once who worked in record distribution, and he would bring boxes of sealed Folkways LPs and sell them to me for a dollar. So I collected all of their electronic music albums and all the releases under their Science series. 

Jim Nollman is still working on interspecies communication, and you can catch up with his latest activities on his website interspecies.com

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