At the Akron Symphony Orchestra's "Sounds of the Sea" concert Saturday, audiences will hear underwater seismic gun blasts as well as ship horns and the calls of sea mammals along with orchestral instruments in the Northeast Ohio premiere of Stella Sung's "Oceana."
The piece illustrates the devastating effects of ocean noise pollution by seismic testing, ocean vessels and more on marine species that depend on sonar for communication, navigation and finding food sources. "Oceana" will be accompanied by a film created by diver/underwater explorer Annie Crawley, who explores the relationship between humans and marine life as well as the oceans' beauty and fragility.
"She's actually out there swimming with the whales and taking pictures of the whales," Sung said of Crawley's footage.
Both the composer and the filmmaker will be in the audience for Saturday's concert. It's an official event of Cuyahoga50, a yearlong initiative that marks 50 years of working to improve the quality of the Cuyahoga River by bringing people together to spur future efforts through storytelling, discussion and debate.
The concert will also feature Debussy’s masterpiece "La Mer," in which he translates into music the sea's awesome power, and Samuel Barber’s "Adagio for Strings," accompanied by the photographic essay "Then and Now, Changes from Above and Below" that documents melting glaciers in Alaska and the Alps and the demise of corals in the Caribbean. Bernard Herrmann’s dramatic cantata "Moby Dick" will feature baritone Brian Keith Johnson and tenor Timothy Culver.
Audience members can participate using the free Oceana Music & Sounds app, which has a whale icon. Download it to your iPhone before the concert. During the performance, the audience will be cued to activate the app, play an animal sound or sounds of their choice and raise their phones in solidarity for marine conservation.
"Oceana" was commissioned for the Boston Landmark Orchestra, whose music director is Christopher Wilkins, also maestro for the Akron Symphony. The piece, which premiered in Boston in August, stemmed from a unique inspiration.
In spring 2016, Sung and Wilkins attended a lecture at the New England Aquarium about the problems of ocean noise pollution, given by marine biologists Scott Kraus of the aquarium and Christopher Clark of Cornell University.
"This actually is the first piece that I've ever done that has kind of a cause," said Sung, director of the Center for Research and Education in Arts, Technology and Entertainment at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "I was so taken by this lecture that we heard."
She previously worked with Wilkins as the first composer in residence for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra when he was music director there. The Akron Symphony performed her "Rockwell Reflections" in 2007 and "Lincoln's Battle" in 2011.
After the aquarium lecture, Sung began some research. She said we can't prove that ocean noise pollution is making whales go deaf. But it is disorienting them and causing them to run into the paths of ships.
"[Whales] have these migrating patterns and they know where they're supposed to go. What happens is with all this noise, it's like having your traffic lanes all sort of jumbled up," she said.
In "Oceana," Sung uses primarily sounds from whales, dolphins and bearded seals, which she said make an "almost sci-fi" sound. She found most of the sounds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from Cornell and from filmmaker Crawley's microphone.
"It is actually hard to find good samples of these marine sounds which have not already been doctored by somebody else," Sung said.
The marine life sounds and seismic gun blasts run like a soundtrack under Sung's entire piece. The blasts are used for gas and oil exploration.
"When they're doing this, it happens every 10 seconds, 24/7, for months," Sung said.
The work's first section explores the beauty, majesty and mystery of the seas and the life forms that live there. The second, distressed section illustrates man-made disturbances in that ecosystem. The final section presents hope that humans can find a balance living alongside the oceans and marine life.
"If we can't stop the shipping, can we mitigate the noise?" by engineering quieter engines, Sung wondered. "With technology, we can find ways."
In Akron Saturday, "Oceana" will be performed for just the second time. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra will perform it March 2.
Sung has revised the piece since its Boston debut because she felt something was missing. The original ending was big and wonderful. The revised ending is still grand but now she has added "just a tinge of darkness back into it" and the work ends on an unresolved dominant seventh chord.
"It's kind of a musical question mark" accompanied by imagery of whales swimming away from the camera, Sung said.
"The problem [of ocean noise pollution] hasn't gone away. We really haven't solved the problem."
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.