Hometown: Vancouver, BC
Dates in Sitka: 2015-05
During her month-long residency at the Island Institute, singer-songwriter Leah Abramson plans to work on a collaborative songwriting project that explores the lives of Pacific Northwest resident orcas. For the past eight years, Leah has worked as a singer-songwriter and band member in various musical ensembles where she has released four studio albums of original songs, and contributed to dozens of other recordings as a songwriter, vocalist, and multiinstrumentalist. Abramson also works as an adjunct professor at The University of British Columbia, where she has been teaching a songwriting and lyric workshop since 2012.
For almost 40 years, scientists at OrcaLab, a research facility on Hanson Island, B.C., have been recording and tracking the vocalizations of orcas with the help of underwater hydrophones. In “collaboration” with pods of northern resident orcas, whose vocalizations have been recorded and are available online in a database of recordings, Abramson will be writing songs for a thematic album. Using these vocalizations as a guide, she will create a musical vocabulary that informs the album’s rhythms and melodies with real patterns and themes from orca calls, whistles, clicks, and squeals. In part she will accomplish this by the use of the Theremin, an electro-acoustic instrument that can mimic orca sounds quite remarkably.
Though there has been much media attention on whales in captivity—a great number of whom were captured from Pacific Northwest pods—the plight of wild orcas has received far less attention. Though classified as a “threatened” species, and still recovering from past captures and killings, resident orcas face threats of environmental contamination, loss of food stocks (salmon, in the case of resident orcas), physical injury from marine vessels, as well as the ongoing effects of underwater sound pollution, a concern for whales that use sound for navigation and are sensitive to loud volumes. By listening to the same orca family through thirty-plus years of vocalizations, Abramson hopes to document how the acoustic environment is changing in relation to these threats, and use these findings in her work.
By using scientific research methods to inform an album of songs, Abramson’s project aims to bring marine environmental protection into the public discourse. In using music, a feature of both human and orca worlds, she seeks a two-way mirror that shows humans and orcas in relation to each other, highlighting the importance of issues such as environmental contamination for the survival of both species. As highly intelligent species with culture and language, humans and orcas might have more in common than we readily admit. Research into the impact of trauma on animals and humans will also inform the tone and content of the project.
Though she is researching B.C.’s northern resident orcas, she expects that her project will also connect with coastal peoples in the USA that are host to whale populations. Some orcas travel the length of the B.C. coast and into Alaska, and she looks forward to learning more about the whale populations around Sitka, and spending time in their environment.
In addition to her work, Abramson looks forward to engaging with the community in Sitka and hosting songwriting workshops. As a songwriting instructor at The University of British Columbia, Girls Rock Camp Vancouver, as well as at The Fraser Valley Institution for Women, she has taught songwriting and music to people from all walks of life. She is continuing this teaching in Sitka with a series of weekly songwriting workshops that culminate in a showcase performance for the participants.