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MBARI and Grace Cathedral partner on sound bath showcasing the ocean soundscape

In honor of Earth Day, Grace Cathedral has partnered with MBARI for a special sound bath that will immerse participants in the ocean soundscape and world music. Image courtesy of Over Power Productions

MBARI and Grace Cathedral partner on sound bath showcasing the ocean soundscape

The ocean echoes with a complex and continuously changing mosaic of sound. This underwater soundscape offers a wealth of information about ocean life and health, and serves as a source of inspiration.

A new collaboration invites audiences to immerse themselves in the serenity of the ocean. On Monday, April 24, 2023, San Francisco’s historic Grace Cathedral will host a special Earth Day sound bath, featuring music by Bay Area music collective Fractals of Sound and the voices of the deep recorded by MBARI.

“Whales are Earth’s largest musical composers. They sing powerfully into the vast sea where their voices travel great distances. The ocean’s vastness and fluidity will be recreated on land in Grace Cathedral by Fractals of Sound as they weave voices of ocean life into their beautiful compositions. MBARI is excited and grateful to bring local ocean recordings to the wonderful acoustic art form of the sound bath in this collaboration,” said John Ryan, a biological oceanographer at MBARI who leads our Ocean Soundscape Team.

Four musicians seated in front of the altar of Grace Cathedral with musical instruments. The altar is illuminated with white and blue lights.
Each month, Grace Cathedral partners with Bay Area music collective Fractals of Sound and special guests for a sound bath rooted in world music and meditation in the historic gothic cathedral. Image courtesy of Graham Holoch

“Grace Cathedral is delighted to bring this unique sound bath experience to honor Earth Day. We hope the underwater sounds will help others realize how much we share this planet equally and that we must continue to be vigilant in practice and find ways to preserve and protect our ocean,” said Eva Woo Slavitt, canon for marketing and communications at Grace Cathedral.

Since 2015, MBARI has been recording ocean sounds with an underwater microphone, or hydrophone, installed off the California coast. This trove of acoustic data has helped us understand the behavior and ecology of whales so that we can better protect them. Ocean sound is a powerful way for people to connect with these magnificent life forms that dwell largely beneath the waves and beyond our senses.

“The booming bellows of blue whales can tell us so much about the behavior and ecology of these majestic mammals. They’re gigantic foodies—communicating with each other about the best foraging opportunities in the region. And when it is time to move each year from foraging habitat off California to breeding habitat at lower latitudes, they change how they sing,” explained Ryan. “Analyzing the sounds they produce fascinates me as a scientist, and feeling their sounds reminds me of the deep connections among all life on Earth.”

Every month, Grace Cathedral welcomes Fractals of Sound—a collective of top Bay Area musicians Egemen Sanli, Phoenix Song, and Sam Jackson—and guest musicians for an immersive sound bath. The gothic cathedral’s unique acoustics, soaring nave, and jewel-like stained-glass windows set the stage for a deeply meditative sonic journey.

Sound bath participants seated in church pews and lying on the floor on yoga mats. The nave of Grace Cathedral is in the background and illuminated by purple light.
Whether lying on the floor or seated in a pew, the sound bath in Grace Cathedral is a one-of-a-kind, whole-body experience. The gothic architecture creates a space for a deeply meditative sonic journey. Image courtesy of Over Power Productions

In honor of Earth Day, Fractals of Sound will weave ocean sounds recorded by MBARI’s acoustic technology into the night’s music compositions. Fractals of Sound will create a soundscape deeply rooted in world music, punctuated by ocean voices. Blue whales, humpback whales, other marine life, and ambient ocean sounds will be the guest “musicians” for the evening.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to collaborate with MBARI and feature nature’s voice in the unique acoustics of Grace Cathedral for this Earth Day sound bath,” said Jackson.

In March, Jackson visited MBARI’s research facilities in Moss Landing, California, to explore our library of hydrophone recordings. Jackson and Ryan first found the featured “voices” for the sound bath. Next, Fractals of Sound integrated these recordings into an ambient, experiential sound pad created in collaboration with Timothy Dixon, a gifted musician and highly-skilled sound engineer. The sound pad is the underlying canvas of the evening’s music composition. Fractals of Sound will embellish and interweave live instruments throughout. Crystal bowls, gongs, guitar, esraj, and vocals will blend with the voices of ocean residents to create a fully immersive oceanic sound bath.

The evening will start with the sounds of the shoreline. The sounds of ambient waves, seabirds, and sea lions will wash over the audience as they enter Grace Cathedral. The sound bath will then venture underwater, guided by the clicks of dolphins. The songs of humpback whales will weave with gongs, a didgeridoo, crystal bowls, guitar, esraj, vocals, and other world instruments. The calls of the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, will guide the listeners deeper and deeper. You will feel as much as hear the ultra-low frequencies of the blue whale’s bellows moving through the cathedral during a segment with the gongs. In the final section, Fractals of Sound will bring participants back to the shore.

“This unique sound bath will leave participants rested and filled with the echoes and vibrations of our fellow Earth residents. We hope each attendee will leave with a newfound respect for the gentle giants that dwell in the ocean’s depths, and a renewed gratitude for this place we mutually call home,” said Jackson.

For ocean enthusiasts unable to attend the upcoming sound bath, MBARI streams live underwater audio to the Soundscape Listening Room. The live soundscape can be full of ocean “voices”—from the complex song compositions of humpback whales to the chatter of dolphin pods—and the listening room also includes archived sounds.

Side view of the flukes of a blue whale as it dives below the ocean’s surface. Photographed on an overcast day with a gray sky and still, gray water.
The booming vocalizations of the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) not only help scientists understand the ecology of this endangered species but also inspire ocean stewardship. Image courtesy of William Oestreich (NMFS Permit 16111)

Sound is a natural way for people to experience and learn about the marine environment and the ocean inhabitants that produce sound. MBARI’s unique audio recordings also inspire the public about the wonders of the ocean.

The Ocean Soundscape Team has worked with NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to support educational exhibits at the Sanctuary Exploration Center in Santa Cruz, California. Numerous academic and non-profit partners have incorporated underwater audio from MBARI in exhibitions at other venues. A mobile sound system enriches invited lectures and presentations, such as the recent Whalefest Monterey 2023 symposium, with the sounds of marine life. And MBARI’s recordings have traveled the world with the Sounds of the Ocean, an immersive experience that blends art, music, dance, and multimedia for ocean conservation.

Open access to scientific data is a fundamental value for MBARI. As part of our commitment to open collaboration, the original audio recordings from the Ocean Soundscape Team are also available through the Pacific Ocean Sound Recordings project via the Registry of Open Data on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud.

“A healthy ocean is essential for all life on Earth, but the ocean now faces a growing number of threats. Our team hopes that hearing the symphony of underwater sounds inspires care for the ocean and connection with its incredible inhabitants. Whether experiencing the ocean soundscape at a sound bath, in a museum exhibition, or by analyzing open data, we invite everyone to join us on our journey of ocean exploration, science, and stewardship” said Ryan.

Learn more about this event and purchase tickets.

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