An album of songs inspired by animals doesn’t sound immediately promising. It brings to mind certain cassette tapes from my youth, featuring bearded men singing earnest ballads about the banana slug (not a joke; I actually had that tape).
But Songs for Unusual Creatures, by composer Michael Hearst, is a beast of a different color. If you popped it into your player without any context at all, you’d hear a catchy, rhythmic cross between classical music and jazz, threaded with eerie theremin solos and digeridoo bass lines. It’s the kind of music you might play on endless loop while you study, work out, or write (ahem). Lots of syncopation and kooky instruments, as well as clear melodies, keep the sonic landscape interesting. (You can see Hearst perform one of the songs above.)
But it’s not just pretty sounds. Each track on the CD draws its inspiration from one of 15 unusual creatures, the kind of evolution-honed weirdoes that readers of this blog and science writers like myself enjoy so much, like the blue-footed booby, the Chinese giant salamander, the honey badger, and the humpback anglerfish. Each of these animals is profoundly odd—the tardigrade (track 11), for example, is one of the few creatures that can survive the vacuum of space—and their eponymous songs are also distinctively strange. “Dugong,” about the cigar-shaped, seagrass-grazing marine mammals, is a spacey, blue little tune. “Tardigrade” sounds like the love child of a Gypsy circus band and a jazz quartet.
Hearst, who is a leader of the experimental band One Ring Zero (and is also a writer), has worked on this kind of loosely programmatic music before, notably the One Ring Zero album Planets, and he suggests reading about each of the creatures while listening. (Handily enough, a companion book, Unusual Creatures, will be published by Chronicle in October.)
From the point of view of one composer I shared the CD with, the songs don’t always have a great deal of depth. It’s true, they can lapse into mere onomatopoetic evocations of the creatures’ movement. But the best ones, like “Dugong” and “Honey Badger,” riff on the creatures rather than mimicking them. For most listeners, including me, this inventiveness, along the whimsical orchestration and catchy tunes, are depth enough.
Weird animals, like those banana slugs immortalized by the bearded men, may seem to some people the province of children. I’ve found that animals, especially weird ones, are significantly more fascinating when you’re an adult. Once you understand the phenomenal time—not to mention carnage—that has gone into the evolution of a creature like the aye-aye or the anglerfish, they make far bigger impression on you than they might on a kid who’s still disappointed by the lack of unicorns and dragons, and not yet blown away by the Jesus Christ lizard. Think of the incredible forces that made walking on water a life-saving skill while you listen, and you’ll be rapt.