Howling with wolves: A classical pianist’s testimony

From Orion Magazine: Wolves actually harmonize their voices with us, says Helene Grimaud. “When a human joins in a howl and his pitch lands on the same note, wolves will alter their pitch to prolong the harmonization. If you end up on the same pitch as a wolf, he‘ll modulate his voice to match yours.”

Brenda Peterson, Orion Magazine

IN THE 1990s, the internationally acclaimed French classical pianist Hélène Grimaud had an encounter with a captive she-wolf. “The wolf was life itself,” she wrote in her memoir, Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves. “[It was] more biting than the frost. Life itself, with an incredible intensity.”

In 1996, Grimaud cofounded the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in New Salem, New York, which since 2003 has helped to breed Mexican and red wolves and release them into the wild. Some of WCC’s most popular educational events are “Howl for Pups of All Ages” and “Howl for Adults,” during which people can blend their voices with wolves’ calls.

“Why do wolves answer our human howls?” I ask Grimaud during a recent phone conversation.

She speaks in thoughtful bursts and riffs, as if following some musical score in her mind that is scrawled over with notes on wolf science. “Perhaps wolves are generously nondiscriminating,” she says wryly. “One of the things that makes working with any wild animal so interesting and humbling is that you have to interact with them on their terms. Often they are quite forgiving of our bumbling attempts to connect in a proper and dignified way, in wolf terms. It could just be that the wolves interpret humans howling as an invasive threat from another pack. So the wolves want to advertise that this territory is already occupied.”

Do wolves ever just sing to make music, as we do?

“One of the most intriguing elements of wolf howling is what scientists call social glue,” Grimaud explains, adding, “This spreading of good feeling like humans singing around a campfire, feeling closer to one another—it’s that same idea: you howl or harmonize and so reaffirm your social bonds with one another. That’s not surprising. Any pack animal really depends upon the others to survive.”

Certainly, humans are social pack animals. We are also profoundly moved by music, especially by making music together. That’s why the word harmony relates both to music and to relations between people and groups of people. When we hear human music, we physically attune to that vibration; when we sing together, we blend our voices, matching thirds and fifths and sometimes deliberate, clashing dissonance. We try to fit and find our part in the greater chorus.

Wolves actually harmonize their voices with ours. “Have you noticed,” Grimaud asks me, “that when a human—who is less naturally gifted in that wolf language—joins in a howl and his pitch lands on the same note, the wolves will alter their pitch to prolong the harmonization? It’s very interesting. If you end up on the same pitch as a wolf, he will scale up or down, modulating his voice with yours.”

Does this mean that animals also seek to blend with or are attracted to our music?

“When you practice your piano,” I ask Grimaud, “do the wolves join in your music by howling along?”

During the seasons when Grimaud lived next to the WCC in upstate New York, she didn’t notice any exact correlation between the wolves’ howling and her piano. “Their howling was random, coincidental with my playing,” she says with a laugh. “But there was one foster wolf pup who seemed to react to violin music when she heard my recordings. She’d come out of her den and raise her head and howl along to the violin strings. There definitely seemed to be a relationship there.”

“If you were going to compose a concerto for a wolf audience,” I ask Grimaud, “would it be a love song, a requiem?”

I am thinking about the elegy a composer might create for the Judas wolves, those solitary survivors of lethal hunts who are repeatedly radio-tagged and then targeted again to betray the location of their next family for a kill. Imagine surviving so much loss.

“I’ve never been asked that question before,” she says. Grimaud is silent for a while, then adds pensively, “Probably I’d choose music with a sense of longing. That’s always what I think when I hear wolves howling. Endless longing.”

Brenda Peterson is the author of Build Me an Ark and Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves, the book from which this piece is adapted, out now from Da Capo Press.

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