ROCK TO THE ANIMALS MIT PhD candidate Laurel Braitman has had musicians play for sea lions, a burro, and — most recently — a group of gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo.
Gigi was in her late 30s the first time she saw a rock band play. The concert took place outside her enclosure, at 8:30 in the morning, so it wouldn't interfere with Franklin Park Zoo's usual visiting hours. Gigi lumbered out on her knuckles as soon as she noticed San Franciscan all-female indie trio Grass Widow setting up their instruments. The instruments were shiny, and Gigi watched with interest.
Then, as Grass Widow banged out surfish, crispy post-punk, Gigi ran around, punched a plastic toy, and slapped the glass. Basically, she seemed to be rocking out. The other gorillas in the Tropical Forest display sat and listened politely.
To understand why Grass Widow was playing for gorillas, you have to start with Laurel Braitman, a MIT PhD candidate who met Grass Widow's bassist, Hannah Lew, last year at a wedding. Braitman decided the band would be perfect for her Music for Animals project, in which she arranges for musicians to play for non-human audiences.
Braitman says the project isn't related to her dissertation, and isn't a scientific experiment. "I'm doing this because I am compelled to," she wrote in an e-mail. "I am curious about nonhuman minds and I am also a historian interested in performance, spectacle, and the exhibition of creatures. These [concerts] are not stunts. These are not to make money. Maybe at this point, I can really just tell you what they're not."
Braitman got the idea when she stumbled upon an 1897 article about the musical preferences of various animals. But Braitman detected a human-centric slant in that article. She wanted to take a different approach.
"The direction I wanted to go with it was, rather than playing music for animals and making that a show, to play shows for animals who are usually shows themselves," says Braitman, who is writing a book, Animal Madness, about nonhuman mental disorders.
"We tend to think animals will appreciate classical music the most, but that's a very human idea," she says. "There is no human music, or dog music, or parrot music. I don't think there's a universally applicable music for any certain species. I think they have individual likes and dislikes."
Despite a total absence of funding, Braitman has yet to be refused by any musician she's tapped to play for beasts. She has arranged for guitarist Jason Holt to play a gig for sea lions in Northern California, and enlisted Pete Frauenfelder of honky-punkers Trainwreck Riders to perform for a lonely miniature burro named Mac. (Turns out Mac really likes bluegrass standards.) Braitman is currently planning for a yet-to-be-determined act to serenade some giraffes, and a full-blown multi-band festival for a pack of hyenas.
Braitman figured the predominantly female group of gorillas might identify with Grass Widow's highly percussive tunes.
"The iconic image of the gorilla is the male gorilla beating his chest to make a deeply resonant sound. They also use slapping to convey information to each other," Braitman says.
"I thought the band's percussion would be interesting to them, and Lilly (Lillian Maring) is a great drummer."