16 Musical Odes To Very Strange Animals The latest album from Brooklyn musician Michael Hearst (best known as a member of One Ring Zero) was inspired by the misfits of the natural world.

16 Musical Odes To Very Strange Animals

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CD sleeves usually feature pictures of the musicians, the text of lyrics and copious thanks. The sleeve of Michal Hearst's new CD, "Songs for Unusual Creatures," shows pictures of a blue-footed booby, an elephant shrew, a blobfish, and a humpback anglerfish and more. They're his inspiration, like this song of the solenodon:


SIMON: The solenodon, as you can probably tell from this music, is a snouted, venomous, nocturnal, burrowing, insectivorous mammal. It's really kind of cute in this picture. Michael Hearst has produced an album of music that makes some unusual-looking creatures just a little more accessible. Michael Hearst joins us from member station WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL HEARST: Thanks so much having me, Scott.

SIMON: Why did you write a song for a solenodon?

HEARST: Why did I write a song for a solenodon?

SIMON: Yeah, or is it - wait, forgive me - is it is this the song the solenodon would give voice to if he or she could sing?

HEARST: Exactly. I would say it's more music inspired by these unusual animals, including the solenodon. And, you know, I had to use my imagination a little bit because I have not actually heard the voice of the solenodon. And, to me, I just felt like it needed to be a harmonica-heavy song, which is what you just heard.

SIMON: Now, tell us about the instruments that are making the music, because, I mean, this is not exactly the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

HEARST: One of my big inspirations for this project in general was my love for Camille Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," which for those not familiar, Camille Saint-Saens is a French romantic composer who did this song cycle of songs inspired by usual animals, like the elephant and the kangaroo. And I thought, you know, I love animals but I also love weird instruments. So, when I tried to, you know, work this with unusual animals, like the blue-footed booby and the aye-aye and the honey badger and the Jesus Christ lizard.

SIMON: Let me ask you about your song four, "The Jesus Christ Lizard," which features a toy piano.


HEARST: The Jesus Christ lizard gets this name because of its ability to quickly run across the surface of water. So, its feet are actually webbed, which helps it form water resistance. And the babies can, you know, the lighter ones, can run 40 or 50 feet.


SIMON: You manage to get the Kronos Quartet to perform your piece for the "Aye-Aye." And aye-aye seems to have begun in Madagascar, judging from the scientific name. I think from the picture on your CD it looks a little bit like Mickey Mouse after he caught his tail in an electric socket. Let's listen...

HEARST: That's works.

SIMON: ...the "Aye-Aye," please.


SIMON: Now, what are we hearing there, Mr. Hearst?

HEARST: Well, that is in fact...

SIMON: Kronos Quartet, of course...

HEARST: ...the Kronos Quartet. I've also layered a few of my own gizmos on there. There's some Theremin and the claviola.

SIMON: Theremin is the science-fiction-y sort, wooo-ooo-oo.

HEARST: It is, yeah. It's perhaps the only musical instrument you do not touch to play. Invented in the '20s by Russian scientist Leon Theremin. And, you know, it was really fantastic. I've developed this relationship with the Kronos Quartet over the past several years. And David Harrington, who leads the Kronos Quartet, actually asked me at some point if there is a chance that Kronos Quartet could play on the album. And I said, gee, let me think about that. And, you know, the aye-aye, as you mentioned, it is from Madagascar, and it's a lemur. And one of the amazing things about it is it has this extended middle finger and that it uses to tap on trees to find hollow spots. And when it hears a hollow spot, it then has these rodent-like teeth that it gnaws through the bark and uses that same middle finger to pull the grub out. So, the song starts off with the Kronos Quartet actually tapping on their violins and violas and cellos and then quickly develops into a melody what I would imagine an aye-aye sounds like in the middle of the night in the Madagascar jungle.

SIMON: Did you feel there was some infinity between unusual creatures - or what we consider to be unusual creatures; they might think that we're pretty unusual - and unusual, unaccustomed instruments?

HEARST: There is, certainly. I mean, some of them were almost built for this album, I feel like. In particular, there is one that I use for the "Honey Badger" song, which is the daxophone. And Dax is the German word for dachs, just like dachshund, which means badger. The dachshund was a badger hunter.


HEARST: So, that song needed to have the daxophone, which is this animal-like-sounding instrument. So, yes, ultimately it did feel like, you know, some of these really related. For example, the blobfish, you know, I needed some low...


HEARST: ...deep instruments to do this sort of sad, circus-y waltz.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to the "Blobfish," which, by the way, judging from your drawing, I think he looks a bit like Walter Matthau.



SIMON: Sounds like Walter Matthau.



HEARST: There's two musicians there. It's a contra bassoon - and that's actually tubax, which is essentially in the same range as a contrabass saxophone, but it's, all the pipes are folded and it looks similar to a tuba. But, yeah, the blobfish is a fascinating animal. It's a deep-sea fish, and one of the wonderful things about it is that it basically just hovers over the ocean floor and hardly has any muscles, which doesn't matter. It sits there with its mouth open, waits for brine and debris to float into its body. Blobfish, what a great life. Yeah.


SIMON: Michael Hearst. His new CD is called "Songs for Unusual Creatures." He joined us from Norfolk, Virginia. Thanks so much for being with us.

HEARST: Thanks so much for having me, Scott. I appreciate it.


SIMON: You can see sketches of the animals we mentioned at nprmusic.org.

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