B-flat sends gator into bellowing ecstasy

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On the way to playing tuba for an audience of alligators, William Mickelsen felt cocky enough to talk about his musical chops.

His well-trained jaw muscles, his lips and his tongue felt up to the task. His majestic lungs felt strong and elastic. He and his tuba were ready for whatever reptilian drama lay ahead. The night before, he and his fellow artists in the Florida Orchestra had played at Ruth Eckerd Hall behind composer Marvin Hamlisch, the Oscar winner for The Way We Were. Everything had gone swimmingly.

At Gatorland, the old tourist attraction near Kissimmee, Mickelsen was going to play a deep B flat for a battle-scarred, amorous male alligator named Toxic.

During mating season, alligators are known to do astonishing things. They swim miles looking for mates, crawl over land to find new girlfriends and scrap with other leathery Casanovas that happen along.

In the spring, feisty alligators, usually males, grunt and hiss.

They roar like thunder.

My ambition: to learn whether Toxic and his gator colleagues might answer Mickelsen’s tuba with earth-shaking roars of their own.

If Toxic fell in love with the tuba, or even if he attacked it, we’d have a grand story to tell. Come to think of it, whatever happened would be grand.

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A few months ago I heard an intriguing report on National Public Radio about the musical note B flat and its mysterious role in nature’s soundtrack.

Certain black holes in outer space, reported NPR, hum in the key of B flat. Interesting. But not as interesting as the relationship between B flat and alligators. Play a low B flat just right, the reporter declared, and modern dinosaurs will reply with terrible bellows.

The report was inspired by an obscure study, “Responses of Captive Alligators to Auditory Stimulation, ” conducted at the Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1944. Researchers had discovered by accident that B flat – and no other note – seemed to provoke alligator song. For whatever reason, that low B flat was part of the alligator’s vocabulary.

I called Kent Vliet, the University of Florida’s alligator expert, and told him about our upcoming concert for the dinosaurs. Vliet admitted he had once tried to duplicate the B flat experiment. But nothing happened when his tuba guy started with the oom-pah-pah.

“I suspect it’s bunk, ” Vliet told me.

I refused to be discouraged, seeing how I was headed to Gatorland with a sweet-lipped ringer who could play tuba like Johnny B. Goode had played guitar.

Chuck Berry wrote his rock ‘n’ roll anthem, by the way, in the key of B flat.

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