Monday, June 27, 2016

Birdsong and music

I hear these guys, called alternately a Brazilian, South American, or red-crested cardinal, outside my window every morning. Their song sounds like an ornamented descending mi-re-do. From Mike's Birds under a CC license.

As I've written about on this blog before, I personally love birdsong and often try and identify birds by the sounds they make (though I am not anywhere near as good as this guy). If you are also interested in birdsong and its connection with music, I recommend listening to this 30-minute radio program recently produced by the BBC and part of the series “The Listening Service”:

Although the title of the program (or should I write “programme”?) is “is birdsong music?”, BBC reporter Tom Service instead spends most of his time answering the question: “how has birdsong been used in Western classical music throughout the years?” Though it is not the stated question, it is also a good question, and of course Service does an excellent review on the music of Messiaen, a 20th-century French composer who spent much of his career translating birdsong in to concert music.

Personally, I’ve found Messiaen’s birdsong-inspired music difficult to listen to, somewhat because it was an attempt to take something we don’t understand and try to create some order on it without changing it too much, resulting in very static-sounding music. Birdsong, though, is something that humans often feel like we should understand, because it is all around us and has influenced the way we write music ourselves. But, as this program makes clear, we don’t know birdsong's purpose, and what’s more, we don’t actually hear it very well: “Birdsong is too fast, too high, for us to understand.” While I disagree slightly with the reasoning the program presents as to why this is the case (size or heartbeat really doesn’t make a difference; the speed of audio wave sampling is much more important), it is true that besides not understanding what birdsong means, we can’t even hear it or reproduce it very well.

Instead, birdsong “becomes translated by us” into music. I think this is why I, like Service, enjoy Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” even if it has very little to do with the actual sounds a lark makes—he uses bird-inspired sounds and creates a symbol of the peace and freedom of nature, but doesn’t try to re-create it.

When Service finally get the to the question (“is birdsong music?”) in minute 25, he hasn’t really analyzed the issue, or even defined the terms in the question, but just dismisses it as “false”, even when no proof has been made against at least some birdsong being music to birds (why wouldn’t attracting a mate be artistic?). Still, it is an interesting listen and I would recommend it, especially to anyone fascinated by birdsong.

One more caveat: While I don’t particularly like author Bernie Krause’s metaphor of the great animal orchestra, especially the comparison with taking the strings out of Beethoven 5th, I do understand what he’s saying about birds filling communication niches—animals using sounds to communicate have to differentiate from other animals, so that their message can get across. Which is kind of like orchestration, except formed by competition and instead of consonance. So, kind of the opposite, actually. (I don't think Service really likes the idea, either.)

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