Making Music With Birds: A Springtime Musical Survey

Making Music With Birds: A Springtime Musical Survey



The first birds of the season are starting to chirp here in Minnesota after a long winter and lots of snow. Months and months of a silent winter landscape creates a craving for life out there in the world. Like insects buzzing in the trees and leafs shaking in the wind, excited birds are a welcome sound. I would even call it an unconscious craving. The moment the sounds come back, you realize how much you missed them. It is so sacred a sound, viewers of the Masters golf tournament are once again doubting the veracity of the bird calls heard in the CBS coverage. Beyond the quantity and volume of birds in the spring and summer soundscape, their calls and songs are more complex than most other animal species. They deserve our interest, even though we don’t quite understand them. This is the beauty of the human-bird relationship, like so many other human-animal crossovers. The birds’ understanding of us is nonexistent, and though we’d like to think we understand them well, we’re totally unequipped to speak intelligently on their “music making.” The best we can do is frame it in our terms, and that in itself has always yielded interesting results.

I assure you that this is in no way scientific. To attempt that would be foolish of me, so think of it instead as a curious and non-judgmental survey of some special encounters between us and the birds. There are zoomusicologists out there who study the subject, and that is a deep and fertile field in itself. In this sampling of musical styles, I mostly want to recognize the endless contributions of our friends, the birds. They have followed the path of animals in every type of art: first a curiosity, then a resource, and finally a serious consideration. Have they changed at all during this process? I think they haven’t, and I doubt they think of themselves as serious artists. You can compare this to the use of animals in film because animals simply cannot act. I mean that not as a critical take-down of dogs and cats, but instead a sad truth. We have gotten very good at pretending animals act, and we can supplement their efforts with computer-generated imagery, but a dog does not dream of being a movie star.

You’ll see a push and pull between a naturalistic view of animal music (they are beings that operate on their own secret terms) and a humanistic view (inviting them as equal contributors and supplements to our jazz, our classical, our rock, etc.). This is complicated still by the last century of recorded music. We have the real sounds of animals at our disposal. Field recordings are of use to musicians of all sorts, not just interested scientists. Let’s listen to some historical and contemporary highlights from our musical landscape. First, a complete imitation of the sounds, then a cross-section of bird noise as texture, and finally birds as respected collaborators. Listen along, and if it’s warm enough, open your window to the birds!


Swan taking off, photo by Barry Skeates

Imitation was the original human-bird musical encounter by necessity, and humans have long tried to approximate the birdic language. It’s a borrowing that tells us a lot about the way we translate unfamiliar sounds. When a sound is taken from the ear and put to paper or into a french horn, there must be a loss. Something about the bird is no more. But what goes away? Whittling away the music to find that empty space of a bird mystery is a fun exercise. What fits nicely into the human mode of music composition? Is this really birdsong boiled down its components? Likely no, but it’s a genre all its own. Here are some explosive imitations.

Charles Mingus’ “Bird Calls” from his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um is, surprisingly, not about Charlie Parker (AKA Bird). Said Mingus: “It was supposed to sound like birds—the first part.” Before it moves onto the more varied solos, it introduces a frenetic bird impression. It hits a blistering run again and again, and its biggest success is in making the refrain sound unbounded. It’s contained not just by the written notes, but also by the tonal quality. Every part of the hook is planned to make sure it’s repeatable. Mingus’ skill in and writings about composing is well known. In his famous liner notes to Let My Children Hear Music, he writes that a musician “can play with feeling and have no melodic concept at all,” and “I have found very little value left after the average guy takes his first eight bars…” He rails against the idea that everything is, or should be, invented, and presents his own criteria for good composition. There is a beauty in a phrase that wears itself out. I mention all this because writing an imitation bird call carries the dual challenges of imitating spontaneity and making the phrase cohere melodically. The result is a call that sounds like it could continue on forever, but it doesn’t. It shows up and disappears relatively quickly.

This next one is the finale to Jean Sibelius’ fifth symphony, and it includes one of the most often borrowed melodies in music: the swan call motif. You might have heard it in the theme to Interstellar or in Gorillaz’s “On Melancholy Hill.” But when thinking of it strictly as a bird imitation, it’s an abstract success. The triumphs of this classic theme are really the triumphs of bird evocation. It does not set out to be a grotesque mime of a bird, because those endeavors too often fail. Instead, it’s a reflection on the act of looking at the birds. Again, it relies on the philosophy of composing. Is the music translating, and if so, what is it substituting? The composer’s many influences and instruction in Western music education all came together to provide human parallels to a scene that is purely a matter of life for the birds. A rising melody is akin to a rising gaze, and the slowness and grandeur of it imitates the faraway perch of the observer. It’s joyfully inaccessible, only showing the existence of the great beauty out there. You also have to credit the swans for their outstanding behavior and inspiration, but even I must concede the symphony would not play well to an audience of birds. In this case, the music only plays to one half. It isn’t “for the birds.”

This one from early electronic duo Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley sounds the least like a bird out of the whole bunch here. I adore every part of it, but I think its best asset is actually the loping quality of the rhythm. The obvious imitation through the growls and chirps of the keyboards is still lovely, and the imitation of a menagerie of mechanical birds with 1966 technology is impressive, but the thing that still sounds fresh is the obliviousness of the bird. It’s everywhere in this song. Every phrase is measured out and marked, things repeat exactly, and there are few total surprises. But much like the routines of a bird, or those of any animal, it sounds utterly confused. The electronic birds don’t really go anywhere and they have no sense of purpose. Passages fade and come back, and you could listen to this on repeat for hours without losing the feeling.

There’s also the curious fact that this piece sets out to describe a bird as poetic as the swan as it splashes into the water. As imitations go, this one recognizes its playfulness. I credit these two with embracing electronic novelty at a time when it was just as easy to take it into the avant-garde (stay tuned). In the end, the sounds are more duck-ish than swan-ish (maybe as misdirection). Much has been said about the uncanny valley being an unsettling thing for artificial renderings of living things, but these squawks and creaks belong to that bit of the curve before it even becomes the least bit likeable. It’s hard to identify these sounds as birds without a bit of help from the title, but it’s still true to the life of a bird.


Ryuichi Sakamoto in the woods, still from Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017)

We’re lucky enough to have been born at a time in which we may pick any sound and manipulate it freely. There are countless collections of catalogued bird calls and bird songs, and there’s value in both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Local birds are always dear to one’s heart, but foreign birds are new and exciting. Check out The Lyrebird: A Documentary Study of Its Song or Birds World of Song for a sampling of some fine classic recordings. But in pursuing the ever-changing relationship between a human and their bird subject, we have to look at the second remove: the manipulated bird call. After a sound is recorded, the artist owns just the sound. The bird part of it is another loss in the process. So, at the same time that it becomes more and more “exact,” it becomes distinctly less bird-ish. The main thing I listen for in these types of sounds is the use of context. How far removed from the source sound is the music? How are we supposed to hear the bird? What status does it have in the recording? To start, here’s a piece that uses an early version of sampling and makes you wonder, “Where is the bird?”

Jim Fassett took a leap in joining art music with early electronic in 1960 with Symphony of the Birds. Based on his execution of the record, it seems he envisioned an orchestra of singing birds, each with its own seat in a section. Using minute changes with physical tapes, Fassett moved beyond his previous novelty music into a new novelty so unnerving it loses its easy listening quality. It gives the birds a thinking mind, all working together in perfect order with some kind of terrifying goal in mind. Maybe it’s not a scary agenda, but it has some sinister tone to it I can’t quite pin down.

His “symphony” reveals one of the biggest gaps between human composers and avian composers. It has to do with repetition. A bird will repeat a call or song again and again, without variation. Traditional compositional thinking demands an arc to a phrase and place for that phrase within a piece (think Mingus). When a call has no beginning or end, it becomes someone like Jim Fassett’s job to give it a place. So, we get an entirely new context and calls are slowed down and harmonized with deep resonances of other calls. At its most uncanny, the bird sounds like it knows its soloing over a orchestral arrangement. The pauses lose their natural mystery and sound so considered that you wonder if you’ve misheard every natural bird call up to this point. The birds are malleable and they follow the instructions of their conductor. The repetition that makes birds such a textural sound to human ears and such a complete part of background noise is manipulated by Fassett to take us in the opposite direction.

Fast forward to 2018 and things are in a very different place with regards to sampling. We’ve been through fads and changes, and now it becomes an exercise in itself to pick apart recorded texture. Paula Matthusen and Olivia Valentine put together an audiovisual exhibition, but here we can focus on just the audio component. The narrative coherence is removed from a recording that is labeled so sparsely it seems it just came from the recorder. The album this is from, Between Systems and Grounds, takes all sorts of outdoor sounds and manipulates them with the resonances from indoor spaces. What the listener ends up hearing is not a document, and it’s not “true” recording, despite all the cues otherwise. Still, we are given an extremely definite context with respect to the source material. Date and time are given out freely, and we may choose what we do with this information. It’s straight from the bird’s mouth, as they say. But also not at all.

A different kind of texture is the bird tape played in Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus,” a concerto for birds and orchestra. Of all the human and bird matchups I’ve heard, this is the closest to a tonal match. The composed music is endlessly emotive and very romantic, and the complement of the recorded bird calls doesn’t stick out. It doesn’t fade into the background and I love how present in the mix it is. You can hear the birds cawing over the instruments in each movement, setting up a real relationship between orchestra and animals. Their concerns are given first priority, it seems. This piece premiered in 1972, but I have to here mention Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome utilizing a phonograph recording of nightingales in 1924. This is the first usage of recorded audio supplementing a performance, and it surely set a precedent.

A final concrete texture to mention here is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “walker.” Sakamoto has such a deep and specific regard for sounds that I had to include this from his 2017 album async. It’s a stunning piece of work all around, but “walker” in particular both draws attention to his field recording quest and captures the environment around him. Birds high in the trees are definitely secondary, but it’s their presence that alerts us of the programmatic aspect of the piece (a walk, that is). Leaves and twigs crackle underfoot, and the electronics in the background don’t so much imitate nature as underscore the walker’s anxious steps. Sakamoto has described the whole project as a film score for an imaginary Andrei Tarkovsky film, and the kind of layering he does to evoke visuals would be incomplete without the birds. For a musician as concerned with each sound, the birds must be far from accidental. They are a mental cue to transport the listener to the walk, and it works ever so well.

The birds are also the only thing left undisturbed by the recording. You can watch Sakamoto walk through the forest collecting sounds in the frankly transcendental documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, and the textures really come alive. Everything you hear is placed exactly as it is in the source of the recordings. The forest floor breaks around the walker, and you could ask if that presence influences the sounds of the birds. However, I get the sense that the landscape and the birds have never, and will never, try to respond to that stimulus.


Nightingales, photo by Richard Crossley

The deepest depths of human-bird music contain performances that put human and animal on a single stage, wherever that may be. They are uncommon and usually accompanied by a kind of mysticism which presumes the animal and human will connect through the vehicle of proximity. I will only consider two here, but there are many more. One big name I won’t touch on is David Rothenberg, who plays music with all types of animals, including insects, whales, and birds. This is something you can try for yourself with any animal. Playing along with another type of consciousness may teach you some useful musical techniques, and it helps to go into it with an open mind.

Jim Nollman’s Playing Music With Animals is described as “interspecies communications.” Whether or not the turkeys are responding to the refrain is open to interpretation, but there is an audible response from the 300 turkeys. Nollman waits long enough for them to respond in the way only they can, then continues with his traditional folk music. We get to access the joy and the newness of this encounter secondhand, and that reaction is amusing if not also enlightening.

The final collaboration I wish to highlight is Beatrice Harrison and the nightingales in her garden. Theirs is a beautiful story that you can find told in more detail elsewhere, but here you hear Harrison playing near the woods by her house. She had the clout as a famous cellist in the 1920s to get BBC engineers to broadcast her performances with nightingales live on the radio. Here, she plays Antonín Dvořák‘s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” a half-melancholy, nostalgic tune that radio listeners must have wept to at the time. Harrison’s pauses feel as though they are reaching out to the birds, listening and not overstepping the weight of the piece. She gives due time to the nightingales, who love to sing and play as much as her cello. Much of the joy surely came from transporting the listener to a secret garden where art and nature meet. The double song performed by this duo is as inventive as it is affecting.

I will never understand the life of a bird, and likely we will never reach a point of perfect empathy with a crow or a turkey, but what can we do but listen to our animal neighbors for inspiration and pretty notes? The attempt to cross over and access something secret will always be an invigorating challenge, and the best we can hope to do is not discount the birds. I am watching a bird outside my window fluttering to the top of a tree, and I can’t tell if it is making any sound. I hope it is, but I would hate to impress myself upon it. Sometimes it’s okay for us and the birds to say nothing at all.


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