LISTSERV mailing list manager LISTSERV 16.0

Help for CLASSICAL Archives


CLASSICAL Archives

CLASSICAL Archives


CLASSICAL@COMMUNITY.LSOFT.COM


View:

Message:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

By Topic:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

By Author:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

Font:

Proportional Font

LISTSERV Archives

LISTSERV Archives

CLASSICAL Home

CLASSICAL Home

CLASSICAL  January 2006

CLASSICAL January 2006

Subject:

Some Composers are Birds

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 21 Jan 2006 19:24:42 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (79 lines)

WHY BIRDS SING: A JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF BIRD SONG.  David
Rothenberg.  New York: Basic Books, 2005

Some time ago we had a discussion about whether or not bird song could
be considered music, and I recall Steve Schwartz saying that this depends
on whether birds ever sing just for the hell of it.  Not quite a scientific
formulation of the question, but even the more straightforward wording
in the title of this fascinating book is enough to embarrass scientists,
who are more comfortable with asking "how" rather than "why" about
anything, and who would be hard-pressed actually to prove that even a
fellow human is feeling joy.  Rothenberg, who is both a philosophy
professor and a musician-a classically trained jazz clarinetist and
composer-is strongly inclined to say that bird song is music.  Some birds
actually make up their own songs.  His initial explanation of why male
birds sing-and it is the male which sings--is that female birds like it;
his final explanation is the same as his explanation of why people sing:
because they can.

In between the question and the answer are ten extremely well written
and informative chapters ranging from Rothenberg's personal attempts to
play music with birds, first in the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and
finally in an Australian rain forest (hear the results for yourself at
www.whybirdssing.com) to a chapter on composers' use of birdsong, from
Vivaldi to Messiaen (I had not known that the latter produced a seven-volume
treatise including 1200 pages of description of birds' songs), a strictly
scientific account of recent study of the brains of songbirds (in which
Rothenberg expresses ethical misgivings about cutting off birds' heads
after they have "sung their heads off"), and accounts of individual
researchers who wrote hundreds of pages about the songs of particular
birds.  He quotes poets at length and transcribes bird songs in traditional
musical notation, in sonograms and other schemes.

So what is known, or agreed on?  First, not all birds sing, and there
are wide differences among those which do.  Bird calls are distinct from
bird songs.  Calls have meaning and communicate facts such as the presence
of a hawk overhead (and several species have very similar simple cries
for this).  Songs have function but not specific meaning, chiefly in
courtship and in establishing territory.  These may be the exact same
songs, but typically the territorial songs are harsher and briefer and
the courtship songs may be vastly more elaborate and extended than one
would think functionally necessary.  Not only that, but the songs may
exhibit considerable variation within the songs-some birds actually
develop themes-- and may even vary from individual bird to individual
bird, notably in the case of Starlings.  It is the male birds that sing,
as I said, but injections of testosterone in a female will result in her
singing also.  (There is another striking instance of this in the final
chapter which I will not spoil by relating.) Birds sing through both
sides of their syrinx and can sing different notes on each side (a feat
comparable to a double reed player who could produce double stops!) Bird
songs are learned, note by note or phrase by phrase, frequently in
adulthood, not at the busy rearing stage, sometimes as a result of years
of practice, and not always from other birds of the same species.  Here
is where things get really interesting.

Rothenberg discusses several species noted for mimicry which have very
lengthy and varied songs.  The Mockingbird, for instance, can sing for
a half-hour without repetition; transcribed musically, this fills forty
pages.  If you consider that birds typically sing notes twice as fast
as humans can even hear them, this might be equivalent to an hour-long
composition.  A Mockingbird may have a repertoire of 200 basic phrases;
the Brown Thrasher has 2000.  As for inter-species song-making, one
unusual instance cited by Rothenberg is the (European) Marsh Warbler,
which combines song-elements from other European birds with some from
birds from East Africa, where it winters.  Another is a particular
(Australian) Lyre Bird which, kept as a pet by a flute-playing farmer
for a few years before being released to the wild, blended into its
repertoire two, and only two, popular songs from those the flutist had
repeatedly played; thirty years later other Lyre Birds were heard to
have incorporated flutelike imitations of the same songs in their extended
repertoires.

As for bird song being merely functional, that is hard to accept
when it can be shown that female birds-who do the actual choosing of
mates-sometimes make their selection on such criteria as the amount of
territory a male has rather than on the quality of the song.  Also, birds
sing far beyond the nesting season.  Male Marsh Warblers sing when "off
duty" and on sunny days get together in groups of 2-4 to sing together.

Jim Tobin

Top of Message | Previous Page | Permalink

Advanced Options


Options

Log In

Log In

Get Password

Get Password


Search Archives

Search Archives


Subscribe or Unsubscribe

Subscribe or Unsubscribe


Archives

May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
February 2002
January 2002
December 2001
November 2001
October 2001
September 2001
August 2001
July 2001
June 2001
May 2001
April 2001
March 2001
January 2001
December 2000
November 2000
October 2000
September 2000
August 2000
July 2000
June 2000
May 2000
April 2000
March 2000
February 2000
January 2000
December 1999
November 1999
October 1999
September 1999
August 1999
July 1999
June 1999
May 1999
April 1999
March 1999
February 1999
January 1999
July 1997

ATOM RSS1 RSS2



COMMUNITY.LSOFT.COM

Secured by F-Secure Anti-Virus CataList Email List Search Powered by the LISTSERV Email List Manager