The final track takes a Hermit Thrush song and lets the same opera singer we heard before make an adaptation of it (“beautify” it, in Szöke’s words).
The record was clearly compiled to show that human hearing has many limitations in appreciating bird song at its natural speeds. It seems to say that it is absolutely necessary to alter the music (by slowing it down) in order to be able to derive anything meaningful from the sound patterns themselves. This simple, yet effective technical process helped get Szöke’s message across that birds’ music can be understood in terms of human music.
I have played this record over and over again in the early 1990s and used it in theatrical performances. Some bird songs are slown down an octave at a time (at half, quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth or slower speeds), drawing the listener gradually further into the finer details of the sonic elements of bird calls. Others are played at natural speed and then immediately several octaves slower. At low speeds, some songs turn into a booming melodic pulse, evoking the sounds of a ship’s horn or electronic music. One realizes that our hearing is not equipped to perceive the many fine nuances that birds put into their song. Most of it is lost to our ears.
But what Szöke is showing here is not that the sounds of passerines and humans are made for similar purposes. He remains a bird scientist when he writes:
[We] are able to unambiguously establish that avian music is an independent sub- and pre-human biological sphere of the phenomenon of "music" in the widest (not merely human and artistic) sense of the concept of the word. Bird music exists outside the sphere of arts and is independent of the music of man. Nevertheless, having common philogenetic roots with it, birds have developed musical forms identical with those of human music (first of all of vocal folk music). The evolutionary history of the birds' biological musicality preceded the origins of human music by many millions of years.
Nowadays, and in fact before Szöke’s 1987 record as well, some ornithologists would disagree with the emphasis on the word “music” and all the musical ideas associated with Szöke’s verbal presentation. Szöke remains close enough to ornithology and distant enough from aesthetics to be taken seriously by bird scientists, but his forays into the music-analytical approach did perhaps reduce his impact in ornithological circles. Much of the scientific literature about bird song avoids the term “music” altogether and prefers to talk about communication, signals, vocalizations, phrases, duetting, etcetera.
The French composer and ornithologist François-Bernard Mâche went one step further than Szöke when he conceded, in his book Music, Myth and Nature, that “there is not a single musical procedure which does not have its equivalent or its prototype in one or the other of the innumerable signals of animals.” Mâche is credited to be the founder, in the 1980s, of a branch of music research focused on the animal kingdom, coined zoomusicology. Mâche’s research agenda takes Szöke’s ornithomusicology (coined in 1963) to a broader level of investigation. What Szöke merely implied – at least with his bird record – is made more general and also more explicit by Mâche. General, because it does not just apply to the species for which we, humans, have developed such musical ears; explicit, too, because Mâche wishes to explore the possibility, however tentative at the moment, that addressing musical aspects of animal behavior might reveal an underlying aesthetic sense, a common root of communication through sound that may be widespread across many species. Szöke steered clear of such implications within his research in the quote above, where he asserts that bird music “exists outside the sphere of arts and is independent of the music of man.” Mâche opens the door to a bolder question, where deep interrelationships of human and animal sound making may be suspected. In his 1983 book he wondered,
if it turns out that music is a wide spread phenomenon in several living species apart from man, this will very much call into question the definition of music, and more widely that of man and his culture, as well as the idea we have of the animal itself.
His leads have been followed up after the turn of the millennium with new investigations and a further theoretical underpinning of the discipline that Mâche named. Drawing upon zoosemiotics, ethology, musicology, Mâche’s work and other influences, and sensitive to the implications which the word “music” carries, Dario Martinelli defines zoomusicology as the “aesthetic use of sound communication among animals.” He further writes: “The idea behind this definition is in its several implications. Firstly, one avoids the use of the dangerous word, ‘music’, a concept that must be handled with extreme care, even when related to just human activity, but does not avoid another dangerous word, ‘aesthetic’.” (Martinelli 2008) He further places zoomusicology squarely within the humanities, as a “musicology of animals,” and not within one of the natural sciences and puts more emphasis on the new discipline’s own “analytical tools and theoretical reflections” than on presenting new hard-wired data (Ibid.). Obviously, zoomusicology speaks, at least in veiled terms, of a promise: some day it may show its empirical value when the tools have become sharp enough to cut through the most difficult questions it raises, and it will lay bare new horizons of cross-species musical understanding. If that happens, then Mâche’s bigger questions about the definitions of music, man, culture and animal may receive more than a new twist. It is interesting to note that Martinelli bets on the more general idea of finding an aesthetic root in animal sounds and not on the term that currently carries controversial overtones: “music.”
One of the most vocal individuals who have joined Martinelli’s cause in the last decade, based upon a steadily growing body of work at the cutting edge of music, animals and nature, is philosopher and musician David Rothenberg. A trilogy of books (on bird, whale and insect sounds) explores questions about the supposed musicality of animals and has stirred debates among scientists, philosophers and musicians. Unlike most players in the field of animal music/sound studies, Rothenberg wears all three hats (as a philosopher, artist and most recently as scientist) at different times, if not simultaneously. Beginning with more or less parallel or overlapping careers as a jazz clarinetist, and philosophy professor, he continued to combine these two efforts by exploring the science and philosophy of bird song in writing, while exploring the art of it by playing his instrument together with birds. The resulting book-CD Why Birds Sing, with its daring supposition that humans and birds share an interest in making music for the sheer beauty of it, led to a documentary of the same name, broadcast by the BBC (Davidson and Ramsden 2007).
The film follows Rothenberg while travelling around the world to forests, aviaries and for musical collaborations, and it portrays other musicians, a poet, bird imitators, and bird song scientists. Rothenberg’s fundamental critique is that scientists do not accept that birds may also sing for pleasure. He does not deny the fact that birds sing to attract mates and to repel rivals, but wants to understand better why bird song can be so complex and versatile. There is plenty of support for Rothenberg’s idea that birds sing beautifully, and it is pointed out that poets and others took bird song seriously long before scientists did so. Some scientists leave the door open to an aesthetic interpretation, and all of them have an obvious interest in bird song and derive pleasure from studying it and listening to it. But two of the heavyweights of bird song studies, Donald Kroodsma and Peter Slater, clearly argue against the musical viewpoint. Slater asserts, for example:
I am not sure that I would want to use the word ‘music’ in relation to bird song, because human music is qualitatively different from bird song. I don’t think birds use scales in the same sense as we do, or anything like that. You don’t want to mix up two things that are very distinct from one another. (Ibid.)
But why then do many humans take a deep interest in bird song, why are composers and others learning to imitate these songs quite precisely, including their scales? And why did Peter Szöke find so many shared sound structures in human and bird song? Isn’t Slater’s antidote to Rothenberg’s anthropomorphism in itself an ornithomorphism? It is clear that our songs share more features than Slater suggests. Donald Kroodsma likewise seems to draw up a wall around his singing birds, when he says,
I am not sure anybody knows what music is. I suppose as a scientist I might say, it is any series, any pattern of sounds that strikes us as somewhat pleasing. But not all human music is pleasing to me, so I don’t know what human music is. I don’t really know what birdmusic is, or whether bird song is music. (Ibid.)
Surely Kroodsma has had “responses” to music, as an anthropos, and he would be able to say more about music than this. He may not be able to rid himself of his own human subjectivity as it comes to music, but is that reason enough to decline the possibility of birds having some sense of the aesthetic, or at least other than purely functional reasons, as Rothenberg wants to know?
At the same time, the scientists make many valid points. They have spent many decades on repetitive, number-driven analysis of bird song to prove many small points, one at a time. Kroodsma analyzed thousands of songs, of one bird even, to reach conclusive answers. In response to Rothenberg’s efforts at duetting with birds, where he imitates parts of their song with his clarinet and looks out for birds imitating phrases of his, Kroodsma and Slater both remark that it is easy to trigger a bird’s response to human sound – Kroodsma dryly suggests the sound of a vacuum cleaner would do so. They are not impressed with Rothenberg’s intuitive methods, backed with sonograms to point out those places where Rothenberg felt a bird was answering him. At the end of the film the two scientists and their colleague Kate Buchanan reluctantly meet Rothenberg, at the sidelines of a Berlin conference, but the wall between them stands as tall as ever. If Rothenberg cannot produce enough “interesting numbers” to prove his point, he should not try to tell scientists why he thinks bird sing. Rothenberg then returns to his music projects, before addressing the science again.
Rothenberg is still pursuing his tireless, as well as restless, quest for answers in his works with mammals and insects (Rothenberg 2008; Rothenberg 2013) and most notably in his book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution, where he writes, “I do not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution” (Rothenberg 2011: 20).
In the end, the birds I witnessed are not like Rothenberg’s duets with birds, mammals or insects, or like any other of the examples I discussed above. It seems to me that the interspecies communication I observed, not willed by any human being, but supposedly willed by a group of birds, is different from all the cases I described above. If the birds would not have repeated something so strikingly close to the garbage truck music, over and over again, I might not have noticed something special about their singing. If my Bush Warblers were indeed singing the garbage trucks’ music, does it make them more musical? Is it proof of a sense of the aesthetic? Is it just another one of many fantastic mistakes of evolution? Will it have any consequences for birds or our understanding of bird song?
A mutual affair?
It is a giant step from well-known examples of birds mimicking sounds of (or caused by) humans to animals producing a collective, shared response based quite precisely on human musical patterns. But is it impossible? I give the last word to the birds, but indirectly, through the voices of two Taiwanese ornithologists of the Wild Bird Society of Taipei. When I approached them with my questions, their first response was a spontaneous imitation of the Brown-Flanked Bush Warbler’s song. They made a wordplay around the long whistled introduction and the shorter and longer syllabic parts that normally finish this bird’s song. They explained to me that no other bird is verbally imitated in this way: only when imitating the song of the Brown-Flanked Bush Warbler do Taiwanese ornithologists use a human language, “paraphrasing” what the birds might say. Having failed to obtain concrete evidence of my observations, the imagined conversation between the birds could not be more appropriate for illustrating my case.