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Return to: David Rothenberg

You Make My Heart Sing

Last March I went to Pittsburgh to play music live with birds. The plan was to arrive at dawn, to catch the wary singers at their best, in the early morning chorus, when the most sound was happening. I meet my friend Michael Pestel at the gates of the National Aviary, a mostly forgotten federal institution in a rundown neighborhood. I had never heard of the aviary before Pestel told me what a great place it was to jam with the more-than-human world. He's been playing with the feathered residents of the place for years. Plus, the human staff was rumored to be friendly, and they liked to let musicians in during the early hours before the public, mostly guided schoolchildren, would storm the gates.

Pestel is there with his flute and various homemade stringed instruments. I have clarinets and saxophones, coaxed out of their cases. A bit tired, but ready to hear what these birds had up their sleeves. We head for the marsh room, a vaulted expanse with an observation deck and water birds from all over the world. I strain my ears to catch some pretty rocking bird beats, but they sounded familiar. Very familiar. Yes, it seems that the aviary is blaring Marvin Gaye at top volume to these birds at six o'clock in the morning. They are definitely squawkin' and squealin'.

"I cannot work in these conditions," mutters Pestel. "We've got to get these people to turn that racket down."
"Didn't you tell them we were coming?"
"No," he shakes his head. "You can't do that. Art always arrives without warning."

Being an art professor, he should know. Starting as a sculptor, living in the same city as such an incredible aviary had led him into the world of music. Motivated by the presence of these flying musicians, Pestel over the years has picked up flutes, recorders, bells, whistles, anything else that the birds might respond to. Understandably, he has developed his own unique style of playing, somewhere between Eric Dolphy and the Peruvian musician wren.
But I am still concerned. "You sure they'll let us do this?" I ask.
"No problem, man, I've come here many times before. These people know me. These birds know me."

All right, Marvin is turned down. The sprinklers are turned down. Rain must start in the rainforest room every day before sunrise. How else to keep the gaudy barbets happy? We'd save that for the second stop.
Does a blue-crowned motmot (Momotus momota) or a violaceous euphonia (Euphonia violacea) really want to hear strange instrumental shrieks before breakfast? Weren't they content with "What's Going On?"
Athanasius Kircher knew the birds were onto something even in 1650: Behold the melodious nightingale and quail! "Choire" says the parrot - "Salutations." Have we always been able to hear their cries? Wittgenstein had the nerve to warn us that if a lion could talk, we would not understand him. Can you be so sure, Herr Ludwig? If a lion roars, we do understand him. If a cat purrs, we understand her. And if the voice of an animal is not heard as message but as art, interesting things start to happen: Nature is no longer inscrutable, some alien puzzle, but instead immediately something beautiful, a source of exuberant song, a tune with some space for us to join in, at once a creative place for humanity to join in.

We set up on the wooden deck, listening out over the water. Instruments warmed up, recording equipment wired and set to go. An American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is in the center of the action, sitting on a branch at the side of the room. He cocks his head, eyes us knowingly. Looks like there's something he wants to say.
Pestel plays a long, low sliding note, followed by a scratchy puff of air. Something strange swoops down next to my feet, shuffles its large black wings. Some kind of ungainly turkey! I see from a plaque on the railing that it's a Palawan peacock pheasant (Polyplectron emphanum), its quizzical gaze mute.
"What are you looking at?"

I glare. He steps cautiously toward the microphone cable, ready to gobble it in his hook-nosed, formidable beak.
"Hey," I brush him off. "Stop dancing. Sing." But it turns out he's the prancing, silent type.
All of a sudden there's a strange voice. A human voice? "Who." I hear. "Who. Who what where why. Who what where why."
It's the crow. Not just any crow. He talks.
"Did you hear that?" I coax Pestel up from the flute, which he's been muttering into while blowing a tone, "drdrdrdrgdrdrgduh..Wha? "Oh," he said. "That's Mickey. He's been here for years."
"Does he know what he's talking about?"
A talking crow isn't supposed to know what he's saying. Parrots aren't supposed to know what it is that they imitate. Yet anyone who has spent time training birds will know they surprise you. But we're not here for this. We want music. Answers, not questions. Mickey can talk, but can he sing? "Caw," he pipes up. "Caaaaww."
"We don't want that either," Pestel shakes his head. "This guy is just imitating people imitating crows."
A hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) is paying attention to us. We're moving as we play, he's moving back and forth too. Swaying in time to the music. He commands attention on a perch in the center of the room. But still no song.
All of a sudden a greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is fed up. He's big, forbidding, with that backwards twisted neck. "Brahh Brahh Brahh Brumphphph" he croaks. It's so loud it puts all the other marsh birds to shame. They are upset. The cacophony rises. Is it a wild swamp scream symphony? Or just a vocal protest? Are we taking too much of their time?
"Man, that pink thing just won't shut up," growls Pestel. "I cannot work in these conditions. Let's move to the rainforest."
"But has the rain stopped?" I was worrying about the instruments.
"Don't worry, they'll turn it off for us."

Call the sounds of bird life music and there's a place for humanity within them. Call them language and it's all mute, untranslatable, a foreign tongue with no one around to translate for us. See how hard it was for Aretas Saunders to write out the song of the rose-breasted grosbeak. He had to use free-ranging neumes as well as unpronounceable syllables:

But what if we just take the more intuitive approach of hearing it all as music? There are rhythms, there are tones, there are melodies up and around. You think I'm making all this up, that I'm anthropomorphizing the efficiency of nature's rank and file? It is no more likely that animals are joyless machines than they are feeling, breathing musicians. If your intuition catches a song in the dawn air then you ought to investigate. Philosopher Thomas Nagel says we'll never know what it's like to be a bat, because we are not bats, we can never take on bat experience from within, but only imagine it, reconstruct it. Same with birds. Who can know what they feel as they sing, as they listen, as they sing again? Yet who can know how anyone else responds to music, listening, playing, composing. As John Cage wrote, "what could these three activities possibly have to do with one another?" Let's take the bird song at face value, engaging with what it sounds like rather than obsessing over what it's supposed to mean. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that... humanity? Logic? Story? Swing? I don't know much about music but I know what I like. I like to be surprised, I want the unexpected. I am easily bored, and I don't want to play anything I have ever heard before. These birds don't seem to have that worry. They make the same sounds day after day, the whole of their lives. Are we so far from them? Can anyone really make up anything genuinely novel on the fly? Are we not like those birds who parrot back phrases we always expect, that mark them by name, songs either hardwired or learned by rote in their youth by order of the need to survive? Studying jazz for years I learned a series of stock phrases and ways to turn around a scale from the masters, and now I'm supposed to mix and match this repertoire into the sudden game. Why? To get someone to notice me, the single me out. I'm no different from the birds. They are just more sure of themselves.

Through the double doors we enter another mood. In the rain forest room we are engulfed in humidity. Mist lingers from the early morning rain. It swelters. The birds are smaller, at first sluggish, but as we play they dart all over the place. These tropical types are more agile, instantly melodic. "Ba ba bu ba pe pa," goes a bright yellow Spreo superbus, the superb starling, a clear pentatonic scale. Superb indeed. Magnificently clear, five open tones. It's an open invitation to us wind players. All the world's human cultures welcome those five friends. We fumble, we test, we imitate. Does he care? He keeps singing his same clear tune. Soon he's eclipsed by the Indian shama thrush (Copsychus malabaricus), a virtuoso mimic and explorateur. One new phrase after another. Anything we play is just raw material for him. An orange mockingbird of the tropics, nothing fazes the guy, he keeps coming back with a new variation. He's not stuck in a rut. Whatever we feed him he can use and transform. Every song he sings seems brand new. "Wait a minute, I thought these songs were innate," I ask Pestel. "Don't these guys need just one simple song sung as well as possible to get the girls?" "That's the adaptive evolutionary model," he lectures me. "But the real world is always more than they tell us. You could say the same thing about human music and it might be correct. Every rock star wants the groupie's love. But does that ever touch the music? Every bird's got a syrinx instead of a larynx. They're not like us. They are able to make far more sounds than they usually do. Humans get involved, we provoke them. Witness the talking crow."

Pestel and I move slowly through this man-made forest, with those fake drips from the real leaves falling every day. Looking, listening for particular birds who were ready to interact with us, to take us seriously as singers in the dawn chorus. All of a sudden, in front of one thicket, I play a few notes. A strong, melodic outburst comes out. Who calls in there? Hmm... he's gray, black and white, robin-size, hopping, dancing around like mad. I keep playing, he's responding. At first he comes back at me with rising arpeggios, strong and tough. I play back. He cocks his head, leaps to join in. My notes change. His notes change. There seems to be some real camaraderie here. But what is the message? If it is music, the message matters far less than the sound. Do we go somewhere together that we couldn't go apart? A woman walks by pushing a huge mop, swabbing the place down. Terry Lunsford looks up with a smile: "Are you getting it on with my man up there?" she asks. "Yeah," I say, "Who is that?" "That's a white crested laughing thrush, Garrulax leucolophus." "Oh yeah?" I laugh, and the bird laughs some more, but his laugh is a melody, a saxophone laugh, a Charlie Parker laugh. We all laugh. "Is he getting up there with you?" she laughs. The music continues.

Pestel comes by with his flute. He's amazed, never heard this particular bird take off before. We get it all down on tape. I listen to the tape later at home. It's more musical than a lot of jams I've done with humans, that's for sure. In the wilds of their native Moluccan Islands, these laughing thrushes go around in noisy, cackling groups of one or two dozen birds out in the wild, mostly hillside areas of southeast Asia. Their sound is generally considered a call, with specific social functions, rather than any kind of purely melodic song. Does this mean my bird was trying to tell me something specific, like to get me into his group or to get me out of his world? He seemed to live on his own, apart from any other members of his tribe. Perhaps he was lonely. Or maybe the distinction between song and call is not so clear when a bird is confronted with a strange alien music? This guy's sounds were definitely changing in relation to mine. Something was going on. Later I do some research and discover that only two scientific papers have ever been written on this cheerful beast. Turns out this one of those species where both males and females sing, reaching for each other in sound to give voice to their togetherness in a wild, noisy world. Now that changes things. When he heard me, just who did he think I was now? Hear bird sound as music and there is always some mystery to enjoy. Hear the whole world as music and you'll find we live inside a plethora of beautiful sounds. If the natural world has a place for us then humanity will no longer be able to destroy this beauty blindly. See, playing music with birds does have its lesson. It teaches us to strive for the collaborative creativity possible with the other inhabitants of this fabulous planet. How many other creatures out there are waiting for the chance to jam?

Close your eyes and attune to your ears, and I think you will find that the same hold true for this sense: Listening is forgetting the name of the thing one hears. When you name it, you tend to shut off speculation. You file the experience away, before you have let it swirl around you and take hold of you. Philosophers call this plea for directness phenomenology, a fancy word for trying to touch the presence of things before explaining what they are. Before you know it's the sky look up and see the intensity of blue, feel the crisp brush of wind, smell the pungent decay of autumn, hear a grand woodpecker's call. Wait a minute... forget anything I said about who's doing the calling: Holalay helaylo heelayla, a tremulous trumpet in the trees. It's ringing loud and clear. What more do you need to know?

It's hard to write about or describe any kind of music, much less that made by a species so far from our own. We can never know what birds themselves feel or experience when singing or hearing their own musics, and science's effort to explain the effects of avian behavior, however detailed and far they advance, don't often do much to enhance our sense of the aesthetics of bird songs. When asked "why birds sing?" most scientists would answer that birds let out their melodies to establish their territories and to make themselves attractive to potential mates, though their is little evidence that better singers have any reproductive edge in most species. Given the wide range of avian vocalizations, there is actually little clear reason why some birds get by with simple sneeps and pips, while a bird like the brown thrasher sings up to two thousand distinct songs, far more than any other species. Otherwise, it's just a normal brown spotted bird.

Saying that birds sing to find mates isn't so different than saying people make music for the same reason. Sure, there's some truth in it, as a recent book in 'biomusicology' called The Origin of Music also suggests. Jimi Hendrix, the book says, was a great guitarist, and he had many girlfriends. Just like a thrashin' brown thrasher I guess. True, but at the same time trivial.

The beauty of the music is not encompassed or even dealt with by the evolutionary explanation.

For beauty is not necessary in nature, at least according to the gist of evolutionary theory. If anything, it is a byproduct of other factors. Science must be cautious, because it needs data to back up its every claim. A responsible scientist won't claim to tell you why birds sing. Will he disagree with the idea that birds burst into song out of pure joy? We cannot know what it is like a bird, but there is no reason to assume that birds don't enjoy singing the way human musicians enjoy singing, even though our nervous systems and biology are so different. Music may be a clear thing that vastly different kinds of life forms have in common.

If we trust our senses, bird song may be more universally appreciable than any other kind of music. All over the world there is human music derived from avian sounds, and there is a sense that human players reverentially aspire to the innocent and tirelessly mellifluous beauty of those treetop songs. Birds fit so clearly into their context in a way that human beings must work so hard to do. Only we have to work so much to fit into nature, for that is our nature. The rest of the world is already nature, loud and clear.

By now, in this brand new century, we have come to accept all kinds of blends and twists of organized sound as music. This is the most powerful legacy of the age of abstraction in all of the fine arts-just about anything can now be appreciated for its inherent aesthetic work, from a blank slate or a concrete wall to a whoosh of mysterious noise. Although this might make it quite hard to decide just what is art and what is not, it works wonders for our ability to love all the sounds nature allows us to hear.

Nature is still powerfully there as a realm of eternally present sounds, which science assumes have been around far longer than any human invention. This alone should fill us with awe, and a sense of rightness and presence to the tunes birds try out on us. We are greater and expanded beings the more we can take their vocalizations seriously. Sure, don't be afraid to enjoy them, and don't be afraid to imagine that the birds enjoy them as well.

Charles Hartshorne, eminent process philosopher and the author of the most inquisitive of bird song books, "Born to Sing", lived through the entire century to the age of 103, and here is his cautious appraisal of what bird song might mean: "Must not singing be enjoyable in itself? There are many levels of musical feeling, as there are many levels of life, between insects, amphibians, or birds and man. The difficulty is not to find analogies but to know how to make them useful, rather than merely misleading."

So just because science demonstrates that a song has a specific territorial or sexual purpose doesn't mean that birds aren't singing because they love to as well. Why not assume that birds sing because they enjoy it? Science can't prove that they do, but there is no good reason to assume that they don't. A joyful singer makes for a joyful universe, a far better place to live in. Crusty octogenarian naturalist Alexander Skutch (the old and the wise appreciate these things) adds another vote for a passionate planet: "If birds find no pleasure in singing, they are incapable of enjoyment, and if they find no joys or satisfactions in their lives, all their efforts to survive and reproduce are barren. They certainly do not sing to delight us, who appeared on Earth ages after they did."

And yet we are better poised to appreciate the music of nature than ever before, as we become attuned the artistic possibilities of all manner of blends of sound. Although the sound works of birds have many of the same characteristics as human music- like repeating patterns, themes and variations, impressive virtuosic trills and ornaments, scales and inversions, exploratory reaches to emotional heights-they also continue to offer radical inspiration to human musicians. With incredibly compressed forms, artistic statements using washes of many frequencies at once, and complex transformations of sound that only a syrinx can produce, they are meaningful and joyful at once, and the ecology is richer because of them.

So go back outside, walk into the forest or field, take in the first bird sounds you hear. Don't worry who it is who speaks-you don't need to know the musician's name to catch the drift of their music. First, listen as a bird might. You're interested in only the sound of your own species, perhaps, and others come across as mere noise. We can never know, we cannot get inside the bird. One of our own comes into ear-reach. Lover, friend, or foe? Is he crowding our space, is he luring us in? Is he threatening, or just standing his ground? This is the practicality of what we need the sound to know. Or else: imagine. The songs are beautiful, complex, clearly more than what is necessary to get the message across. Of course there must be exuberance, there must be joy. The bird is endowed as a virtuoso, and loves to show off, to explore, to cry out. Simply part of some universal and natural joy. What an artistic life! What if, for songbirds, music is the only language they know? Their brains may be small but think how great a part of them is devoted to music, to pleasure, to art? Their song as the essence of the beautiful every time it bursts forth.

Swivel back to the human gaze, and forget what you've been told. Try to grasp the lay of bird song all in itself. It's musical, compressed, mellifluous and complete. Songs of necessity, really needed, the highest compliment any human musician might expect. We can't criticize what we hear, because we know it all has its place. Inflexible beauty still surprises each time with its voice. There is something about bird song that is inherently predictable, as there is a definite range of possible sounds each bird is likely to make. So why then do they all sound so sudden and fresh? Nature is never boring, but rather content with itself. There is no need for human restlessness, here's a haven for calm and contrast, the placid and the wild, all bounded by the chorus of the necessary, each tone in its place. Wild harmony certainly admits dissonance, from the shriek of a hawk to a raven's rasp.

In all this sonic diversity it is too easy to assume that all these signals function in the same or similar ways. And it is also naive to stress that the songs of birds approach the boundaries of music, but, by virtue of their brevity or atonality or the difficulty of describing them, that they aren't quite music and should be called limited because of this. Bird songs are a genuine challenge to the idea that humanity is needed to find beauty in the natural world. Whatever processes of evolution have led to their flourishing, no rigorous natural logic explains why they are so multifarious and complex.

We have shown how human music has learned from birds, not improved on birds. With careful listening we can abandon our human prejudices, and find new expanses of music beyond familiar constraints. This music is essential, not arbitrary, playful, but purposeful. Repetitive, but never boring. It achieves that necessity that so much art aspires to. All bird songs are part of nature, while so many human sounds seem severed from nature in their blatant separation from what encircles them.

From our detached vantage point it can seem insurmountably difficult to honestly relate to the mellifluous essence of the surrounding world, but the more we learn to take in the melodies of birds, the more we may be able to find a sonic way home. Birds offer the most gently musical of nature's sounds, and so they are an engaging place to begin. Once you accept the music of birds, the symphony of the vast and possible world begins to take root and come close to your ears. Speed up, slow down, listen in, contemplate: there is always so much more to be heard.

Now when music starts to happen between humans and birds, you don't have to peel the categories apart from one another-the interaction appears and grows well before we can comprehend it. It's a jazz of the underbrush, an improvisation with the colorful sounds of the avian world. One animal's song reaches out to another. Like in any kickin' session, it doesn't matter who's from where or who's played with who, but its the sound that counts, the interaction, the listening. Who better to coax in than a songbird who can keep going for hours, ever inventive, ever crazy for the next new sound?

Take two musicians from different traditions, say, Korean classical music, and American jazz. They do not speak the same language, so they cannot converse. But if either one starts playing, the other can find some way to join in. The result might not fit comfortably into either tradition, but it still can be music-a new intercultural music, a search toward the blending of two disparate worlds.

I don't have to know why a bird sings to want to play along with his sounds. I just have to want some new inspiration and be ready to connect to whatever is heard. The fact is, if you listen to the bird's sound and think of it as language, it's a language you don't know, there's nothing you can immediately do with what you hear. If you think of it as music, then it's something to respond to, asking for our participation, daring us to join in. When you start to play, what does the bird hear. Like Louis Armstrong said, "One never knows, do one." And that's not to run away from analysis, but only to make the whole thing that much more interesting.

Pestel and I go that evening to a jazz concert, a hip group from New York. They're good, going through all the changes, the usual moves. But we don't hear anything we don't expect. "These guys are good," we agree. "But they're not birds," says Pestel. "What they do just doesn't seem... necessary."
"Should we just let the birds sing and take our own humble place at the edge of the trees?" I wonder.
"No, can't you see they're daring us to join in!" Pestel is sure. I hope he's right.

What a narrow sense of music it is that only lets people in! We may widen the realm of art just as we expand ethics to include the environment, and honestly find a way for our own single species to care about the rest of this fragile world. Nor does it seem out of line for a philosopher to be wondering about such things. After all, it was Lucretius who decided that human beings learned our music from the birds:

Through all the woods they heard the charming noise
Of chirping birds, and tried to frame their voice
And imitate. Thus birds instructed man,
And taught them songs before their art began.

Or even more remarkable is the fact that no less austere a fellow than Immanuel Kant thought it prudent to remark upon bird song in his great manual of aesthetics, The Critique of Judgment. Why, wondered the great rationalist, do we never tire of listening to the simple melodies of birds, whereas if a human being were to take two or three notes and repeat them endlessly, we soon get fed up with it? Bird song, Kant decided, was not really beautiful, but actually sublime, something wonderfully alien to our world of understanding, beguiling, but always remaining beyond our reach.

Though he is famous for calling the beautiful better than the sublime, Kant admits there is something more powerful about the pull of nature's shapes and sounds. They are wild, irregular, bold, shocking, and can soon make us disillusioned with our merely human arts. Bird song is something exuberant and minutely complex, intricate and satisfied with the way it instinctually must be. It is endlessly diverse, and no human can improve upon it, we cannot use it to better ourselves. Somehow it is anathema to the whole hope for self-advancement offered by the Enlightenment!

Ah, so that's it. No wonder this whole experience is making me wild. Playing with birds, rather than merely thinking about birds, I begin to feel what it is like to be a bird. I do not look for proof, but only possibility, and hope for new ways to interact, new sounds to surprise. Wild things. The mind is never as powerful as the ability to sing and dance. You make my... The music happens before we say it's impossible. You make... everything. The birds are listening, they too want more: "Those people, they don't just cage us and feed us and listen to us-maybe they're ready to learn from us too."

One knows, one does. Even if it will never make me Enlightened. Or do I know less than ever before? Could science help me out, and tell me if the music was all in my head, and not my heart? Would I have to place bird song inside my own musical universe in order to get any logic out of it? It is time to track down all the experts, to listen to their listening, to find out what they had heard in the laboratory, in the wilds.

No matter what I learn, I will never give up the chance to make music together without knowing what I can hope to achieve. To wing it, so to speak, and wait for what the wings will cheep in return. Like all art, it works best when we cannot explain it away. No knowledge will erase the gift of the song, one simple offering from human to animal and back.

© 2010