By The Landlord
“From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought …” – Percy Bysshe Shelley, To A Skylark
“I know why the caged bird sings”. – Maya Angelou
“Birds scream at the top of their lungs in horrified hellish rage every morning at daybreak to warn us all of the truth, but sadly we don't speak bird.” – Kurt Cobain
“I woke early like a condemned man to the naivety of birdsong.” – Nick Drake
“Better a sparrow, living or dead, than no birdsong at all.” – Catullus
The nightingale has a 300-song repertoire, mostly inspired by mating. Sing like a canary? That’s not a confession, other than to say this species can take 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish its air supply. The lyrebird can mimic any sound, from a laser gun to a chainsaw. The blackbird sings in the dead of night, and with some of most beautiful of melodies. Owls contact each other and make a ghostly hoo-hoo territorial warning. Cuckoos' very name mimics their much-copied riff. Japanese cranes dance and are a right hoot. Geese stride around like a military band and honk as they fly. Crows don’t so much sing as make a bird-like Tom Waits growl. The cowbird can sing 40 different notes, some inaudible to humans. The chaffinch is the James Brown of birds, the hardest working entertaining in ornithology showbusiness, singing its song up to a million times in a season.
They are all around us, often drowned out by city sounds. But not always. In Toyko some railway stations – Ueno, Ikebukuro and Shinagawa - have included distinct birdsong recordings to indicate the location to visually impaired travellers. How wonderful.
But just like human performers, birdsongs are as varied in pitch, rhythm, speed, melody and style as anything we produce, often governed by their environment, from chanting monks to slave spirituals, from rap artists shaped by the sounds of New York of south central LA, punk or indie guitar bands express the industrial greyness of Manchester, Liverpool, London or Glasgow, or yodellers echoing the environment of the Swiss Alps. Birdsong is all about speaking across short of long distances, from clear skies to penetrating thick vegetation of the town or countryside. Caw!
So this week we’re going to celebrate birdsong in human music, whether that comes in mimicry of the tunes they produce, the sounds they make, mentioning any form of bird sound in lyrics, or including samples or longer recordings in the fabric of songs or pieces. Too-wit! Too-woo!
A good place to start is to search of any songs about birds. Birds are a more general topic that’s come up a long time ago, but barely brushed the musical feathers and warbling wonders of birdsong.
There has long been a lively debate about why birds sing. Clearly there are essential ones - for mating, passing on genes, territorial warnings, aggression as a well as wooing, and all the other tools for survival, but let’s face it, human songwriters are pretty much motivated by many of the same things.
But do birds also sing for joy, just for the sake of it? This, and much more, is very entertainingly explored in a documentary series centred upon the clarinetist and eco-philosopher David Rothenburg, who among other things, recorded a duet with an Australian lyrebird, and argues that many birds also sing for pleasure. In his analysis, the hermit thrush sings on traditional harmonic scale as used in human music (the pentatonic scale) and there are many other resemblances to human music in phrasing and note length, even with strong song structures like that of the Eurasian treecreeper. In this documentary, based on his book Why Birds Sing, there’s a chorus of great ideas and clips, well worth watching, including appearances from musicians including Laurie Anderson, Jarvis Cocker and Beth Orton:
Birdsong has influenced composers long before popular music, with plenty of evidence by musicologists showing imitation. It undoubtedly started much further back, than this, but in terms of pieces preserved written music the 13th-century English round Sumer Is Icumen In imitates the call of the cuckoo as a harbinger of spring:
The 16th century produced two popular choral pieces by Jannequin and Gombert, both called Song of Birds. But alongside the nightingale, the cuckoo is perhaps the most imitated bird, due to the simlicity of its call from the 14th century’s Jean Vaillant to Beethoven, Delius, Handel, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saens, and Vivaldi. There’s also the great tit in Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, the goldfinch in Vivaldi, the linnet in Couperin, Haydn and Rachmaninov, the robin in work by Peter Warlock, the swallow dives into Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, the wagtail wags Benjamin Britten’s musical tail, and the magpie steals into a song by Mussorgsky. Dvorak was lifted on the musical wings of the stock dove, skylark, and the humble house sparrow. The classical list is endless, and so feel free to explore these, but no doubt songs of the 20th and 21st centuries will come fly in en masse. This bird included:
Other more modern classical examples include Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, from which there are many individual bird studies, Jonathan Harvey's Bird Concerto with Piano Song. The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus (1972, Opus 61, also known as the Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) doesn’t so much mimic but has as its backdrop oodles of recorded birdsong and bird calls from the Arctic, such as the trumpeting of migrating swans. But it is artists such as Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and others that may certainly come up in many nominations. Much pop, rock and other genres not only mentions birds singing in lyrics, but also mimics and samples sounds of them.
Need more inspiration? Prince included the sounds of two of his pet doves on one recording and if you want to explore a more extreme example, the death metal band Hatebeak play along to Waldo the African grey parrot making deafening shrieks, ideal for their genre.
In poetry, as well as Keats and Shelley, perhaps the greatest poetical analyst of birdsong was John Clare, who here describes in detail the many phrases of the nightingale in The Progress of Rhyme:
“The more I listened and the more
Each note seemed sweeter than before,
And aye so different was the strain
She'd scarce repeat the note again:
'Chew-chew chew-chew' and higher still,
'Cheer-cheer cheer-cheer' more loud and shrill,
Cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up - and dropped
Low 'Tweet tweet jug jug' - and stopped
One moment just to drink the sound
Her music made …”
But how can we untangle birdsong in a dawn chorus? A new, highly advanced bird song decoder software can, it is reported, automatically identify the call of a vast variety of birds by using recordings of individual birds and of dawn choruses to identify the characteristics of each tweet.
Dr Dan Stowell and the Centre for Digital Music at St Mary's University, London reported that "Given a set of recordings, each of them with a list of the bird species present, I was able to 'train' a computer system by showing it these labelled examples.” That's a bit like picking out individual conversations at at noisy cocktail party. Meanwhile, no problem about identifying who this bird is:
Birdsong is likely to be very closely allied to human musical development, and theories of universal grammar. Another fascinating fact about many birds is their ability to sing two melodies at once by being able to control the two sides of the trachea independently. So no need for two arguing Everly Brothers or a feuding SImon and Garfunkel when you can do it all by yourself.
So then, over to you, as musical ornithologists, to spot as many songs and pieces of music and songs as possible for our aural aviary. This week’s all-singing, winged wonder, flying to us across the virtual bar like a beautiful migrating Japanese crane, is the superb Hoshino Sakura! Deadline for nominations is 11pm UK time on Monday, for playlists published on Wednesday. Time to sing out!
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.