Wednesday, July 6

the song of the Birds

The sounds produced by other animals have always fascinated humans and have been a source of inspiration, or imitation, for musical creation. The list of examples is huge, so I accept from the beginning that it will be incomplete and partial, and also limited to Western music. I hope that little by little other articles and other authors will complete it.

In ancient times, Greeks and Romans held that animals, especially birds, had invented music, and that human beings learned it by imitating them. Is it mere aesthetic appropriation to imitate the sounds of other animals to express human emotions and feelings? Or has it been considered that animals express their own emotions or feelings with the sounds they make?

Few people today doubt that music can inspire or at least evoke emotions, but it has been questioned repeatedly throughout history. The disputes between Giovanni Maria Artusi and Claudio Monteverdi, around 1600, or between Eduard Hanslick and Richard Wagner, in the second half of the 19th century, are just two of the many debates about whether music can or has to express emotions or feelings concrete. Hanslick in particular was very critical of the idea: he claimed that music could not express feelings but only its variable dynamic intensity. Obviously the two previous questions relate to this debate.

The most frequent inspiration in musical creation has undoubtedly been the song of birds, in which composers have not hesitated to find joy, happiness or sadness. One of the oldest and most precious examples of this, among those that are preserved, is Song of the birds by Clément Janequin, who sets four voices to music a virelai (medieval poetic form) written around 1529. In this polyphonic gem the author introduces many onomatopoeias of songbirds. The first verse is dedicated to birds in general, the second to the starling, the third to the nightingale, and the fourth to the cuckoo. The lyrics are explicit in deciphering the songs as an expression, be it the call to love or the awareness of good weather. The birds do “wonders with their song when they are happy” – the poem says – or warn about something that deserves attention and in multiple ways, they say.

The verses that accompany the score of The four Seasons, by the great Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (which is part of the twelve concerts called Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Opus 8, published in 1725), mention “the joyous song” and the “charming song” of the cuckoo, the turtledove and the goldfinch, the buzzing of flies and flies, and the barking of dogs, which take care of the sleeping flock and accompany the hunters. He also dedicates to the goldfinch Il Gardellino, the third of his six flute concertos (Opus 10), published after 1728 although probably composed a couple of decades earlier. Here the virtuosity of the flute imitates and develops the song of that bird.

More well-known and explicit examples follow, such as GF Händel HWV 295’s Organ Concerto No.13, The cuckoo and the nightingale (1739). In Pictures for an exhibition (1874), in the chicks ballet, Modest Mussorgsky makes us listen to chicks chirping, still in their shell and trying to hatch. In 1886, Edvard Grieg titled the third of his Six lyrical pieces for piano, Opus 43, Vöglein (little bird). The same thing does in 1914 Federico Mompou with Sad bird, the fifth of his Intimate Impressions. Here he clearly attributes sadness to the bird.

In 1928 Ottorino Respighi composed Gli Uccelli (The Birds), a work with a prelude and four movements, each dedicated to different birds: the dove, the hen, the nightingale and the cuckoo.

Since he was 18 years old, Oliver Messiaen wrote down the melodies of bird songs and wrote a considerable amount of works inspired by them. In particular he composed, between 1955 and 1956, Oiseaux Exotiques (Exotic Birds), in which he represents the song of forty-eight native birds of North America, South America, India, China, Malaysia and the Canary Islands.

The composer, director, singer and choreographer Meredith monk he has experimented with imitating birds with his own voice. On his 1979 album, Songs from the hill (Songs from the Hill), includes Bird code (The code of birds).

We could go on almost infinitely, but the works mentioned are enough to confirm human admiration for the singing abilities of birds and the vocal expressions of other animals. It has been accepted that the emission of these sounds correspond to emotions such as joy, serenity, happiness, fear, even sadness, melancholy and despair. On the other hand, there has been resistance to assuming that these sounds are a true language, capable of communicating information between individuals of the same species. Monk’s work differs in this sense from the previous ones, since from its title it proposes not to limit itself to appreciating the beauty of the song, but also to consider that it is a communication code.

For what reason have the other composers not worked more in that direction? For me the answer is simple: that a living being is capable of expressing and communicating forces us to accept that it enjoys and suffers, that perhaps it remembers and understands. And that stirs our conscience. If birds feel and express, what kind of people are we, for example, by keeping them locked in a cage to enjoy their song?

In the human species we assume that a voice that expresses an interiority thinks. And we maintain that whoever thinks has rights. If we decide to recognize those rights, we may have to waive some of our privileges. Until a few decades ago, it was likely that a child with severe hearing impairment would not learn to speak. And if he did not learn to speak, he was likely to be considered “mentally deficient” (sic). Centuries ago, we considered inferior peoples whose languages ​​we did not understand. Both events represented privileges for those who could and did speak our language. Both are today considered ethically unacceptable.

A few months ago the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) of the United Kingdom published a study in which seven researchers see as the cause of the probable extinction of the regent honeycomb of Australia (Anthochaera phrygia) the loss of the culture of their songs. Regent honeycombs are a social species that travel in flocks and feed on flowering eucalyptus and mistletoe trees. They trill to mark their territory, give advice on where to find food and also to mate. Some of their young no longer find other older individuals to teach them to chirp and have no way of learning the songs they need for mating rituals and other evolutionary matters. Sometimes they imitate the song of other types of birds, but it is ineffective, because their potential partners do not understand it. This study shows how the loss of a vocal culture can lead to the extinction of a species and, therefore, it must be accepted that a non-human species has been able to develop a culture.

Speciesism is based on the discrimination of other beings that we consider incapable of feeling and thinking, therefore inferior. We assume that they do not think because we consider that they do not speak. Perhaps it is uncomfortable to assume that we do not know their language. Or not learn it, because that would summon our empathy and put us before the circumstance of having to respect their rights and renounce certain privileges. Speciesism is based on logocentrism. But we will talk about this another day. Today we will celebrate music as a non-exclusive language of the human species.