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Why birds sing

Jazz musician David Rothenberg describes his session improvising with the birds in the first of two pieces: You Make My Heart Sing. In the second piece, Sudden Music, writing as an ecological philosopher, David sets out the deeper reasons for his work.

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 neighbourhood. 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 rumoured to be friendly, and they liked to let musicians in during the early hours before the public, mostly guided schoolchildren, would storm the gates.

rothenberg and bird
David Rothenberg
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.

    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. 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 a crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) in the centre of the action. 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."

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 centre 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?

    “Man, that pink thing just won't shut up," growls Pestel. “I cannot work in these conditions. Let's move to the rainforest."

Call the sounds of birdlife 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. 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.

rothenberg prestel and bird
Pestel and Rothenberg
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.”

    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?

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."

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.

This is an excerpt from ‘You Make My Heart Sing’© David Rothenberg, edited and reprinted with permission.

A revised version appears in Why Birds Sing (2005, New York: Basic Books; London: Penguin Books)

Why Birds Sing, was reviewed by Andrew Motion for the Guardian.

Sudden Music

David explores the ideas behind his work as a jazz musician in this extract from his 2002 book Sudden Music:

We will not survive as artists or as a species if we cannot become a part of the world that surrounds us. There should be no duality between music and nature. Natural sound is never so clearly separable from human sound. The moment we decide to listen, to seek out meaning, we start to change the world. We cannot preserve that sound world apart from our listening, and we cannot make any kind of music without sensing its resonance in an environment, be it a concert hall, a bedroom, a car, a bar, or a windy bluff out in the rain.

Go outside. Listen carefully with open ears. Pick one sound, pay attention only to it. Describe it carefully, either in words or in a picture. Then think about the sound, its structure, its effect on you. Pick up your instrument again, try to play something inspired by that one sound. Don't just imitate it, but learn from it. Feel how it works, turn it into a music that is shaped by what you have heard and learned. Then play what you've done in the wake of that sound. Hear if you've managed to fit in, if you've made any difference to the world at all.

rothenberg and clarinet As the environmental crisis perpetuated by humanity intensifies, all artists, including musicians and composers, can find many ways to link excellence in their work with making constructive contributions to the solutions of the world's problems. It is not only the plea of an aesthete to want better music that draws from more-than-human sounds and their structures. Those of us who want our species to pay more attention to the environment will not achieve our goal by only stating scary facts and harbouring inadequate feelings of guilt at the damage we have wrought. We're used to seeing the devastating effects of humanity upon nature, from the sludging of rivers to the smogging of the sky. But you can hear what's awry just as easily: Where are all of those songbirds that are supposed to live here? How hard it is to find any place free from the droning sounds of human creation. All over the planet, peace is soon disrupted by a distant jet or a nearby chainsaw. That's simply the way we live.

There is music in nature and nature in music. What may be most wonderful is that we can love and be immersed by both without needing to understand how the two are forever intertwined. It is enough to know that they are. The sense of sight usually gives the most details, at least of the kind we can enumerate. Scent has a powerful ability to spur recollection, to bring memories of our sense of envelopment in different places of the past. Touch gives the sense of our body's presence and limits, while sound gives a sense of our environment, what is around us, where we fit in. This is its immediate contribution to ecology.

from Sudden Music. Improvisation, sound, nature. (2002, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press), © David Rothenberg, edited and re-printed with permission.

For the full version of both essays, see David’s website:

David Rothenberg is professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and lives in Cold Spring, NY. As jazz musician and composer, David makes music that moves across the species. Known for his improvisation with the sounds of nature and the songs of the more-than-human, he also plays with human musicians across many cultures. As eco-philosopher and writer, David’s works have been integral to thinking in Deep Ecology.

Other works by David Rothenberg

music and albums:
Soo Roo 2004
Before the War 2000
Bangalore Wild 1999
Unamuno 1997
On the Cliffs of the Heart 1995
Nobody could explain it 1992

Why Birds Sing (2005, Basic Books in USA, Penguin in England)
Sudden Music. Improvisation, sound, nature (2002, University of Georgia Press)
Always the Mountains (2003, University of Georgia Press)
Blue Cliff Record: Zen Echoes (2001, Codhill Press)
Hand’s End: Technology and the Limits of Nature (1995, University of California Press)
Is It Painful to Think? Conversations with Arne Naess (1992, University of Minnesota Press)

David edits the Terra Nova book series which presents writings on culture and nature:
Writing the World (2005, edited with Wandee J. Pryor, MIT Press)
Writing the Future: Progress and Evolution (2004, edited with Wandee J. Pryor, MIT Press)
Writing on Air (2003, edited with Wandee J. Pryor, MIT Press)
Writing on Water (2001, edited with Marta Ulvaeus, MIT Press)
The Book of Music and Nature (2001, edited with Marta Ulvaneus, Wesleyan University Press)
The World and the Wild (2001, edited with Marta Ulvaeus, University of Arizona Press)
The New Earth Reader: The Best of Terra Nova (1999, edited with Marta Ulvaeus, MIT Press)

other co-edited publications include:
A Parliament of Minds (1999, edited with with Michael Tobias and Pat Fitzgerald, SUNY Press)
Beneath the Surface. Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology (2000, edited with with Eric Katz and Andrew Light, MIT Press)


published in 2005

'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.'

Download audio:

excerpt from White Crested Laughter (MP3 format, 1.4 MB)

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