A Nest of Sound

A Nest of Sound

Greg Sandow

I had my first musical experience with a bird many years ago, when I was a total city guy. I was frantically orchestrating an opera one December, in my studio apartment in the Village, trying to finish the piece before the premiere. I’d stayed up all night, and just before dawn, with the sky blue-gray, I heard an unfamiliar squawk from my fire escape. I looked out the window, and saw a bird even I could recognize as a Blue Jay. They’re not unknown in New York, but hardly common. I’ve never seen one there before or since, and I took that one as a sign, telling me I’d get the opera done. (Which I did.) The raucous squawk—When you need a kick in the butt, which works better, jeeah or queedle?

But now I’m swimming in bird songs. Around my country place in Warwick, New York are endless birds, starting at dawn, and going on till twilight, getting quiet at the hottest part of the day, and thinning out to single calls at twilight. As music, it’s as daunting as a 12-tone Schoenberg piece for somebody who can’t tell a clarinet from a tuba. Because I don’t know birds well, it’s too complex to keep track of. Chortles, trills, squeaks, chitters, squalls, and little sudden tunes—it’s overwhelming. I can listen to it, of course, as my special slice of Cage‘s 4’33”, but (with no disrespect to Cage here) if I do that, the birds aren’t interesting. They’re just sounds like any other sound. But they intrigue me, so I want more. I noticed long ago that birds don’t react to one another. They’re not like people at a party and a restaurant, who pick up on the flow of each others’ conversations, even if they don’t think they’re listening. The birds, instead, sing independently; each listens, of course, to songs from its own species (“There’s a male I’ll go check out!” “Oops—some slimeball rival just intruded in my territory!), but they don’t react at all to the songs of others.

I brought some order into chaos when I learned to identify even one or two birds. Of course, there were a few I knew already, as anybody would—crows, mourning doves (perched on wires, softly moaning), and the idiotic boasting rooster at the house next door, who sounds like he’s full of himself. If I were Roger Tory Peterson, he’d be saying I’m an asshole! I’m an asshole!

But these birds don’t seem part of the larger fabric. They stand out from it, not like soloists, but instead as foreigners. I guess I like the peeping birds, the softer ones, the chirping ones, the ones that sing, and which I barely know. They’re the vast majority. And we have a lot of them. Our property has many habitats for birds—lawns, woods (far behind the trailer where we’re living, while our new house gets built), wetlands, wooded wetlands, mowed fields, and fields with lusty, high, encroaching weeds. Each habitat attracts its special birds, and we hear all of them, which makes the sound so varied and confusing. It’s hard to focus on one bird at a time. I can understand how people new to classical music might feel. Forget Schoenberg—even Beethoven can be confusing, if you can’t sort out the winds and strings.

So I started studying CDs of bird songs, in a three-disc set called Birding By Ear, yet another of the multitudinous Peterson Field Guides, this one put together by Richard K. Walton and Robert W. Lawson. This isn’t easy. The birds sound more alike than I’d expected, and, though I’d been hearing bird song all my life, I realized that I’d never really listened to it, never tried to sort out what the birds are doing, the many kinds of sounds they make, or the patterns those sounds fall into. I was having the same problems everybody has, when we’re faced with unfamiliar music and haven’t learned to sort out all the things it’s doing.

So after many blank minutes with the discs, wondering if any bird would ever make a mark on me, I was grateful, in the midst of the daily clamor, to recognize a Field Sparrow. It has, says the booklet that comes with my CD set, “an accelerating whistle that ends in a trill.” Which isn’t very useful; a lot of birds, I’d think, might sound like that. More helpful was the second phrase of the description, in which we learn that the accelerating whistle has a “rhythmic pattern similar to that of a Ping-Pong ball dropping on a table.” That’s a vivid image, and it glued itself inside my mind, to what the bird really sings. Or, anyway, what the bird recorded on the CDs sang. My Field Sparrow, a dogged individual, refused to speed up as much as the CD said he should. Which might be one reason I was so grateful when I noticed him. He was more than music; he was a little person, a fellow citizen of Warwick. Out of the babble came a voice that all at once I knew. In a crowd of strangers, I’d found a friend.

But maybe that’s what happens when people learn to recognize symphonic instruments. Or, going a step further, when you recognize a single instrumentalist, as one of my Juilliard students did when I happened to play in class the start of Leonard Bernstein’s first recording of the Brahms First. “That’s the New York Philharmonic,” said the student, a percussionist. “I recognize Saul Goodman on the timpani.”

As I studied birds a little more, something else began to fascinate me, something beyond their sounds. The bird writers, when they’re describing bird songs, all at once are music writers, though I don’t think they’re aware of this. Which brings them into my part of the intellectual world and gives them responsibilities they might not know they have. For instance, they need to use musical terms correctly. I don’t want to slag them very violently; I imagine them as gentle people, defined above all by a love of birds that I’m coming to share. But still I’ll complain that my new friend the Field Sparrow doesn’t really trill, no matter what Mr. Walton and Mr. Lawson might believe.

Listen to it once again, if you care to. What its notes create, as they speed up, isn’t a trill. It’s a tremolo, or, more specifically, the kind of tremolo you get when, working with electronics, you modulate one pure wave with another and gradually speed up the pace. First you hear repeating notes; then, when the repetition gets fast enough, they blend into a texture, a repetition so quick that you can’t detect the separate sounds, but only hear a buzz. Now, I guess an early music specialist would say the sparrow sings a Monteverdi trill, made by repeating a note, rather than alternating fast between adjacent ones. But I think the sound is more textural than that; birds, finally, aren’t human, and don’t make human sounds. In any case, I’m sure the bird writers—who might not be Monteverdi experts—meant “trill” in its most mainstream meaning, even if they don’t quite understand it. And in fact bird books constantly confound “trill” and “tremolo,” just as almost everyone these days thinks “crescendo” means a climax.

The bird writers also, though they might not realize this, turn into music critics, making judgments that apparently seem self-evident, so much so that they may not know they’re making judgments. Look at Peterson, not just describing but evaluating the Blue Jay’s sounds as “a harsh slurring jeeah or jay,” and “a musical queedle, queedle.” One sound is “harsh,” the other “musical,” as if music must always be melodious. You see this constantly in bird books. Peterson judges that the Song Sparrow sings “a variable series of notes, some musical, some buzzy.” So now buzzes aren’t musical. But then a lot of people, maybe most people, share this prejudice, which we in new music wouldn’t go along with. We’d think that any sound can find its place in music, noise emphatically included. The prejudice the bird books show is helpful, curiously; it shows the obstacles new music often faces, when people think it isn’t “musical.”

And quite apart from their judgments, bird writers aren’t good as music critics; they need to listen harder, and learn more about music, so they can make better comparisons. They especially need to learn more about new music, because birds, again, aren’t human, and not only don’t make human sounds, but don’t make sounds that fall—when you listen to them carefully—into traditional musical categories at all.

Take the Wood Thrush. The guys who made the CDs love him. He’s a “woodland minstrel,” they gush, “one of North America’s premier vocalists.” And certainly his song is unforgettable. I learned it, in fact, before I learned the Field Sparrow, when I heard it all alone as I rode my bike down a road that briefly goes through woods. The Wood Thrush is a forest bird (or, to be more precise, an edge-of-the-forest bird). It sings in early evening, when other birds are quieter; its song takes on a halo, as it echoes lightly in the trees. And it’s a modest song, broken into tiny phrases, each one sounding like a softly improvised experiment.

But is it “flute-like”? Here it is. I wouldn’t call that a flute. What makes it gripping, in fact, is that the sounds, modest as they are, are also complicated; my own comparison for some of them would be electronic music. The phrases that these sounds are part of—quick little notes, leading to a whirring buzz—almost sound like Mario Davidovsky. The bird books can’t tell us that.

But even when they aren’t making judgments, bird writers are music critics, because they describe bird songs, and try to translate them into words. Their books are full of these translations, typically italicized: tow-weee…quwalk, quwalk [the Black-crowned Night-Heron, a raucous delight when, typically in the south, it surprises you some evening from a tree] …witchety, witchety, witchety…here I am, where are you? In a spasm of attempted helpfulness, the CD booklet includes what it calls a “Phonetic Index,” an alphabetical list of all its renderings, as if readers could jump from the bird to the words, and find the page in the booklet where the song is analyzed:

Ank, ank, ank —White-breasted Nuthatch, 32
A-wweet, a-weet, a-weet-teo — Hooded Warbler, 48
Bob white, bob white —Northern Bobwhite, 40

I suppose this might sometimes work. At least, if I’ve heard a song and want to know the bird that sings it, I could find the renderings that seem the closest. At least the rhythm might be a guide. But do these renderings really sound like the birds? Sometimes they do—a Red-winged Blackbird really does sing something at least faintly like conqueree, in the CD booklet, or, in other books, konk-la-ree or kon-ka-reee or okalee. But when I’m told that the Song Sparrow sings maids, maids, maids, put on your tea, kettle, kettle, kettle, I get lost, because I don’t hear anything like that. If you’re curious, here’s what it really does. I’d like to think that maids, maids, maids is a very old rendering, a kind of folk poetry from the past, as old as the high-necked summer dresses on display at the Warwick Historical Society.

But still, when I put four books together and filtered what they said through my knowledge of music, they helped me recognize the Song Sparrow’s song, though I had to work pretty hard to do that.

I started with the CD booklet. It says the Song Sparrow sings “three (sometimes two) introductory notes, followed by various notes and trills.” Which, if you ask me, punts the description pretty badly, because I might not recognize the song unless I know just what those various notes might be. Peterson doesn’t do much better, laconically telling me that the Song Sparrow “usually starts with 3 or 4 clear repetitious notes, sweet, sweet, sweet, etc.” Again there’s a punt—that vague “etc.,” skipping onward just when things get interesting. (And can’t these experts agree about how many introductory notes the poor bird sings?

Donald and Lillian Stokes, in their Field Guide to Birds (the most helpful book, I think, for visual identification, because they sort out many similar birds—all the sparrows, for instance—by their most important distinguishing marks, with special attention to the most common species) do appreciate the Song Sparrow, noting that it has a “rich and varied warble.” No conventional judgments here, no carping that the sound in some way isn’t musical. But they punt, too, because they don’t say what’s going on in all this rich variety.

They also indulge themselves in maids, maids, maids, though here things do get interesting and even helpful. Their version is subtly different, in both its wording, and, more notably, its punctuation from what’s on the CD booklet. Here’s the comparison:

the CD booklet: maids, maids, maids, put on your tea, kettle, kettle, kettle
the Stokes: maids, maids, maids, put on your tea kettle, ettle ettle

There are two main differences here. First, the quicker rhythm at the end (ettle instead of kettle, and no commas interrupting the flow). The Stokes, I think, are more accurate. Second, and, I think, most crucially, there’s the comma in the CD booklet after tea. That’s important, because the tea sound, in the bird’s real song, stands out. It’s not separated from the sounds that follow, so the comma isn’t quite exact, but at least the comma highlights the sound as something special. Sibley gets this mostly right, when he decrees that the Song Sparrow “begins with several short, sharp notes, [with] usually one long trill in the middle of the song seet seet seet to zeeeeee tipo zeet zeet.” Now, I’m a little giddy after tipo zeet zeet, which seems, on the whole, more zany than accurate; I have to note (here we go again) that the zeeeeee is a tremolo, not a trill; and, at least on the CD, the zeeeeee isn’t any longer than the other sounds (making tea a more rhythmically accurate rendering than zeeeeee, even if zeeeeee catches the timbre better). But what Sibley gets right—and what, in the end, I learned from all these books together, and of course from the real bird—is the structure of the song: three notes, a longish whirr, and then a flurried coda. This structure, if you ask me, is the key to recognition because Song Sparrows sing their songs in different ways. But they always keep the structure. If the bird writers told me that, I at least might have learned the song more quickly. And, I could fantasize, other readers might learn about how structure works in music.

But here, for comic relief, is something sweet: On the CD, the man who talks about the bird songs (the booklet doesn’t say if he’s Richard Walton, Robert Lawson, or someone else) tries to sing the bird-song renderings, and with enchanting humanity can’t succeed either as a singer or a bird. Here he is, singing conqueree, to introduce the Red-winged Blackbird, which makes its entrance after he’s finished. He sounds like someone in an amateur musical, someone who isn’t really a performer, and can’t quite believe he’s singing, but does it anyway.

The bird, of course, has no such inhibitions, and corrects both the speaker’s intonation and his timbre. In the bird’s version, the skip to the last syllable isn’t timid, and isn’t an out of tune fourth, as the speaker sings it; instead it’s a leap into space, an exhilarating jump of just about an octave, though the last sound seems even higher than it is because it’s almost pitchless, not a note but closer to an edgy skree. (Oops—now I’m making my own translations. And I should add that I measured the octave leap with my audio software, which can measure the implicit pitch of complex sounds.) The speaker only comes close when he sings the bird’s first syllable, which, in the urtext, sounds a little nasal, and lands it in more or less the same sonic universe as con—or, more accurately, as one of the other bird books has it, konk. Did the speaker, I wonder, listen to the CD? Did he care that he doesn’t sound like the bird? Would he have dared to try to fix his rendering?

As I finish taking notes for this, it’s twilight. I’m sitting in a field, listening to birds. On my left are woods, with a line of trees that circles out in front of me, outlined against the sky in the growing darkness like a jagged mountain range. Down a hill, in front of me and to my right, are more woods.

A small plane drones in circles overhead. When it flies away, I hear a distant siren, just one wail (no surprise, since Warwick is a blend of rural countryside and suburbs). Then silence, till a mosquito, a little insect fighter plane, whines in my ear. Suddenly a Wood Thrush sings from the woods on my left. A chitter seems to answer it. Somewhere far in front of me, a Field Sparrow sings, once more refusing to accelerate as much as the books say he should.

Far away on my right, a bird I almost recognize calls out chit chit chit. Is it a Cardinal? (I don’t know if they sing at night.) The wind rises, with a whoosh that’s loud enough to veil whatever bird I heard. It dies down, but segues, like coherent music, into the sound of a car that passes (swish) along a road that I can’t see, but know is sitting just beyond the corn field that’s past the trees in front of me.

Now it’s dark; the birds have stopped. The nighttime insects start; I see a firefly. I get up, and walk downhill towards the woods on my right. Just before they start, I’m blocked by weeds and grasses, higher than my chest. Fireflies are winking on and off, and they, too, are music.

Last summer, vacationing in England, I’d watch sheep on distant hillsides, white dots against the green. I’d watch the patterns shift, hour by hour, and day by day. Once the dots stampeded downward; the sheep were being herded to another pasture. I wrote a section of a string quartet about the sheep, with uninflected pizzicato notes, each representing one white dot, rhythmically arranged by random processes (I counted letters in words picked at random from a book) in groups that corresponded to the groups of sheep on the hill; groups of one, two, or three sheep, whose probability I’d calculated, and then used to determine whether the notes would be grouped in ones or twos or threes. The effect is strangely peaceful.

I could do that with the fireflies. They’re everywhere in front of me, winking on the left and on the right, above me and below me, close to me and far away. Like the sheep, they’d generate ambient and aleatoric music. I’d have to figure out their probabilities. How often do they wink? In what kind of groups? No groups, I think; each wink is all alone. Some winks move; you see the firefly’s trajectory. And the spatial distribution—whether winks are high or low, right or left, deep or shallow—seems entirely random. What sound would be the fireflies? How would I represent their depth? How could sounds define the space they’re in, as the fireflies do above the weeds in front of me? What sound could be a glowing point, that sometimes glides?

I think about all that, and like the birds, it makes me peaceful.


This was my annual tribute to Tom Johnson, my predecessor two decades ago as new music columnist at The Village Voice, who wrote unforgettably about birds and brooks and snow. This is also my last column for NewMusicBox. Writing here has been a wonderful experience; I’ve had a very special forum, in which I could write at length about things I deeply care about. Many thanks to Richard, Frank, and Molly, and to John Kennedy, for giving me this opportunity, supporting me, and cracking the whip with sharp and helpful edits. I’m sure I’ll be back, writing more for NewMusicBox, in some other way; till then, Godspeed to all my friends here, and may the site thrive. It’s needed.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.