Nature in Music

Nature in Music

Natural sound can inspire musical structure and new musical timbre. But can nature also offer musical collaboration? Together with flutist Michael Pestel, I have been visiting the National Aviary in Pittsburgh for several years to find out, jamming live with their incredibly virtuosic rainforest birds.


If it sounds like music, is it right to call a bird’s song music? Philosopher Thomas Nagel said we’ll never know what it’s like to be a bat, because we’re 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?

I think I was first inspired to play along with the sounds of animals after hearing Paul Winter as a teenager. A saxophonist, Winter has devoted his career to making an environmentalist jazz, out in the field and in the studio, jamming with wolves and layering deep whale tones over slow, melancholic tunes. His finest record is probably Icarus, produced by George Martin of Beatles fame, who once said it was the best record he ever worked on. Winter continues to link music and ecology to this day.

As an improvising musician I am easily bored and don’t like to play anything I have ever heard before. But isn’t that impossible? Are we not like those birds who parrot back the 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, to single myself out. I’m no different from the birds. They’re just more sure of themselves.

Pestel and I enter the rain forest room and 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,” sings 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. And now we hear it clear as day from a bird.

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 this guy and he keeps coming back with a new variation. He’s not stuck in a rut. Nothing here seems preset: 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 tune 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. When humans get involved, we provoke them.”

Pestel and I move slowly through this man-made forest, with those fake drips from the real leaves falling every day. Listening for particular birds who are ready to take us seriously as singers in the dawn chorus.

In front of one thicket, I play a few notes and 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?

In the wilds of their native Moluccan Islands, these laughing thrushes go around in noisy, cackling groups of one or two dozen birds. But my bird seemed to live on his own, apart from any other members of his tribe. Perhaps he was lonely.

Later I do some research and discover that only two scientific papers have ever been written on this cheerful beast. Turns out this is 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? A threat, or a mate?

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 profusion of beautiful sounds. Playing music with birds 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?

Jim Nollman plays his electric guitar to killer whales in Puget Sound and has formed a whole organization devoted to interspecies communication. His next plan, the “Whale Techno” project, aims to get a group of contemporary electronic music producers to make pieces entirely out of sampled whale sounds that he will provide. There is still time to get in on it. Another fine whale-human duet is Lisa Walker’s Grooved Whale, an electric, underwater echo trance experience, mixing electric violin and humpbacks.

There is much interest in natural sounds in the compositions of sound artists and ambient electronic musicians. Here are some names to listen out for and to explore: Stephen Vitiello, creator of sound installations that appear in museums and galleries worldwide. He recently was sent to the Brazilian rainforest to create Yanomami soundscapes for a show at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, Aaron Ximm a.k.a. Quiet American, who makes intricate, rhythmic sound collages of sonic snippets collected on his travels, j. freed, creator of live and premeditated ambient nature-based sonic atmospheres and events.

From Nature in Music
by David Rothenberg
© 2004 NewMusicBox

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.