Rambling on – 12: A different mystery

Do gibbon duets work up a kind of proto-musical call and response? With the ear of faith, perhaps. But of course there are other species that do more than make noise. Birds are the ones we love best, and the sound-generating capacities of some species offer a mystery as profound in its way as human music.

We humans even call their active noise-making song, in recognition of the qualities it shares with what we do. And the more it resembles song, the harder it seems to account for. I am beguiled by David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing* and not just because he is a jazz musician – he studied clarinet with Jimmy Guiffre – who jams with other species when he gets the chance. But although he circles round the question, with help from poets, biologists, neuroscientists, fellow musicians, and, yes, some live birdsong, he doesn’t really find, the answer. I think perhaps because he prefers for it to remain in a mysterious category that comes under the broader heading of accounting for the existence of naturally borne beauty – he has another later book entirely devoted to that.

There are the usual attempts at explanation to consider. It’s true that among the subset of all bird species who sing there seem to be territorial songs. And mating calls. But there are some that do more. Birds have a more complex vocal apparatus than we do, and a few can use it to develop long, complex, recombined lines, can learn new ones they hear, and can break out of the dull behavioural categories than preoccupy evolutionary biologists and ethologists.

The stars of the bird world – mockingbirds, lyre birds – do more than can be accounted for in these terms. Or take the marsh warbler, studied in fantastic detail by Francoise Dowsett-Lemaire. On sunny days, when food is easy to come by, she “noticed groups of neighbouring males joining together for ‘periods of peaceful singing when they are off duty’.” That’s to say they are not nest-minding or foraging for their chicks. Her inference: male marsh warblers “enjoy singing and must realise in some way that music is fun. There is no doubt about that.” That they incorporate fragments of song from many other species in a densely-packed recitation also seem to fit in with this. Rothenberg, the jazz aficianado, has an apt comparison:

If the mockingbird is the Charlie Parker of bird soloists, he writes, the warbler “is closer to Ornette Coleman, repeating rough riffs, swinging with just the right space in between.” I’m not sure I would hear birdsong in Ornette’s Rambling if I consider it in detail, but I reckon Rothenberg would.

And he would explore similar reasons for making it, “singing because of the need to sing. Listening for the prospect of listening.” All your evolutionary theorising and tracing of synaptic connections is fine, says Rothenberg, but misses the fact he can’t get past, that some birdsong is really a manifestation of natural exuberance: it’s the sound of joy.

His book circles back to where it began, and he reprises the position he hinted at in the opening: that the “explanation” of birdsong holds good – or as good as it can – for our own musical efforts. “Why do birds sing? For the same reason we sing – because we can. Because we love to inhabit the pure realms of sound. Because we must…”. That does have a lot of appeal, but I don’t want to settle for that as a conclusion: at least not yet. Viewed askance, it amounts to saying that music is inexplicable, but good because it’s inexplicably nice. The point of both birdsong and music is not to explain them but lies in the performance. And whatever explanation might be supplied, the need to perform will remain. I see that. But still want to know more.

In that light, let’s step gently back. Rothenberg is happy to call the heights of birdsong music. But is it? That’s a different thing from making music with birds. The player is responding to a given sound. (I once saw Lol Coxhill do this in his usual droll manner, incorporating a bird riff from high in the space of the Barbican conservatory into his solo improvisation. He got a bit annoyed after a while though, as the bird merely kept repeating it’s little phrase and he wanted to move on…)

And of course there is plenty of other music that incporates (what the composer takes to be) elements of birdsong or responds to it. But again the musical framing is coming from us.

Roger Scruton puts the opposite case, that other species’ sounds have nothing to do with proper music, rather clearly. A key passage of his second book on musical aesthetics* explains. It starts from his categorisation of sounds as “pure events”. He means a sound is not something that happens to something: it is the thing that happens. Considered in that way, the actions and even the intentions that may lie behind it fall away.

“Because sounds are pure events we can detach them, in thought and experience, from their causes, and impose upon them an order that is quite independent of any physical order in the world. This happens, I suggest, in the ‘acousmatic’ experience of sound, when people focus on the sounds themselves and on what can be heard in them. What they then hear is not a succession of sounds, but a movement between tones, governed by a virtual causality that resides in the musical line.”

And that’s something for people, and no other creatures, because:

“Only a rational being—one with self-consciousness, intention, and the ability to represent the world—can experience sounds in this way; hence, although we can hear music in the songs of birds, whales and bonobos, they themselves are deaf to it. Nothing is to be learned about music and its meaning, I contend, from studying the sounds made by animals.”

Nothing? That’s a pretty strong exclusion, which will need looking at again.  

A little something to listen to while thinking all this over some more…

*A book I had a small hand in when it was published in the UK, but there are better reasons for liking it.

** Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, 2013. An odd volume of essays that follows up an earlier book. It veers between admirably clear general comments on sound, music and how they are experienced, which I’ll come back to, and less impressive commentaries on actual music. Less impressive because, as fqr as I can see, Scruton’s philosophising doesn’t equip him to shed any more light on music than the least philosophically informed writer (me, for instance). Item, his first essay here on a particular composer, looks mainly at a piece he fell in love with as a teenager. And when he strives most mightily to describe what it does, he uses conventional ideas about melody, structure and form, then adds rather lamely that “there is something else, something that seems to elude the musicologist, something for which the most obvious word is ‘soul’.” He even goes on to suggest that Mozart had a special understanding of the soul of the piano. Okaaay…

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