A Dual History of Racism and Nature’s Music
“During this pandemic, I’ve been feeling … particularly drawn to birding,” Joan Walsh wrote for The Nation. “You can hear the birds better without the city noise, and Central Park feels wilder, Edenic. Birding’s careful, meditative rhythms seem a cure for pandemic jitters.”
New York in the time of COVID-19 has largely been talked about in terms of how it sounds. The silence of thoroughfares like Times Square. The daily applause for healthcare and other essential workers at 7 p.m. The sounds of nature at ease, for once not having to contend with millions of humans.
Earlier this week, another sound: that of a white woman adjusting the tone of her voice to manufacture a sense of danger and panic when she called the police on a black man in Central Park. This came in response to the man asking her to put her dog on a leash (per Central Park rules) so that he could continue birding. When she refused, he began to film the altercation, including the part where she called in a false police report.
“He has developed a virtuoso’s ear for their birdsong, and can identify them by chirp,” the New York Times reported on Christian Cooper, the birder whom Amy Cooper (no relation) threatened in Central Park. “There’s a myth that I have the best ears in the park,” he told the Times in their subsequent profile. “It’s a myth.”
“The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language, for all the members of the same species utter the same instinctive cries expressive of their emotions,” writes Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. “These sounds, as Daines Barrington has proved, ‘are no more innate than language is in man.’”
Nearly 150 years after The Descent of Man, a 2013 study published by researchers from MIT and the University of Tokyo suggested that Darwin was correct: Human language was a combination of birdsong and other “more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expression seen in a diversity of other animals.”
La langue des oiseaux, literally the language of birds, was said to have been used by the Troubadours in their native Occitania from the 12th through 14th centuries. This description, as scholar Eliza Zingesser writes in her recent book Stolen Song: How the Troubadours Became French, was given by the conquering French, who used the term “birdsong” to describe the Occitan language.
“The association between birdsong and semantic opacity persists to this day,” she writes. “While it may be more common to compare something we don’t understand to Greek, to call something gobbledygook is, etymologically, to call it turkey talk.”
Mozart purchased a pet starling on May 27, 1784 and, according to legend, taught it to mimic the opening of his Piano Concerto No. 17. When the bird died three years later, Mozart conducted an elaborate funeral for the family pet, burying it in his garden, with a headstone and poem written for the occasion. (Mozart’s father, Leopold, died a few weeks earlier.)
“In European music, birdsong frequently shares the decorative role of captive birds… Composers portray calls and songs of a small group of familiar, local species by means of simple patterns, such as a descending 3rd for the cuckoo (also a 2nd, or a 4th in Janequin’s Le chant des oiseaux, c1559) and a series of repeated pitches with trills for the nightingale.… Other musical birds include blackbirds (Tiessen, 1953), skylarks, quails, owls, crows, hens and roosters; the last three groups have been assigned comic functions in Italian madrigals and frottolas.”
— Maria Anna Harley, “Birdsong” entry from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2001 (emphasis my own)
I’m hard-pressed to think of a representation of a crow in classical music. Growing up during the ‘80s revival of Disney films in theaters and on home video, the association between music and crows immediately calls to mind “Dumbo.”
A quick search yields a Haydn video on YouTube titled “Le Corbeau” (which could mean crow or raven). Its performer, pianist Phillip Sear, notes that the piece is from a book of piano music from the 17th and 18th centuries that was published by Scottish musician Alfred Moffat. “Actually most of the music was not originally for keyboard,” writes Sear. “I have not been able to establish which Haydn work this piece, published in 1931, comes from. It is rather romanticised Haydn, but given that new recordings are being made of Handel/Mozart and Bach/Stokowski I see no reason not to bring out Haydn/Moffat, because the piece is quite effective, if not authentic.”
Classical music and birdsong: A selected chronology
Rameau’s “Le rappel des oiseaux,” from the second edition of “Pièces de Clavecin,” 1724. In the same year, France’s King Louis XV passed the second version of the Code Noir, which legalized restrictions and punishments for slaves in the French colonies.
Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto No. 3 in D Major, “The Goldfinch,” published in 1728
Boccherini’s String Quintet in D Major, “The Aviary,” 1771. The previous year, Crispus Attucks, an African-American dockworker, became the first person killed in the Boston Massacre—and, by extension, the American Revolution.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, “The Hen,” 1785. In the same year, John James Audubon was born out of wedlock, in what is now Les Cayes, Haiti, to a French plantation owner and a woman who some have considered to be Creole. Audubon’s 1964 biographer, Alice Ford, has denied this link (although more recent fact checks suggest Ford altered several facts and facets of Audubon’s life).
Alyabyev’s “The Nightingale,” 1826, which served as the basis for Glinka’s “Variations on Alyabyev’s Romance ‘The Nightingale,’” 1833 and Liszt’s transcription, “Le rossignol,” 1842. In this era, the abolitionist movement gained steam in the United States. Denmark Vesey was executed in 1822 for attempting to organize a slave revolt in South Carolina; Sojourner Truth escaped from slavery in 1826; Nat Turner led a rebellion in 1831; and Frederick Douglass launched his newspaper, The North Star, in 1847.
Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (Songs of a Wayfarer), 1883-85. The finch motif returned in the first movement of his Symphony No. 1, 1888. Around the time that Mahler began work on “Wayfarer,” journalist Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat on the ladies car of a train for a white woman and was thrown off the train. She won a lawsuit against the railroad in the same year, but the verdict was overturned in 1887, with the Tennessee Supreme Court declaring: “We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride.” (Wells cofounded the NAACP in New York City the same year that Mahler became the music director of the New York Philharmonic).
Saint-Saëns’s “Poules et coqs” (Hens and Roosters), “Volière” (The Aviary), and “Le cygne” (The Swan), all taken from “Carnival of the Animals,” 1886. Ten years earlier, the first Jim Crow laws were passed in the United States.
Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale,” premiered in 1914; Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” composed in 1914. The following year, D. W. Griffith would reignite the Ku Klux Klan with his film “The Birth of a Nation.”
Inspired by the nightingale, Handel incorporated the bird’s song into “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” (1740), “Solomon” (1748), and his Organ Concerto No. 13 (1740), known as “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.”
“Though we may wish it were not so, George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) himself was an investor in the official slave trading business, the Royal African Company,” writes scholar David Hunter in the September 2019 edition of the Music Library Association’s journal, Notes.
Last week, radio host and podcaster Garrett McQueen, who mentioned Handel’s connection to the slave trade on-air, was contacted by a listener:
“You’re not shy about mentioning that #Handel had dealings with the slave trade. Do you mention that Bernstein supported the domestic terrorists known as the #BlackPanthers?”
McQueen added that it had been six or seven months since he last aired Handel, “so obviously something else triggered him. Probably my existence.”
The advent of sound recording means that birdsong can be used in works in recorded form. John Cage’s I Ching-inspired “Bird Cage,” 1972, instructs that a dozen tapes be distributed to a solo performer, presented in a space “in which people are free to move and birds to fly.” The score includes a copy of Cage’s membership card for the National Audubon Society (expiration date: February, 1973).
In 2001, Jonathan Harvey reversed the order of importance in his “Bird Concerto with Pianosong.”
Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 1972 “Cantus Arcticus” incorporates several bird recordings in each of its movements, recorded in and near the Arctic Circle. The final movement uses a recording of the whooper swan (the national bird of Finland), which fades out with the orchestra, flying out of reach.
According to the BBC, the 2006 outbreak of H5N1 in the UK was due to a whooper swan.
In “Peter and the Wolf,” composed for Moscow’s Central Children’s Theatre in 1936, Prokofiev used the flute to represent the Bird and the oboe for the Duck. That same year, Prokofiev had moved back to the Soviet Union (a move he would later regret in the later days of Stalin’s reign).
Marian Anderson toured the Soviet Union in 1935, four years before she gave her Lincoln Memorial Concert (which in turn followed the Daughters of the American Revolution refusing to let the contralto perform in a segregated Constitution Hall). At the border, Anderson and her accompanist, Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen, were delayed for 30 minutes by a border guard who—according to Vehanen’s later account in a biography of Anderson—was suspicious of a black woman traveling with her own recordings, and therefore listened to each one before they were allowed to enter.
In the same year that Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Prokofiev began to compose his series of War Sonatas. This included his “Stalingrad” Sonata No. 7, which quotes Schumann’s lied, “Sadness”:
Nightingales, when spring breezes
Play outside, sing
Their song of longing
From their dungeon cell.
Then all hearts listen
And everyone rejoices,
Yet no one feels the pain,
The deep sorrow in the song.
“All the world knows that I’m an ornithologist and what an enormously important place the songs of birds occupy in my work.”
The 20th and 21st centuries teemed with birdsong quotations in music, from Amy Beach’s “Hermit Thrush at Eve” to John Luther Adams’s “Canticles of the Holy Wind.” But the era has most closely been associated with Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). As a teenager in Aube, he began to notice the avian world.
By the age of 32, Messiaen was in a German POW camp in Görlitz. Captured in 1940, in 1941 he premiered his “Quartet for the End of Time” with three fellow prisoners. Their audience was comprised of fellow prisoners of war and camp guards. The reconfiguration of time during imprisonment is reflected in the eight-movement work. It begins with “the awakening of the birds: a thrush or a nightingale soloist improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose themselves high in the trees. Transpose this to the religious plane: you will have the harmonious silence of heaven.”
Later, a clarinet solo signifies the Abyss of the Birds: “The abyss is Time, with its sadness and tediums. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song.”
He would develop the material further with 1953’s “Réveil des oiseaux,” 1955’s “Oiseaux exotiques,” 1958’s “Catalogue d’oiseaux” and “The Sermon to the Birds” in his 1983 opera “Saint François d’Assise.”
“It’s probable,” he would later say, “that in the artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians on our planet.”
In April, 1944 (the same month in which he would be diagnosed with leukemia), Bartók wrote to his son Peter:
Spring has now indisputably arrived… The birds have become completely drunk with the spring and are putting on concerts the like of which I’ve never heard. They start with puty-puty-puty ./ ../ ../ . and end up with various new bird sounds (clearly from later arrivals)… creating more and more variants.”
In 1945, the final year of his life, he composed his Third Piano Concerto as a birthday gift for his wife. The transcripts of the previous year’s birdsong are reflected in the second movement.
There are, according to MIT linguistics professor Shigeri Miyagawa, two “layers” of human language: “an ‘expression’ layer, which involves the changeable organization of sentences, and a ‘lexical’ layer, which relates to the core content of a sentence.”
“Human beings consider the elaborate courtship and territorial songs of birds to be beautiful, and probably ultimately for the same reason they are of use to the birds,” wrote Edward O. Wilson in Sociobiology (1975). “With clarity and precision they identify the species, the physiological condition and the mental set of the singer. Richness of information and precise transmission of mood are no less the standards of excellence in human music.”
Darwin loved birdsong, but recognized that it was largely a function of sexuality and reproduction. “No animal would be capable of admiring such scenes as the heavens at night, a beautiful landscape or refined music… Such tastes are acquired through culture.”
The contemporary British philosopher Anthony O’Hear agreed: “We hear no stories of animals reflectively, disinterestedly, admiring some aesthetic feature of their environment.”
Bel canto literally means “beautiful singing.” In one of the most famous works of the era, Donizetti’s 1835 opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Lucia sings a 20-minute mad scene after stabbing her husband on their wedding night, shortly before she dies herself. Disoriented, she wanders among the wedding guests in a haze, remembering her true love amid the manipulations of both her brother and spiritual counsel.
Suddenly, Lucia hears a bird—played either on flute or (as the composer initially intended) glass harmonica. The apotheosis of her insanity, what they would have then called hysteria and what we now may read as trauma and self-realization, comes when she mimics the bird in a call-and-response designed to show off a soprano’s coloratura.
Thinking of this moment, of hysteria rendered as beauty, I’m struck by the image of an opera audience during a performance of “Lucia,” reflectively, disinterestedly, admiring some aesthetic feature of their environment.
I remember, too, a performance given by Kathleen Battle in Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia” at the Met in 1989. During a comic scene that involves her would-be lover gatecrashing the home in which her guardian keeps her, the music turns somber. She feigns tears, bemoaning the misery of her life. The sudden shift from comedy to pathos is coded within the score as much as it is in Battle’s particular performance (Cecilia Bartoli also audibly cries on her recording of the opera for Decca with conductor Giuseppe Patanè). The oboe weeps.
In the video of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park, this same shift takes place in Amy Cooper’s voice when she calls the police. It’s so uncanny it may as well have been part of a score.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she tells Christian as she dials. She repeats “African-American” twice with the dispatcher. When it seems like she needs to explain the situation a third time, her tone modulates from steady (although perhaps slightly heightened by adrenaline and stress) to screaming in shorter breaths: “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”
“Strategic White Womanhood is a spectacle that permits the actual issue at hand to take a back seat to the emotions of the white woman, with the convenient effect that the status quo continues,” writes Ruby Hamad in her forthcoming book, White Tears/Brown Scars. “White women’s tears are fundamental to the success of whiteness. Their distress is a weapon that prevents people of colour from being able to assert themselves or effectively challenge white racism and alter the fundamental inequalities built into the system. Consequently, we all stay in the same place while whiteness reigns supreme, often unacknowledged and unnamed.”
Consider, too, the qualities of Christian Cooper’s voice (perhaps even more apparent as he doesn’t appear on camera). When Amy Cooper says she’s going to tell the police, falsely, that “there’s an African-American man threatening [her] life,” his tone becomes accommodating, inviting her to “Please tell them whatever you like.”
Earlier on, Amy charges at Christian, and there’s audible discomfort in his voice when he says, “Please don’t come close to me.” Her gestures, themselves reminiscent of the accusations made in early Salem during a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” further annex his personal space. The tones are enhanced by the gestures. Gesture itself becomes sound.
“Making wild sounds with an external instrument may seem like exerting control over something,” wrote Pamela Z in “A Tool Is a Tool” (1998). “While making those sounds with the voice might seem like losing control (i.e., madness, hysteria?). I don’t mean to over-generalize. There are many men who are quite happy using their voices and bodies in performance, and there are many women who are not. But, in a general way, women in our culture are not only socialized to feel more comfortable baring themselves in that way, but people are socialized to feel more comfortable accepting it from women.”
As a composer and sound/media artist, Pamela Z often incorporates technology into her works, even those that speak to the natural world. Her hands flutter as she controls recorded birdsong clips with a gesture-based midi controller in Syrinx/Birdvoice. She then slows a momentary chirp down to its individual notes, stretching it out. She replicates the line as a vocalise before speeding it back up again. The system is revealed, the process becomes abundantly clear.
The more we listen, the more we can discern.
Twitter is not a place for discourse. It’s usually a place for reactions to be piled on at a fast clip. The sum result is noise. Gobbledygook. But, slowed down into individual notes of death threats and racial slurs, it’s even more disturbing.
It is, to paraphrase something Dana White wrote (on, of course, Twitter), exhausting. “Being Black is not exhausting at all. White people are exhausting. That’s what they do, exhaust others, exhaust resources, exhaust themselves in their obsession with dominance. Whiteness is exhaustion.”
Retweeting this, Haitian-American composer and flutist Nathalie Joachim (whose family’s home community is just outside of Audubon’s birthplace of Les Cayes) concurred:
“I love being black. I love my heritage and my culture and my ancestry. But each day I wake up knowing that one way or another the truth outlined here will challenge that. It never fails. Never.”
The system is revealed, the process becomes abundantly clear.
A tool is a tool.
And why are we listening? Purposefully, as a means of evolution? Disinterestedly, as a means of passive consumption? Can that second version even accurately be described as listening?
The Dionysian ritual that would eventually give way to theater centered in part on the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which participants temporarily surrendered their individual selves to become part of a collective unconscious. Perhaps when we go into a place to listen, this is the legacy we continue: abandoning, if even for just an hour, our individual selves to understand the larger concept of humanity.
In one of his comedies, Ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes makes this metaphor manifest in the story of a few wanderers who attempt to create a new, egalitarian republic “where wisdom, grace, and love pervade the scene.”
The play in question is called “The Birds.”¶