SONGS OF PLACE AND TIME: Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts

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SONGS OF PLACE AND TIME Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts

For Liam, Mia and Osian


SONGS OF PLACE AND TIME Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts

Editors Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and John Strachan



Kate Rigby Foreword


Bennett Hogg ‘The notes that did so haunt me’: Birdsong, Twilight and the Great War


Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg, John Strachan Introduction



David Borthwick & the moon’s tattered rind

David Borthwick & there is no signal that says begin



Rachel Mundy Why Listen to Animals?

David Borthwick & house sparrows: 04.29


David Borthwick & not chorus as comment


John Bevis A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong


Tim Birkhead How Birds Sing



Mike Collier Singing the World: A Speculative Exploration of Birdsong in a Dawn Chorus


Linda France Dawn Chorus


Dave Pritchard A Dawn Chorus as Ecological Art, and its Significance in a Time of Environmental Alarm

David Borthwick & each song constructed carefully


Andrew Richardson Songbirds


Jay Griffiths Birdsong: Hannah’s Wood, Heart of Wales


James Castell Uttering John Clare’s Nonhuman Onomatopoeia


Marcus Coates Celestial Melody


Gerry Loose airs


Bernhard Malkmus Becoming a Listener: On Robert Schumann’s Bird as Prophet (from Forest Scenes, op 82)


Michael Guida Strange Love: The Captive City Chorus of Victorian London


David Borthwick & an oystercatcher’s call


Clara Dawson Mawddach Estuary, West Wales



John Strachan thou never wert


David Borthwick & soft morning getting its bearings


Tim Collier A Dawn Chorus in a Welsh Sessile Oak Wood in the Upper Tywi Valley


Stephen Moss Birdsong: A Precious Constant in this Sea of Chaos


Harriet Tarlo April 2020 or what is near


David Borthwick & woodpecker drumming


Anne Douglas A man standing in a forest listening intently, noting down what he hears


Hollis Taylor The Dark Side of the Dawn Chorus


Paul Kessell-Holland & Mike Collier Noise Sound Music


David Borthwick & bioacoustic boundaries of dawn



Geoff Sample Choral Twitter

Stevie Wishart Composers of the Air: Voicing the Dawn, A Memoir



Katrina Porteous Late Blackbird and the Origins of Language

David Borthwick & sudden silence in the hedgerow



Rachel Gefferie with Yves Tjon Sack Kie & Sean Dilrosun In conversation with Mike Collier ‘Pikin fowru fa yu e singi so moi’— ‘Oh little bird how beautiful is your song’

Richard Smyth A Peregrine’s Eye


Jake Morris-Campbell Look, a birdy!


Alex Lockwood Loops


Harriet Carter Shared Birdsong? Exploring Messiaen’s Relationship with Place and Birdsong through Drawing


John Dempsey Anticipation, Recognition, Loss


David Borthwick & nine days into June


Stephen Westerberg Three Dawn Choruses






Gaia Project is an independent publishing and curatorial initiative operating at the intersection of Art and Ecology—or indeed, in that poetic space where Art becomes Ecology and where Ecology becomes Art. Songs of Place and Time: Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts First published in 2020 by Gaia Project Press in partnership with AEN (Art Editions North) and Bath Spa University. Songs of Place and Time is curated by Mike Collier All photographs by Tim Collier unless otherwise stated Production and Design by Manny Ling Edited by Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and John Strachan Printed by W&G Baird, Nottingham Songs of Place and Time is a project organized under the auspices of WALK (Walking, Art, Landskip and Knowledge) at the University of Sunderland in collaboration with Bath Spa University, Newcastle University and Gaia Project. Copyright for each essay in this compilation remains with the contributors. The authors assert their moral right to be identified as the authors of their works in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988. Copyright is also held by the MIT Press (John Bevis’s essay) and Little Toller Books (Jay Griffiths’ essay).

All images copyright Tim Collier unless otherwise stated in the text. Cover image: Blackcap singing, photo: Tim Collier Back page image: Mike Collier, The Song of the Wren, 2017, digital print, 100 x 100 cm, produced in collaboration with EYELEVEL Creative Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders but if any have been inadvertently overlooked, please contact No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. A British Library CIP record is available ISBN: 978-0-9932192-9-0 All rights reserved Distribution by Cornerhouse Publications HOME
 2 Tony Wilson Place
 Manchester M15 4FN United Kingdom


Tasmanian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) singing, Tasmania, Australia, photo: Dave Watts, Š Dave Watts /




ost mornings throughout my childhood and adolescence I awakened to the honeyed song of one or more magpies. ‘Hang on,’ you might well exclaim if your knowledge of a bird of that name is confined to the northern hemisphere, ‘honeyed song? Magpies?’ Ah, but you see, I grew up in Canberra, and I am speaking of another critter altogether: Gymnorhina tibicen, as it is known to Western science, an Australian native dubbed ‘magpie’ by British invaders on account of its vague physical resemblance to the medium-sized black and white bird they knew from home. But this is a passerine rather than a corvid, descended from what are believed to have been the very first songbirds to evolve on Earth on the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. Among this Magpie’s close living relatives is the ‘Butcher Bird’, who features in Hollis Taylor’s contribution to this volume. Magpies do not go in for butchery; but zealous males will defend their nest by swooping on strangers whom they see as a threat. Canberran Magpies are especially infamous for this. But their burbling conversations, long meditative solos, and even their sharp warning calls are utterly entrancing. It seems safe to assume that humans have been listening to birds and other critters as long as we have been around. My favourite theory about the origin of human language remains Johann Gottfried Herder’s, according to which we hit upon words as a way of naming what we perceived as the distinguishing mark of the things that we encountered: in the case of other living beings, this might be their vocalization (hence

the sheep became ‘the bleating one’). Herder, you might say, was attending to how humans listened to animals, as Rachel Mundy calls us to do anew in this volume. This endeavour was acquiring a new salience in Herder’s day as the process of fossil-fuelled industrialization starting up across the Channel, on the back of the slave-worked plantations of the colonies, began to transform the world in ways that would render other-than-human voices ever harder to hear. Yet as one of Herder’s readers among the Early German Romantics, Friedrich Schlegel, remarks in his ‘Conversation on Poetry’, we forget at our peril that all human poiesis emerges from, and remains dependent upon, the prior poiesis of the living earth. As Schlegel suggests elsewhere, moreover, our creative potential is enhanced through sympoietic collaborations with others: something that is amply evidenced in this stunningly polyphonic volume, in which sympoietic potentials are explored and instantiated in multispecies, as well as multidisciplinary and multimedia, modalities. Among the British Romantics, none listened more attentively to birds, nor with greater urgency, than did John Clare. As Jamie Castell shows here, he also did so with considerably more witty self-reflexivity than is commonly acknowledged. Clare too was attending to how humans listen to birds, as well as puzzling over how poets might invoke their strange other-than-human vocalizations in their own all-too-human verse. The urgency of Clare’s attentiveness arose from his pained recognition that the conversion of the commons into cropland for commercial gain, in and beyond his own parish of Helpston in the 1820s, was unravelling the lifeworlds of many free-living critters, together with that of the rural poor. This was, as he discerned, a form of internal imperialism: ‘Enclosure like


a Buonaparte let not a thing remain, /It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill / And hung the moles for traitors’, as he lamented in ‘To a Fallen Elm’. The Parliamentary enclosures that took place in Britain during the Romantic period were part of a transnational transformation that Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway have dubbed the ‘Plantationocene’. Beginning with those colonial plantations in the Americas mentioned previously, this era continues to unfold, among other places, in those parts of the world where the common lands of Indigenous peoples are being appropriated for the mass production of agricultural and other commodities. This is happening with increasing speed and violence in parts of the Amazon rainforest at a time when this bioregion is also coming under pressure from the impacts of the process of global heating that began to get underway in Herder’s day, and was gathering steam during Clare’s. As we are reminded by the conversations among Rachel Gefferie, Mike Collier, Yves Tjon Sack Kie and Sean Dilrosun with respect to people, birds and their overlapping environs in Suriname, these transformations are not only ecologically damaging: they are also destructive of place-based cultures that embody alternative, and evidently more sustainable, practices of co-becoming with other critters. Their discussion of the perception of birds among the Kaliña people as guides, teachers and mediators between the human and spirit realms reminded me that within the archives of Western culture too we might find examples of birds in the company of seers. One such is the Owl of Sulis Minerva in the Romano-Celtic inheritance of my new hometown of Bath. Yet the bird that haunts my dreams continues to be the Australian

Magpie. That I grew up ignorant of Magpie’s older names in the tongues of the First Nations of the Canberra area, the Ngunnawal, Ngarigo and Gundungurra, is testimony to the suppression and oppression that attended the invasion of their unceded ancestral lands in the very same decade as the enclosures in Clare’s Helpston. The most memorable of my Magpie dreams had an apocalyptic tenor. I cannot say exactly what Magpie was telling me with such terrifying force because I was literally beside myself: looking on at my other moiety, who evidently could understand, as she gaped in horror into the wide-open beak of the loudly carolling bird. I take it, though, that this was a vision of an unfolding ecocide: one that had already been visited upon many Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human kin in Australia and other colonized lands; but one that is now going global, silencing ever more other-than-human voices, even while First Nations peoples begin to speak out ever more powerfully on the world stage, seeking allies in their quest for social justice and the defence of ecological flourishing. This book invites you to hear yourself listening to, and perhaps singing along with, all sorts of birds in all manner of ways. To this I would add: do not neglect those whose prophetic voices you might discern in your dreams.

Professor Kate Rigby Bath Spa University and Monash University


Introduction Editors: Professor Mike Collier (University of Sunderland) Dr Bennett Hogg (Newcastle University) Professor John Strachan (Bath Spa University)


his book is a celebration of what it is to be alive and share our much more-than-human world with birds in their sheer exuberance of life at the dawn of the day. In Darwinian terms, an individual bird’s song is an expression of intraspecific competition for territory and mating, but the enquiries set out here enter different terrain. Do birds have a sense of themselves as individuals through their song; has each species developed its own culture; and can we say that birdsong is music? As natural history sound recordist Geoff Sample says, the question ‘is birdsong music?’ … is almost impossible to answer—but what is staringin-the-face remarkable is that so many musical figures are shared between our music, in a traditional sense (ie not including what might be more accurately described as sound art), and birdsong. For instance, consider how many birdsongs and calls use note intervals that strike us as melodic, particularly the major and minor third and the slides between (blue notes). Many of these essays explore what Sample says ‘might be called the quasisymphonic aspects of a dawn chorus’, an extraordinary natural phenomenon when, in the thin air of early spring mornings, birds sing, together. The book also serves as a corrective of sorts. In Silent Spring (1962) Rachel Carson talked presciently about how early mornings were becoming … strangely silent where they were once filled with the beauty of birdsong. This sudden silencing of the song of birds, this obliteration of the colour and beauty and interest they lend to our world have come about swiftly, insidiously, and unnoticed by those whose communities are as yet unaffected.

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Sadly, this phenomenon and the concomitant decline in songbird populations continues apace in the UK, as elsewhere. It is even more worrying that young people today may not be as aware of these environmental changes compared to an older generation, due to the phenomenon known as Shifting Baseline Syndrome (SBS). SBS describes a persistent downgrading of perceived ‘normal’ environmental conditions with every new generation, leading to under-estimation of the true magnitude of long-term environmental change on a global scale. We may, indeed, be sleepwalking into a disturbingly quiet future. To put this in perspective, during the past 500 years about 187 of the world’s 11,147 bird species are estimated to have gone extinct. But it is projected that during the next 500 years three times as many—471 species—may go extinct.1 Most of us accept that the climate emergency threatens the survival of our planet. One of the things we can do to raise awareness of this existential threat is to rekindle our imagination about what we have and what we stand to lose. We have the ability to imagine, and to develop a new narrative; it’s what we are good at; good at imagining; good at telling stories. It’s our strength as creative people; and this is one way we may also discover our power to act. Within the pages of this book you will find stories of dawn choruses experienced by leading natural historians, poets and writers who have travelled the world. You will see how birds have influenced the poetry of writers from the past, including John Clare, Christina Rossetti and Edward Thomas, and discover new poetry on an ancient theme. Here you can trace the derivation of the idea of a chorus from Greek comic drama, in its traditional archaic form, which emerged from the ritual mimesis of social

animal gatherings. Parallels and paradigms flow across species in cultural expression. You will read about the influence of birdsong on composers from Robert Schumann to Olivier Messiaen, as well as contemporary composers Bennett Hogg, whose piano pieces accompany Mike Collier’s images of the dawn chorus, and Stevie Wishart, who was commissioned to write a piece for voices on the theme of the dawn chorus, to be performed in a cathedral setting. You will hear a shaman talk about the importance of birdsong in the culture of indigenous peoples of Suriname, and imagine an annual dialogue between returning Sooty Shearwaters and Humpback Whales in Monterey Bay. You will learn about how birds sing in Tim Birkhead’s fascinating essay, in which he also explores the relationship between male and female birdsong. He explains that ‘the song regions of the brain … undergo huge seasonal changes in size and organization in response to the sex hormones, including the creation of new neurones, something that was once thought to be completely impossible’. There is much interesting research currently being undertaken in relation to song in female songbirds,2 although it is worth pointing out that, over fifty years ago, Edward A Armstrong (1963)3 wrote, ‘The traditional poetic fancy that the female bird sings has been so thoroughly discredited that it is now necessary to emphasise that many female birds do sing.’ And, as Rachel Mundy suggests in her essay ‘Why Listen to Animals?’, gender is just one aspect of identity that may affect research into birdsong, and other factors, such as race, class and diversity could also have important impacts on future research. It is encouraging to know that there is still more to discover about the songs of birds. The essays in this collection are punctuated with a series of contemporary poems and visualizations exploring, in various forms, the

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sound, experience and language of birdsong and the dawn chorus. And, of course, the photographer Tim Collier’s images of birds run thematically throughout the pages of Songs of Place and Time, taking us back from imagining to reality. We would like to suggest that you read this book rhizomatically, which is the way it was originally conceived: jump in and out of it when and where you want to. There is no particular logic to the way the essays, poems and visualizations are presented. However, if we may make a suggestion, do start with Rachel Mundy’s essay ‘Why Listen to Animals’. Mundy says, I want to advocate … not just that we listen to animals, but that we hear the way we listen. Listening is a practice that has been built with, against, and through cultural beliefs about interiority and human identity that rely on animals—not any animal, but ‘the’ animal, the category of the animal—to persist. In hearing ourselves listen to animals, we can begin to notice foundational notions of difference that inform both how we hear, and how we see, animals and other Others. This essay is at the beginning of the book for a reason, and that is to set a context for the rest of your reading and listening. This book and the accompanying music/sound began life as a collaboration between natural history sound recordist Geoff Sample, composer and musician Bennett Hogg, printmaker Alex Charrington, and artist and curator Mike Collier, supported by John Strachan. It stands at the meeting point, or even overlap, of various established and emerging fields of research and practice, including Zoomusicology, Ecoacoustics and Biosemiotics. It links artistic practice with philosophy and the

environmental sciences, and aims to explore ways of reimagining Songs of Place and Time, our complex, embodied and participatory engagement with a particular aspect of a local ecosystem: a dawn chorus. Songs of Place and Time has been some years in the making and over this period Tim Collier has worked closely with Mike in the preparation of over 170 images for the book. A number of these beautiful photographs were taken in spring 2020 during lockdown as Tim rose early on clear mornings to photograph the dawn landscape and its songbirds. The result is a series of stunning images which run throughout this volume. Finally, we would like to sincerely thank all the writers, poets, academics, artists, musicians, composers, natural historians and ornithologists who have generously contributed to this collection. Your support is very much appreciated.

Footnotes 1. M Munroe, S H M Butchart, O A Mooers, F Bokma, 2019, ‘The Dynamics Underlying Avian Extinction Trajectories Forecast a Wave of Extinctions’, Biology Letters, 15:12, December, available at https:// 2. See, for example, K Riebel, K Odom, N Langmore and M Hall, ‘New Insights from Female Bird Song: Towards an Integrated Approach to Studying Male and Female Communication Roles’, Biology Letters, 15:20170059, April, available at: 3. Edward Armstrong, 1963, A Study of Birdsong, Oxford University Press, London


& the moon’s tattered rind as day gains strength swallows zweeping as if echolocating in the aerial plankton the rising sun stirs

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Why Listen to Animals?


ome readers may recognize my question ‘Why Listen to Animals?’ as a play on the title of John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’, printed in 1980 as the first chapter of his book About Looking. Berger argued that the animals who once looked at us have been replaced in the past two centuries by animals at whom we look: in the zoo, the circus and the toy store. Just as Berger’s About Looking is not about looking, but about seeing our own glances, I want to advocate in this essay not just that we listen to animals, but that we hear the way we listen. Listening is a practice that has been built with, against, and through cultural beliefs about interiority and human identity that rely on animals—not any animal, but ‘the’ animal, the category of the animal—to persist. In hearing ourselves listen to animals, we can begin to notice foundational notions of difference that inform both how we hear and how we see animals and other Others. I wrote the first version of this essay in 2018; I’m rewriting it now in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic and historic protests in the United States against anti-black police violence.1 Although it may not be immediately obvious why listening to animals is related to this moment of crisis, I would argue that we cannot fully reckon with the intertwined histories of race, medicine and labour unless we reckon with the animal. Listening has long been central to the work of deciding who is fully human and who is not within an economy of disposable lives. I hope that by asking ‘Why listen to animals?’ I can show why it is so important to take critical approaches like Berger’s into the realm of sound, and to take sound into the study of animals and their representation. Studies of sound, especially of music and song, bring traditions of interiority and sentience to bear on questions of representation. Voice, speech, testimony and music-making have been used as vehicles for beliefs

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about the rights, worth and dignity of those who are different. In my book Animal Musicalities (2018), I showed how sound’s place in modern notions of human identity—and human rights—is built on traditions of assessing the animality of voices and especially of songs. Like Berger, many scholars in animal studies have framed our glances at animals as exertions of power and ownership. Listening reveals the spectacle of the nonhuman as a ground for comparison, an evaluation of ability and an assessment of rights that extends from the animal to those deemed less than fully human. At stake are issues of power and representation that extend from animals to all the other Others. We can’t think about animals without contending with the practice of listening; we also, I believe, can’t think about the practice of listening without contending with animals. This seems particularly important to do at this moment when it is becoming increasingly clear that humanism’s categories of nature and culture are tied to the disposability of those who are considered less than fully human. Jane Bennett, Bénédicte Boisseron, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Roy Scranton, Alexander Weheliye and Sylvia Wynter are a few among the many who have mapped the ties between the humanistic tradition and the ethics of human life. Drawing on their precedents, I recently argued that modern ethics are grounded in notions of life that come from a postindustrial rupture between the animal and a white and Western notion of the human, using the invented phrase ‘the animanities’ as an invitation to do the work of historicizing and re-imagining connections between modern ethics and notions of life.2 In Western society we attach a moral value to the preservation of life. That value is entangled with the value of being human, in a tradition in which to be considered fully human is defined through a contrast

between humanity, animals and other Others. This is a problematic ethics in the present moment, for it fails to account for the ways in which historical notions of animality and difference inform and shape emerging policies of disease management, of policing and incarceration and of environmental protection. In asking my readers to bring together sound and representations of animals, I am asking that we work together to develop new ways to hear past the boundaries that limit both humanism and modern ethics in moments of crisis. Seeing and Hearing In her chapter ‘Seeing Animals’ in Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? Kari Weil writes about looking at animals as a problem of visual representation. But despite the chapter’s title, her language slips between the voice and the realm of the visual. She begins her thoughts on representation by turning her readers back to the 1970s, when women’s studies scholars began to consciously incorporate the writings of women and minorities into their work. Although her subject is ostensibly visual, Weil begins with an auditory metaphor, describing the ‘voices’ of those women and minorities who had been ‘silenced’ but were nevertheless ‘authors of their own representations; their voices were speaking loudly and demanded to be heard’ (Weil 2012: 25). Weil then shifts back to both animals and vision to explain that the self-representation of nonhuman species brings a different but related set of challenges. ‘Even though artwork by chimps or elephants has produced much cash for some dealers lately, we cannot expect to find a chimp authoring his or her own self-representation—at least not in the languages we recognize’ (Weil 2012: 26). Here, voices are about inclusion, images are about representation, and both together are


about authorship. Weil uses these metaphors to outline profound questions about the transference of authorship, authority, representation and power across species boundaries. And although she identifies her chapter with seeing, Weil’s point is actually much broader, stretching across text, voice and image. It is a reminder that in Weil’s work—indeed in most reflections on human ways of seeing animals—the question of how we see isn’t just about seeing, but gets at much broader questions about power, inclusion, authority and representation. If elephants and chimps can’t paint their own portraits, who has the authority to do so? And how can one assess a human’s authority to speak for other species, if we so often use the power of speech to marginalize and disenfranchise ‘Other’ human beings? Here is a Janus-faced problem of power and alterity. Seen through the visual lens that has been favoured within animal studies, looking at animals tells us that we use images of other species to explore the Western ‘Other’ at its most radical. But looking at animals also shows us the limits of our own subjectivity. Both of these notions have been explored at length by Donna Haraway, Jacques Derrida, Berger, Weil and many others. From the first perspective, images of animals don’t just symbolize one kind of difference among many, but represent a radical way of being Other that serves to define and justify what all the other Others are. The corollary to this way of seeing, however, is that in addition to serving as a visual symbol of radical Otherness used for human ends, nonhuman species possess a real alterity that exists outside of the limits of human subjectivity. Other species, with their multiple stomachs and jagged foliage and perpetually growing teeth, have ways of experiencing life that human beings don’t have. And both of these kinds of alterity—the symbolic Western Otherness and the material difference that emerges in cultural and biological contexts—

have been seen, but not often heard, in the lives and bodies of animals. The Gaze I first encountered animal studies through its critique of vision. In the early 2000s, I confessed to one of my graduate professors, Jason Stanyek, that instead of listening to Debussy I wanted to record birdsong in my urban Manhattan neighbourhood. Rather than chiding me for spending my time unwisely, he handed me an Edirol recorder, sent me down the street to meet the founder of New York University’s animal studies programme, Una Chaudhuri, and loaned me Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions. Although critical listening still formed the basis of what I was doing, I began discovering a host of remarkable ideas that came from a literature about looking and seeing. For me, the critique of vision in animal studies literature was unexpectedly a one-way street, a point of no return. Once I saw Tom Palmore’s gorilla odalisque Reclining Nude reproduced on page eleven of Haraway’s Primate Visions, once I read Haraway’s and Mieke Bal’s histories of gazing at dioramas and visited the American Museum of Natural History myself, all of the texts about sound and sight which I had so painstakingly read as a graduate student seemed to shift. The male gaze, the white gaze, the imperial ear felt as if they were permanently realigned by the act of looking at animals. I couldn’t articulate why or how, but I had been convinced by pictures that representations of animals informed not just some of my visual aesthetics, but all of them. This sense that looking at animals shapes the taxonomy of our world is shared by many scholars in animal studies. Almost thirty years ago, Donna Haraway traced the creation of biological, taxonomic Orders to modern political and social orders. More recently Una Chaudhuri wrote

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that animal studies scholars still want to ‘intervene radically in established discourses and their terms of art’ (Chaudhuri 2007: 8). Haraway, Chaudhuri, Derrida, Peter Singer, Cary Wolfe and Kari Weil are just a few who have questioned the ways that looking at animals restructures human power, hierarchy and knowledge. Once we see the way we see animals, we can never see ourselves the same way again. Perhaps this tendency to radical re-thinking is one reason why animal studies is not always cool. Posthumanism, with its nanotechnology and history of science and critical theory, is definitely cool. But writing about animals suggests that the scholar in question has taken an emotional turn that leaves her mistaking ‘the animal’ as a legitimate category, ignorant of continental philosophy and susceptible to PETA radicalization and the Puppy Channel. Or, worse, to veganism. Science, technology and philosophy endow their followers with masculine reason; an interest in animals is more often associated with emotion, femininity and childhood. And while it bothers me when I’m reconfigured from a complex thinker into a ‘lady who does birdsong’, the uncool is a garden of illicit pleasures. Listening can and should be radical, rational and emotional all at the same time. Radical re-thinking is a place of both emotional engagement and reason, where sophisticated and erudite music scholars set aside their serious interests in bebop and Beethoven to send me videos of dogs barking, birds singing and concert performances with animals. Proud and fierce musicologists, I could surprise you with the things your colleagues watch on YouTube. Take, for example, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s sound art installation from here to ear, in which a flock of zebra finches interact with electric guitars in a bounded enclosure.3 Visitors walk through this enclosed

space and observe the birds as they interact with live guitar strings whose parameters were predetermined by the composer. I’ve been forwarded numerous links to videos of this work posted on YouTube, perhaps because of its status as an installation artwork (please keep sending them). The piece was originally premiered in 1999 and has had a number of subsequent performances, the latter being the source of the videos I get sent. From a musician’s perspective, the work raises a number of questions about musicality, authorship, natural-cultural boundaries, intention and public performance. How, for example, does Boursier-Mougenot’s willingness to share control with birds compare to a traditional composer’s relationship with human performers? Do we think of the birds as ‘choosing’ the sounds they create? How could we decide? What is special about the role of the audience in this piece, as they create their own narrative about what is occurring as they walk through the enclosure? Eventually such questions about musicality and intention give way to questions about inclusion, sentience, mediation and control: if the birds have a choice in the sounds they create, do they also have rights? Are they in some sense labourers in Boursier-Mougenot’s piece? Who arbitrates such questions about zebra finches’ rights and needs, and how? And what is at stake when all of these questions are circulated through digital media on YouTube, sent by friends and colleagues to me, the lady who ‘does’ birdsong? These are questions where both sight and sound become negotiations of power. Michel Foucault introduced the notion of the gaze in 1960s France as a power relationship in which looking and being looked at established both dominance and subjection. The concept has been borrowed by scholars in gender studies, critical race studies, postcolonial studies and elsewhere, and it has also been adapted by scholars of animal


studies. But visual representations of animals are not quite one among many such adaptations. The category of the animal is easier to compare to ‘the Other’ than to gender, race, class, sexuality or nationality. It includes all members of the kingdom Animalia, the non-plants, the multi-celled and the singled-celled who pass a certain measure of complexity. Human beings are technically included in the category of the animal, but we are excluded by connotation and tradition. In a work like from here to ear, there is a radical split, a rupture, that leaves listeners hearing ‘animal’ first and individual and collective zebra finches, classified Taeniopygia guttata, second if at all. Although I don’t have space in this essay to explore this idea fully, I would argue that images of ‘the animal’ as a radical Other tell us something important about the way difference itself operates as a category in relation to identity. The animal and the different are twins, for both operate as a broad swathe within which categories of simians, Asians, women and other Others seem ‘different’ in inexplicably similar ways. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality, which was designed to combat the invisibility of black women within antidiscrimination law, doesn’t serve studies of the animal as well as it serves questions of race and gender. For the scope of the animal is so large, and its potential realm of associations so broad, that to tackle the intersectional references to race, gender, Orientalism, sexuality and so on in an image like Palmore’s Reclining Nude or a zebra finch on a guitar is more like navigating a poorly designed seven-highway exchange with clover leaf on/off ramps than like crossing an ‘intersection’. At the core of this multiplicity of differences is the concept of identity. Difference/identity is a foundational dyad of modernity, defining the terms not only of biological species, gender, sexuality and race, but of

the entangled structures of law and discrimination that Crenshaw sought to unsettle. The deep-seated intuition that it is morally and socially transgressive to talk simultaneously of race and animals shows just how central the animal is in this modern legal and biological hierarchy. And this pairing of difference/identity cannot be undone, redone, altered or changed without accounting for the category of the animal that has served as its foundation for the past two hundred years and more. For many of us who work in animal studies, re-thinking the practice of looking at animals has not just added one more way of expressing power through the gaze; discovering the way our eyes are directed at animals has changed the way many of us understand the notion of the gaze itself. The startling breadth of questions and issues that circulate through an image like Palmore’s Reclining Nude, or Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear, reflect backwards for me, changing the way I see Édouard Manet’s Olympia and hear Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique. Once I’ve seen the animals in one context (and heard them in another), I can’t unknow how pivotal their absence is in all the other places. It is as if representations of animals are not one among many possible intersections, but the place where the intersections come from. And if vision is the place where animality’s importance to these intersections is revealed, sound is the sphere in which we discover its invisible foundations. Why Listen Listening to animals is not the cultural equivalent of seeing them. I want to turn from looking to listening for a moment, and think about what each practice brings to the other’s interpretation. The critique of vision provided by animal studies is a kind of magical creation. It makes visible

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an invisible world, working backwards in time to reconfigure every masterwork and every glance of modern humanism. That invisible world is the unacknowledged space where identities intersect, in which notions of nature and animality have served to ground measures of otherness and personhood. And studies of listening are well versed in this invisible world. Although visual analysis has made us aware of the category of the animal, it is our habits of listening that have the most to tell about traditions of aural identity, interiority and personhood that circulate through the invisible world of alterity. As I turn towards sound, I want to suggest that our habits of listening tell us something meaningful about the borders and boundaries that have been formed with, against and through the category of ultimate difference, the animal. When I first started recording birds in Manhattan, I began to think differently about sound and visibility. Listening to birds taught me to hear spatially, using my ears to locate birds I couldn’t see through walls or foliage. I learned to recognize the songs and calls of various species, and tried to understand those sounds as symbols of a rich invisible world. Eduardo Kohn, Steven Feld, Walter Ong and others have described such moments of hearing invisible meaning as transcendent. These descriptions of transcendent sound frame practical experiences of hunting and tracking in the language of nineteenth-century spiritual philosophy. Kohn describes how learning to listen like a hunter during his fieldwork in Ecuador taught him to hear specific meanings in the barks of dogs and the movement of wild pigs; these auditory signs, in turn, forced Kohn to re-think what it means to have a self, to be a person. Like Kohn, and like many other ethnographers and naturalists, I learned to hear sentience, selfhood and meaning in sound too. Before seeing them, I could hear a deer stamp his foot in the scrub; I’d

hear the local hawk’s chicks begging for food; and I’d hear the alarm calls of thrushes warning me that something they considered dangerous, probably another pedestrian, was on the path ahead. Just as birders learn to recognize species by ear, I also learned in graduate school how to identify such invisible differences in music: how to recognize French baroque styles by ear, how to hear sung representations of women’s hysteria in nineteenth-century opera, and how to tell twentieth-century counterfeits of eighteenth-century music from the original. Listening in this way, whether walking in the woods or watching a YouTube video, raises many of the questions that I already wondered about when hearing from here to ear. What kinds of music, or what species of animal, do I hear? How can I identify them? Should I imagine these sounds as machinelike productions or as intentional? How should authorship be ascribed? How would I know? As soon as these questions engage with intention or meaning, they enter the sphere of invisible meanings created by persons, selves, who are outside the limits of human subjectivity. This leads me back to the zebra finches in Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear. Scientists have documented these birds’ alternate selves as they sing to their unhatched eggs and dream of singing while they sleep. Originally from Australia, zebra finches were imported to Europe during the 1800s after the British colonization of the continent. They have been kept as pets and used in laboratory research for over two hundred years, and the birds used today in Boursier-Mougenot’s work have distinct genetic profiles, cultural behaviours and physical traits unique to their histories of forced migration. It’s a multi-species tale of colonial history and global economies that forces the listener to rethink the category of nature that grounds traditional questions about selfhood. Instead of


hearing the zebra finch as a songbird, a naturalized role familiar from bird guides and documentaries, history suggests a comparison with domesticated poultry. One might try to salvage the Boursier-Mougenot performance of nature by comparing the zebra finch to the deer, hawks and thrushes I encountered in the woods. But those species—wood thrushes, white-tailed deer, and Cooper’s hawks—are likewise inadvertent migrants whose bodies and habits have deployed transculturation in the aftermath of colonial economies, industrialization and urbanization. The question is not, perhaps, whether or not the zebra finch is part of ‘nature’. The question is why it matters whether or not an individual is part of ‘nature’ in the first place. This terrain has already been trod in studies of human music. Music scholars such as Roshanak Kheshti, Ana María Ochoa Gautier and Bennett Zon have shown how colonial and racist agendas are at play in naturalized Western representations of music as a filter through which selfhood can be heard. For power is also at play here: who determines what sentience sounds like? Who decides what is a song and what is noise? Whose voice can be heard as human, and therefore as a person? What is at stake in contrasting the human voice with animal nature? It is no coincidence that Weil, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and so many others have needed metaphors of voice and silence to describe both the marginalization and the agency of women and non-white persons. For it is in voice and sound that we have been trained to hear both selfhood and alterity. Ethics It is here that the study of sound spirals outward from the dual gazes of animal studies; the Westernized glance at the Other and the inward

glance at human subjectivity. Listening to animals allows us to confront notions of the invisible self that are built upon the limited foundations of human identity. ‘Why listen to animals?’ is, in the end, a question about the relationship between identity, alterity and the categories of modern humanism. Alterity, badly created, doesn’t even foster good humanism; it just keeps lagomorphs’, macaques’, nits’ or pelicans’ questioned rationality satisfying to unctuous vanity, wherein xenophobia yields zoo-ontology. Listening has much to tell us about the way categorical notions of alterity have set the terms of selfhood, subjectivity and human identity. In this moment of global crisis, to ask about the voices of animals is to seek broad and lasting answers to a deeply problematic heritage of modernity. For the invisible dyad of difference/identity at the base of postmodern human selfhood is closely connected to the twentyfirst century’s questions about which lives matter, and which lives are disposable. Those lives at the penumbra of disposability are not only those of zebra finches and poultry; more obviously, they are the lives of non-white citizens in the face of police violence and the lives of ‘essential’ workers whose labour is more valued than their health and safety. In recent years, scholars such as Mel Chen, Elizabeth Povinelli, Jane Bennett and others have offered critiques of the Western notion of life, building on Foucault’s language of biopolitics and Achille Mbembe’s answer in necropolitics. To think about animals, however, demands thinking not only of biopolitical life, but of the ways in which modern ethics are constituted with and through particular historical notions of life’s value that have carried us into the present moment. To imagine what it means to act ethically, to be good, to be just, in our age of disposable nature, disposable ‘essential’ workers, disposable

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poor and gendered and sexualized coloured lives, demands that we completely rethink the structures of difference/identity, self/other that have determined modernity’s code of behaviour. By this I don’t mean dispensing with notions of altruism or kindness, but rather seeking informed and historical contexts that enable us to leverage more depth, breadth and meaning to our ideas and choices. And the animal is at the centre of that work. In my book Animal Musicalities, my invitation to do the work of the animanities was worded around a playful amalgamation of three words: the humanities, the animal and anima. I suggested seven fault lines in the foundations of humanism through which we can begin to untangle the ways in which modern ethics and life have been formulated with and through the animal: personhood, identity, difference, knowledge, postmodern notions of humanity, subjectivity and fantasies of paradise. I offer these again here as a starting point for re-thinking the historical burden of the human/animal pairing and for imagining new paths for the future. That is a work of thinking reparatively and it is the work of many, not any single individual. What do we want to hear after the pandemic? After the protests? And after climate change? Berger ended his essay by mourning the isolation of human glances in modern capitalism. I would like to end mine by reiterating how much our listening ears still have to teach us about the promise and perils of humanism. This essay isn’t a study or an analysis; it doesn’t even begin to explain the connections that tie together sonic culture, selfhood and human identity. But understanding those connections means understanding how nature became a disposable resource; how nonhuman lives became invisible and silent; and how human life came

to be circumscribed by notions of subjectivity that privilege only some types of selves. We are only beginning to recognize the ways that we measure subjectivity through sound; and that we measure alterity, in so many ways, by comparing ourselves with other species. Scholars, intellectuals, scientists and artists have much to teach one another, and I hope this essay encourages interested readers to develop and build new collaborations and interests.

Footnotes 1. A original version of this essay can be read as a joint blog entry published in 2018 with the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts ( and the American Musicological Society’s blog ‘Musicology Now’ (http://www.musicologynow. org/2018/10/why-listen-to-animals.html). The revised version is reproduced here with gratitude to both societies for their generosity and support. 2. See Mundy, 2018. 3. At the time of writing, this could be viewed online at AAje8. Bibliography Mieke Bal, 1992, ‘Telling, Showing, Showing Off ’, Critical Inquiry, 18:3, pp 556–594 Jane Bennett, 2009, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina John Berger, 1980, About Looking, Pantheon, New York Bénédicte Boisseron, 2018, Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question, Columbia University Press, New York Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, 2008, ‘The Declaration on Great Apes’, web/20080820011354/ Una Chaudhuri, 2007, ‘(De)Facing the Animals: Zooësis and Performance’, The Drama Review, 51:1, pp 8–20


Kimberlé Crenshaw, 1989, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.’ University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, pp 139–168 Jacques Derrida, 2002 (1997), ‘The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, David Wills, trans, Critical Inquiry, 29:2, pp 369–418 Steven Feld, 1982, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia Donna Haraway, 1989, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Routledge, New York Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, 2020, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, New York University Press, New York Roshanak Kheshti, 2015, Modernity’s Ear: Listening to Race and Gender in World Music, New York University Press, New York Aph Ko and Syl Ko, 2017, Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, Lantern Books, New York Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, University of California Press, Berkeley Rachel Mundy, 2018, Animal Musicalities: Birds, Beasts, and Evolutionary Listening, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut Ana María Gautier Ochoa, 2014, Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina Walter Ong, 1982, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge, New York Roy Scranton, 2015, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, City Lights, San Francisco Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 1988, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, ed, Macmillan, London, pp 271–313 Alexander Weheliye, 2014, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina Kari Weil, 2012, Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?, Columbia University Press, New York Cary Wolfe, 2003, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, University of Chicago Press, Chicago Sylvia Wynter, 2003, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument’, CR The New Centennial Review, 3:3, pp 257–337 Bennett Zon, 2017, Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture, Cambridge University Press, New York

Mike Collier, Wren, 2017, digital print, produced in collaboration with Geoff Sample and EYELEVEL Creative, 2017


& not chorus as comment or chaos of sound but a habitat performed the biophony of exactly here


A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong

Figure 1. From An A–Z of Bird Song by John Bevis (page 3), published in 1995 by Coracle & St Paulinus


rom field recordings to bird box automata and clocks, humans have been reproducing and utilizing bird sound for centuries. One part of this legacy has been the coinage by poets and naturalists of words and phrases which attempt to replicate the sounds birds make. This muddled, contentious and inconsistent vocabulary has long fascinated me, and in the mid-1990s I began to collect, sift and standardize these wonderful, bizarre words with their anarchic spellings, absurd pronunciations and uncertain meanings. That project led to the publication of An A-Z of Bird Song by Coracle & St Paulinus in 1995, which in turn formed the basis of Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, published in 2010 by MIT Press. My brilliant editor, Roger Conover, encouraged me to extend my research into the history of alternative attempts to collect bird songs and sounds, from musical composition through recording devices to duck calls, bird organs, singing bird automata and varieties of bird clock. I have edited that section of the MIT book for this essay, and refer the reader to Aaaaw to Zzzzzd for my findings on the verbal notation of bird sounds. Field Recording Contemporary field guides to birdsong are commonly audio books accompanied by CDs of birds performing in the wild. Their great advantages over verbal notation are veracity and lack of ambiguity; their disadvantages that they record the particular rather than the general and have no mnemonic expedient. Collecting and recording bird sounds is more popular than ever, with the development of affordable, highquality recording and archiving equipment, while improving technology and resources have resulted in birdsong being frequently sampled in contemporary music.

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The earliest known bird recording, of a captive Indian shama at the Frankfurt Zoological Garden, was made in 1889 by the godfather of bird recording Ludwig Koch, then aged eight. It was cut on the first retailed recording device, the Edison cylinder machine, which focused the sound through a horn onto a stylus, whose vibrations cut a groove into the surface of a wax cylinder revolving at a speed of 160 rotations per minute (rpm). The cylinders, whose recording time was limited to around two minutes, were played back on the same machine. The Edison was used by Dr Sylvester D Judd in 1898 to play recorded birdsong to an academic audience for the first time at the sixteenth Congress of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Washington DC, and also for the first recordings of wild birds, at Kenley, England, in 1900, when Cherry Kearton captured the songs of the nightingale and song thrush. The machine had to be positioned close to the subject and it was found that the noise of the stylus cutting the wax tended to disturb the bird and curtail the song. The first gramophone record of a bird singing was a ten-inch, 78 rpm disc issued in England in 1910, featuring a nightingale recorded by Karl Reich in Berlin.1 The technique for this method of field recording was refined by 1926 with the introduction of the electrical microphone, positioned and camouflaged close to where the subject was expected to vocalize. Cables were run to the recording plant, a cumbersome machine that would be located up to a mile from the microphone, where the operator would monitor the signal through headphones or a small speaker. At the chosen moment the cutting stylus was lowered onto the recording medium, a wax disc or, later, an aluminium disc with a pressure-sensitive acetate coating, revolving at 78 rpm. Ludwig Koch headed a team who travelled extensively in England in the 1930s with a mobile recording

studio equipped with three recorders and five microphones. He edited the results into the first popular birdsong audio books, Songs of Wild Birds and More Songs of Wild Birds (Nicholson & Koch 1936, 1937). The Ludwig Koch archives became the foundation of the BBC Natural History Unit’s Sound Library and his collection is now housed in the National Sound Archive at the British Library.2 Field recording was greatly improved with the advent of the parabolic reflector, pioneered by Peter Keane and Arthur A Allen of Cornell University in 1932. This enables sound to be collected accurately from a distance of scores, or even hundreds, of yards, by reflecting the sound off a directional dish receptor onto a microphone positioned at the sonic focus, rather in the manner of a Figure 2. Arthur A Allen using binoculars to observe ivory-billed woodpeckers on the Springer Tract in contemporary satellite dish. For best Louisiana. As reproduced in Allen & Kellog 1937. results the reflector is hand-held and an assistant operates the recording equipment. The alternative is the shotgun mike, which has the microphone diaphragm situated at the base of a long tube, making for a very directionally sensitive, if rather shortrange, sound collector. Bird sound has also been captured using motion picture equipment. In North America this was done for the first time on 18 May 1929, when Arthur A Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg recorded the song sparrow, rosebreasted grosbeak and house wren at Ithaca, New York, on synchronized movie and audio film. The recordings of Kellogg and Allen formed the


basis of what would become the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, at Cornell University. Situations can sometimes demand that recordings be made via radio transmission, a portable transmitter in the field broadcasting the signal to a radio receiver connected to a recorder. This was an obvious advantage in remote and hostile locations at a time when recording equipment was bulky and heavy. The technique was tried for the first time on 3 December 1934 in the Antarctic, when an emperor penguin was recorded via a radio link onto aluminium disc. The reel-to-reel tape recorder using magnetic tape was first used for recording birds by Sture Palmér in Sweden in 1946, when guillemots and razorbills on the island of Gotland were the subject. High-quality, reliable, portable machines, notably the Uher and Nagra decks, became available in the 1960s and were the standard apparatus for several decades, enabling longer recording times and easier editing. The first stereophonic bird record, a seven-inch, 45 rpm EP (‘extended play’ vinyl record), ‘Birds in Stereo’, was recorded in Sweden by Sten Wahlström and Sven Åberg and released in 1963. DAT (digital audio tape) recording became available in the 1980s and offered the advantages of low self-noise and an extended frequency response. Analogue cassette, digital compact cassette and MiniDisc systems have all been put to purpose, while the current generation of recorders stores the digitized signal on standard SD (Secure Digital) cards in compressed (usually MP3) format, which may then be computer-edited to amplify the recorded song, and to filter wind or traffic noise (always with the objective of arriving at a ‘natural’ result). As well as greater portability and a new level of recording brilliance, these latest systems offer greater ease in editing, analysing, sharing and storing recorded material. By

1965 around twenty-five per cent of the 10,000-odd bird species known worldwide had been recorded, increasing to fifty per cent by 1982. The figure today stands at greater than ninety per cent. A major resource is the British Library Sound Archive in London, which houses historical, commercial and private field recordings covering more than eighty per cent of world species. An important spinoff has been that some species thought to be extinct have been rediscovered by the recognition of their recorded sounds. These include the Puerto Rican whip-poor-will in 1961 and the orange-fronted parakeet, identified in the D’Urville Valley, New Zealand, in 1965. Graphic Notation Before the advent of recording equipment, birdsong could most readily be captured on paper. Phonetic transcription—‘bird words’—was one method; the other was to use a system of symbolic marks. The earliest of the graphic systems was the adaptation of the existing convention of musical notation. The first scholar known to have written bird sound in this way was the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), described by historian Robert Irwin as ‘one of the last scholars aspiring to know everything’, inventor of those antidotes to birdsong, the megaphone and the cat piano,3 and author of the volume Musurgia universalis (1650), whose premise that there was a harmonic relationship between music and the planets was illustrated with notation of birdsong. Sight-reading ornithologists find it an effective shorthand, though there are disadvantages: musical notation tends to simplify (although the same could be said of transcription); bird notations rehearsed on musical instruments become so approximate as to

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Figure 3. A page from Musurgia Universalis by Athanasius Kircher, as reproduced at

be often unidentifiable; not everyone can read music. And as the zoologist Walter Garstang pointed out, tune is the least part of the performance of species such as the skylark (Garstang 1922: 9). The author and bird watcher Aretas A Saunders made the further proposition that notation is unsuited to birdsong since birds make use of musical intervals not capable of indication in our system of music. His belief that attempts at representation by words from human speech or by musical notation had been, with exceptions, ‘almost total failures’ led to his invention of a unique graphic system.4 This was introduced in A Guide to Bird Songs, first published in 1935 and demonstrating the songs of more than 200 birds from the eastern United States. Saunders’s notation is a score sitting within three bands. The upper band contains a description of musical quality, such as ‘melodious’, ‘harsh rattle’, etc. The line of the song is conveyed in a phonetic transcription in the lowest band. The reading of this is modified by the graphic score in the middle band, comprising hieroglyphs representing the articulation of the individual notes, with a horizontal element indicating duration, of a thickness indicating volume, at a station within the band indicating pitch. Vertical lines indicate connected notes. A ‘key signature’ to the left of the score shows pitch at that position. The Saunders notation adds to our ability to reconstruct birdsong inside our own heads, given practice, but remains the Saunders notation, not the birdwatchers’ notation. This is a pity, as Saunders came closer than anyone to devising a method of collecting birdsong using pencil and paper alone. Perhaps we find his method underintuitive; or perhaps we have an aesthetic aversion to a technique akin to capturing the sound of, say, a Chopin prelude in a diagram resembling less the lines of the music than of


the inside of the piano. The invention that has given us a real new insight into the structure of birdsong is the sonograph. This recording device plots sound frequency against time, tracking the results with a pen on a revolving roll of paper to produce a sonogram. This shows the acoustic spectrum of each sound, enabling analysis of pitch, timbre, quality of tone and overall structure. The sonograph was developed as a forensic tool at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey in the 1940s and its potential for research in his own field of expertise was quickly grasped by W H Thorpe, professor of zoology at Cambridge. Thorpe’s experiments with the sonograph from 1949 have trailblazed its use in the scientific analysis of animal sounds. They revealed for the first

time how birdsong may range from a simple, linear melodic line, through songs of greater complexity displayed as calligraphic curves and spikes and bands of black ink, to those showing two or even three simultaneous melodic lines, as hard to discern by the ear alone as they are to convey other than by sonographic means. Sonograms have a graphic presence that gives us a ‘feel’ for the sound they convey, and may be intriguing and even beautiful to look at, but their proper interpretation is not intuitive and they remain more a tool of the researcher than of the birder. Despite attempts to include sonograms in field guides as a ‘score’ to be used in conjunction with either field recording or notation, their value in bird books is for the most part as a curiosity.

Figure 4. A sonogram of wren song, recorded by Geoff Sample

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Birdsong in Music There are a number of ways in which bird music and human music may overlap or interact. The most general and widespread occurs when composers are simply influenced or inspired by birdsong, the precise nature of the individual song often being sublimated or varied, and the composition not attempting any true reproduction of specific bird sound. A master of this was Richard Wagner, who reconstituted the birdsong of Bavaria into a cast of warblers and wood birds that are part real, part mythological. The imitation of birdsong by musical instruments or voices is probably as old as music itself. One of the oldest surviving pieces of music from Britain is the thirteenth-century Sumer is icumen in, in which we hear the song of the cuckoo, ‘cuccu cuccu, wel singes thu cuccu’. The unmistakable motif of the cuckoo, shorthand for the onset of summer, recurs across the centuries in pastorals by composers from Handel to Beethoven, through Mahler and Frederick Delius, to Michael Tippett and György Ligeti. Nightingales are heard in Jean-Philippe Rameau, Alessandro Scarlatti, Handel, Schubert and Rossini, while the songs of doves, linnets, canaries, larks and warblers are among others most frequently heard in the concert hall. A cock crows thrice in Bach’s St Matthew Passion; swans beat the skies of Grieg and Tchaikovsky. The songs of different species of birds make a natural subject for musical suites, including Clément Janequin’s Le chant des oiseaux (1529), which has been described as a ‘cacophonous chanson’; Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le carnaval des animaux (1886); and the broad selection of birdsong featured in Luigi Boccherini’s string quartet The Aviary (1771). These occasional compositions are somewhat dwarfed by the opus of twentieth-century

French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose lifelong interest in ornithology and birdsong informed and inspired his musical composition with an unparalleled knowledge and passion. For Messiaen, birds were the symbol of freedom and their song the symbol of true musical expression, with its unaffected craftsmanship and improvisation. His ‘birdsong’ techniques, which acknowledge not only the song of the bird but the season, the place and local colour, first appear in Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941) and are developed most tellingly in Réveil des oiseaux (1953) and the set of pieces for solo piano, Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958). The vocal imitation of birds, by singing or whistling, has its own virtuosi. The first commercial disc of a human imitation of a bird call was George W Johnson’s The Mocking Bird, released in America in 1896. One of the best-known British imitators was Percy Edwards, a broadcaster and entertainer who happened to be a published ornithologist. His sixty-year career began on BBC radio in 1930 and he became a household name for his bird and animal imitations, developing a repertoire of several hundred species of birds. More recently Nicole Peretta, ‘The Bird Call Lady’, has appeared on US television and recorded on CD some of her imitations of more than 150 species, vocalized without whistling. The Festival of the Osei, a market exhibition of songbirds and aviary held annually at Sacile in Italy since 1274, features a songbird imitator competition. The embedding of actual recordings of birdsong became feasible in the early twentieth century, a pioneering example being The Pines of Rome, written in 1923– 1924 by Ottorino Respighi, whose score incorporates a gramophone record of a nightingale (in live performance this part may be taken by a human imitator). Johan Dalgas Frisch set a tape of birdsong from Brazil to orchestral accompaniment in his Sinfonia das aves brasileiras (1966).


In 1972 the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote Cantus arcticus, sometimes called Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, an orchestral piece incorporating pre-recorded bird songs and calls, such as those of migrating swans, from the Arctic. Compositions created in the studio, by layering recorded bird sounds, include the American composer Jim Fassett’s Symphony of Birds (1955) and the last work of Karl-Birger Blomdahl, a composition for Swedish radio entitled Altisonans (1966), which combines bird sounds with other recorded sounds from nature and radio emissions from satellites. One final type of interaction is to make music with the intention of provoking or affecting birds. A mechanical device for encouraging cage birds to sing, the serinette, is considered below, under ‘Bird Organs and Tutors’. The slightly more eccentric notion of playing with the birds en plein air has had some recorded triumphs, including a 1920s BBC radio broadcast of cellist Beatrice Harrison successfully encouraging nightingales in a Surrey wood to sing by playing popular cello pieces to them. More recently David Rothenberg has recounted, in Why Birds Sing, his experiments with Michael Pestel in interacting with singing birds by making sounds that are part imitation, part improvisation, using clarinets, saxophones, flutes, whistles and bird calls (Rothenburg 2005). We might be reminded of Saint Francis of Assisi who, it was said, spent a whole night singing alternately with a nightingale, finally conceding victory to the bird.

Figure 5. Artisan bird calls, made by François Morelle’s small enterprise Quelle est Belle Company,

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Whistles and Imitators The English mind turns every abstraction it can receive into a portable utensil.—Ralph Waldo Emerson Bird whistles, or imitators, fulfill a number of different purposes: to attract and locate birds for hunting and wildfowling; as an aid to birdwatching; as ornaments; and as toys and entertainments. The earliest hunters’ whistles would have been crude devices cut from reed or bamboo. They evolved in many parts of the world, notably the Amazon and China. The Romans made theirs of terracotta. Modern calls have hardwood, plastic, acrylic or brass bodies and are used in gamekeeping, to call crows and magpies, and in field sport to call ducks. The commonest type of game or duck call is played like a recorder, by blowing air over a single or double reed and through a resonating chamber. Instruments are usually shaped like horns or whistles and vary widely in proportions depending on the sound required. Some have a bladder to propel the air, particularly useful when the movement of the whistle to the player’s lips may alarm the bird, or a bellows which operates when the call is shaken, reproducing the chattering sound of ducks or geese feeding. Wooden calls give the lowest pitch, a rounded, warm tone and produce least volume, while acrylic has the highest pitch and volume, useful for calling ducks over large expanses of water. Plastic calls are pitched somewhere between the two. Some are blown ‘clean’, others require a blown grunt to achieve the full effect. Birdwatchers use a wider range of calls to attract otherwise elusive species and to stimulate the songs of garden birds. The nightingale call

is worked by twisting a key in a barrel to mimic the rapid ‘ratcheting’ element of the song. A slide, or swanee, whistle can be used to imitate various bird songs in the right hands. Pea whistles recreate some of the higher-pitched calls, while a warbling effect is attainable by blowing the air through a reservoir partly filled with water (whistles of this type were used to mimic birdsong in Elizabethan theatre). Ornamental bird whistles, usually ceramic, have a cultural niche of their own. In England they were mass-produced in the nineteenth century by Whieldon of Staffordshire, usually in the form of a dovelike bird with blue, brown or green glazes, and were sometimes put inside chimneys to ward off evil spirits. Italian ceramic whistles (fischietti) have a centuries-long popularity and were often given as love tokens. A huge collection of Italian and other examples is housed at the Museo dei Cuchi in Cesuna di Roana, in the province of Vicenza, and there is even a whistle festival or Sagra del Fischietto Popolare held annually in Canove di Roana. Because they are cheap, reasonably durable and fun to play, bird calls have always doubled as children’s toys. Several may be heard in Leopold Mozart’s madly entertaining Toy Symphony. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds offers a range of fluffy toy birds that produce an authentic call when squeezed. Bird Organs and Tutors Bird organs, also known as serinettes, make a sound similar to that of the piccolo and were intended for ladies to teach their singing birds (‘serins’, or finches) to sing human compositions. They appear in eastern France at the beginning of the eighteenth century, their manufacture being centred on Mirecourt in Lorraine. Construction was remarkably consistent, with


Figure 6. Serinette made by Bennard of Mirecourt, France, in 1757, collection of the MusĂŠe historique de Lausanne, photo: Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0

little variation between different makers or across the hundred-odd years of their manufacture. The typical serinette is a barrel organ with one or two ranks of ten metal pipes, housed in a wooden case of walnut or beechwood, often inlaid with marquetry and having typical dimensions of around eleven by eight by six inches. Turning a crank mounted on the front of the case pumps the bellows supplying air to the pipes and also turns a wooden barrel by means of gears. Driven into the barrel are brass pins and staples encoding the tunes. As the barrel is turned, the pins and staples lift wooden keys, operating push rods which open the pipe valves, admitting air into the organ pipes. Tunes, which last about twenty seconds, are ornamental in arrangement and chosen for their quick tempo. To change the tune, the key mechanism is lifted and the barrel slid along its length into a different locked position. A barrel may carry four or eight different tunes and the repertoire may be increased by having a stock of barrels, which are easy to lift out and replace. The serinette in deployment may be seen in a 1751 painting by JeanBaptiste-SimĂŠon Chardin. An affectionate study of luxury in idleness, The Bird Organ or A Woman Varying Her Pleasures, hangs in the Louvre, Paris. Serinettes would no doubt have been effective if used systematically. Joe Belmont, who trained canaries in the 1930s, advised that a real singing bird must start its career at eight weeks, by being shut in a dark room and taught to imitate a master canary, a human whistle, or some musical instrument. Promising performers should be given practice three hours a day and should have developed a full repertoire by the end of a year. Contemporary with the serinette, the much less ornate bird flageolet was a small high-pitched recorder, made of wood or ivory, which found

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popularity in England, Germany and France. A collection of tunes for different species to be played on the instrument was published in London in 1717 with the title The Bird Fancyer’s Delight. A century and a half later Arthur Lloyd, the Victorian music hall singer, wrote a song called ‘The Bird Whistle Man’, whose sheet music is illustrated with a drawing of a man selling ‘New Chinese Bird Whistles for the Tuition of Birds’: So don’t think me absurd And believe me when I say I’ll teach your little bird To whistle night and day A latter-day Bird Fancyer’s Delight is The Whistler’s Whistling Workout for Birds, a series of CDs intended to train birds in the skills of whistling. Produced by Rob ‘the Whistler’ Stemmons of Oklahoma, they offer selections of short whistled melodies interspersed with oneminute ‘practice time’ silences and are intended to offer birds a model of excellence to emulate. A modern novelty variation is the construct-it-yourself Gakken’s Bird Song Organ, operated by scrolling a hand-made punch card past the organ pipes, the punch holes admitting air to the pipe valves creating ‘your own hand-cranked chirping cacophonies’, unlikely to resemble anything found in nature. Singing Automata and Clocks We like the sound of birds in and around our houses so much that we have kept songbirds in cages for centuries. And if we can’t stand the bother

Figure 7. Cuckoo clock, photo: ornello_pics,, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0


but enjoy the song on demand, we can buy (for rather more than the cost of a caged bird) a singing bird automaton. Such was the reasoning of its inventor, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a theology student who converted to the study of horology. His earliest singing bird box, which had a pipe organ producing the birdsong, was made at La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland in 1768. Jaquet-Droz replaced the pipe organ with a refined clockwork mechanism, using a tiny leather bellows and automated piston whistle assembly operated by a set of six or eight shifting revolving cams, the prototype for all birdsong automata. His invention, fancy and romantic as it was, captured the spirit of the times and became a Europe-wide success. Jaquet-Droz founded an international partnership, which later included his son, to meet the demand. The configuration of the earliest automata was based on an ornate tabatière or snuffbox, in copper, brass or silverwork, tooled and engraved, sometimes enamelled or with an inlay of semiprecious jewels. A knob released a spring catch, opening the lid. A bird popped up and performed in solo, singing for up to ninety seconds. The robotic movement, activated by clockwork propelled cams and pulleys, might include the bird revolving on its support, opening and shutting the lower beak, moving the head from side to side, flapping the wings and fluttering the tail. The birds had papier-mâché bodies dressed with dyed feathers and bead or jewel eyes. A significant improvement in sound authenticity came in the early 1800s, through the development by Jacob Frisard of an arrangement of the cam sets used to produce the birdsong in a continuous spiral, so that no break occurred from the beginning to the end of the melodic warble. The Jaquet-Droz sound mechanism was perfected in 1848 by Blaise

Bontems in Paris, whose device enables an intricate melody with precise articulation, vibrato and melismatic lines, simulating real birdsong in a plausible if approximate rendition. Bontems was also responsible for a more realistic configuration, a cage with anything from two to a dozen or more life-size birds perching in foliage and singing to each other. He exhibited his unique automata at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and his Paris-based family business continued manufacturing bird automata until 1956. The company was bought by Reuge of Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, who continue the business to this day. In Germany, Karl Griesbaum solved some of the problems of the original box design in 1905, when he added safeguards including a slowclosing lid and a device that prevented damage to the mechanism should the lid be closed during its play. Music boxes to the Griesbaum 1905 standard are still being made by hand in the Black Forest today. Other configurations include the Rochat singing bird bouquets, in which a small flock of up to eight birds perches in an arrangement of silk flowers, with the mechanism concealed in the vase. This has been latterly revived by the manufacturers MMM/Symphonion. And perhaps it is no surprise that Fabergé have produced a limited-edition, hand-painted, 24-carat-goldencrusted Limoges porcelain egg, opening to reveal a miniature Reuge singing bird in a gilded cage. An extensive collection of bird automata and other kinds of mechanical musical instruments, built up by automaton collector, restorer and maker Siegfried Wendel, is on display at Siegfrieds Mechanisches Musikkabinett at Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany. The original bird clock, the cuckoo clock, has its origins in the seventeenth

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century and has been produced in the Black Forest, Germany, since the mid-eighteenth century. Arguably the most persistently ridiculed object in the history of home furnishing, the typical cuckoo clock is pendulumdriven and occupies a wooden case in the form of a rusticated hut or chalet, often decorated with carved animals and foliage. On the hour a gong strikes, a trapdoor opens and a cuckoo automaton springs out. The cuckoo call is made with a small bellows driving an organ with two pipes. More elaborate models may include a music box playing a tune on the hour and additional sylvan animations. Quartz battery-powered cuckoo clocks replace the pipe organ with a digital recording of a cuckoo in the wild, usually with an echo, other birdsong and the sound of a waterfall. The striking gong is omitted. Contemporary bird clocks have a conventional clock format with a face diameter of eight to fourteen inches. They play recordings, lasting around twelve seconds each, of the songs or calls of twelve species (typically North American garden birds), one for every hour, with a captioned image of each decorating the clock face at the relevant hour. A light sensor silences the chimes in darkness, allowing the birds, and us, a welcome interlude. Postscript Gratifyingly, some of the earliest bird machines have been given a new lease of life. A fantasy of birdsong mechanisms playing in unison may be heard in Aleksander Kolkowski’s baroque performance piece Mechanical Landscape with Bird, commissioned by the MaerzMusik Festival–Berliner Festspiele and premiered on 28 March 2004 at the Sophiensaele, Berlin. On a revolving carousel a string quartet plays canary tunes on the Stroh violin, an instrument used for the first quarter of the twentieth century for sound recording and characterized by a large aluminium trumpet horn.

A serinette in a perspex box plays a composition based on the song of the waterslager canary, stimulating into song eight singing canaries nearby. The song is recorded and played back on a pair of Edison wax cylinder machines, the faintness and fragility of the recorded sound, concealed within a patina of surface noise, being likened by the composer to an ageing process through which we strain to hear the past.

Footnotes 1. At the time of writing, details can be found online at matrix/detail/300004794/7444r-Song_of_a_nightingale. 2. See the ‘Collection Guides’ page on the British Library website, at 3. Described in Athanasius Kircher, 1650, Musurgia Universalis, book 6, part 4, chapter 1, ‘Corollaria’. At the time of writing an article on the cat piano can also be viewed at https://www.smithsonianmag. com/smart-news/music-or-animal-abuse-brief-history-cat-piano-180963056/. 4. Quoted from a review of Saunders’ A Guide to Bird Songs, 1935, published in The Auk, 52:2, pp 205–206.

Bibliography Walter Garstang, 1922, Songs of the Birds, Bodley Head, London Robert Graham Irwin, 2006, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, Penguin Books, London E M Nicholson and L Koch, 1936, Songs of Wild Birds, Witherby, London E M Nicholson and L Koch, 1937, More Songs of Wild Birds, Witherby, London David Rothenberg, 2005, Why Birds Sing, Basic Books, New York



How Birds Sing



Diagram showing the avian larynx and syrinx, illustration: Tom Jordan

ord, what music hast thou provided for the saints in heaven, when thou givest bad men such music on earth!’ wrote Izaak Walton in the 1600s of the nightingale’s song. Birdsong is among the most appealing and uplifting of natural experiences, inspiring poets and ornithologists alike, and raising the question of what it is for and, crucially, how it is created. It is natural to assume that the bird’s tongue plays a key role in making song since a human without a tongue finds it very difficult to speak. In ourselves, the tongue is important in shaping and perfecting the sounds created in the larynx (or voice box). Early ornithologists looking into the mouths of their caged nightingales were puzzled by the apparent absence of a tongue. In 1600 this caused Ulysses Aldrovandi to wonder: ‘that the little bird should have such sweetness of song and such vibration of voice, and yet be without a tongue, unless it were perhaps concealed in its throat’. Had he looked a little more closely he would have seen the nightingale, like all birds, possesses a tongue lying inside its mouth, albeit rather different in form from our own. However, in most birds the tongue plays no part in their vocalizations. The idea that the tongue was the basis for bird song led to some unnecessary and cruel practices. I remember as a boy in the 1950s catching a young starling, hoping I could teach it to speak, and being told firmly by my uncle, a farmer, that I should split its tongue if I wished to be successful. One (anonymous) account from the 1700s recommended cutting the black part off with sharp scissors, not farther than the coloured part, then the tongue is already made round. Then both white dots on both sides of the tongue should be cut off and given more room by cutting a small part of the membrane which

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links the tongue to the throat. After that the bleeding parts are treated with a little unsalted butter, and this operation is repeated three times, i.e. each week once, for instance on Friday. After the string of the tongue has been clipped loose the talking lessons could start.1 The earliest references I have found to tongue mutilation are from around 1600, but of course the practice may be much older. However, in a dozen books published between 1728 and 1889, all authors agreed that tongue clipping or splitting was cruel and unnecessary: To slit their tongues, as many people advise and practice, that the bird … may talk the plainer, is of no service; they will talk as well without, as I have found by experience; as will likewise Magpies, and other talking birds. The obsession with the tongue and birds’ ability to mimic human speech comes from Aristotle—who else? He wrote that ‘the faculty of uttering articulate sounds ... is chiefly developed in broad-tongued birds’.2 He was referring here to what he calls ‘the Indian bird—the parrot’, and in fact he was, as so often, correct, for it has since become clear that the parrot’s large, fleshy tongue does indeed play a crucial role in their particular vocalization. A team of biologists in the southern United States examined some monk parakeets that had been killed as pests, and conducted an ingenious experiment in which they placed a tiny, hearingaid speaker deep in the bird’s vocal tract (wind pipe) and recorded the sounds emitted through the beak. By changing the position of the tongue only a millimetre or two they found they could alter the sound making, ‘a

larger difference than an A and an O in human speech’.3 But let’s leave the tongue for now and focus on the main song-producing structure, the syrinx (quite distinct from our larynx), positioned just above the junction of the two arms of the trachea just before they enter the lungs. The syrinx is a structurally complex organ comprising external muscles and internal membranes that vibrate as air from the lungs is passed over them. The best demonstration of how the syrinx works is the children’s trick of holding a blade of grass vertically between the thumbs and blowing across it to produce a farting-whistle-like sound. This was the basis of Erasmus Darwin’s (Charles’s grandfather) famous speaking machine in the 1700s: instead of grass he used a strip of fine silk, blowing air across it using bellows, which, together with the machine’s leather lips, enabled the device to create a few simple words. At around the same time, the Honourable Daines Barrington (best known, perhaps, as one of the naturalist Gilbert White’s correspondents), together with the famous surgeon Sir John Hunter, was investigating the huge difference in the structure of bird syrinxes. Their conclusion, based on just a handful of British birds, was that what they called ‘the muscles of the larynx’ (ie the size and complexity of the syrinx) was greater in birds, like the nightingale, that produced more complex songs. Subsequently, researchers showed that this is true, but they also found—by ingeniously placing tiny cameras inside the syrinx—that the sound was created by vibrations of the connective tissue as well as the membranes that it held. Birdsong depends on more than just the syrinx or, in the parrot’s case, the tongue also. It was recognized way back in the 1700s, by an enthusiast of nightingale song, that the lungs (and their extensions, the air sacs, which


are unique to birds) are also involved, as are both the testicles (usually referred to as testes in birds) and the brain. Let’s start with the connection between the testes and vocalizations. This is a link that is (or was) well-established in humans. With the development of European opera in the sixteenth century, the habit of castrating pre-pubertal boys to retain the purity of their high-pitched voice was not uncommon in some European countries. Poor parents would offer up their sons for castration, an operation performed without anaesthetic by barber-surgeons, in the hope that the boys might become famous, wealthy singers. Castration could have a startling effect, and the voice of castrati was likened to that of a nightingale. Opera audiences loved them, shouting ‘Viva il coltello!’—‘Long live the knife!’ But there was a puzzle. In birds, castration stopped them singing altogether. So Daines Barrington asked Why this operation should not improve the notes of a nestling, as much as it is supposed to contribute to the greater perfection of the human voice. To this I answer, that castration by no means insures any such consequence; for the voices of much the greater part of Italian eunuchs are so indifferent, that they have no means of procuring a livelihood but by copying music, and this is one of the reasons why so few compositions are published in Italy, as it would starve this ‘refuse of society’.4 Uncomfortable with both the practice of castration and existence of eunuchs, Barrington was confused by the possible role that the testes might play in song in birds. He wondered whether castration might result

in a failure of the muscles of the syrinx to develop and attempted to test this idea by persuading ‘an operator’ to castrate a six-week old blackbird so he could establish the effect on its voice. The poor bird died soon after its operation, so Barrington could ‘only conjecture with regard to what might have been the consequences of it’. Unlike human testicles, the testes of birds (which lie inside the body cavity) undergo huge seasonal changes in size, almost disappearing during the winter and reaching their maximum size in the breeding season, which is also when males are singing. The link between the seasonal enlargement of the testes and the occurrence of bird song made it obvious that these two phenomena were closely associated. The link is the steroid hormone testosterone, which is produced in the testes. Not surprisingly, the loss of the testes through castration inevitably halts or reduces singing, as Barrington would have discovered had his blackbird survived. Castration in young human males eliminates testosterone and prevents puberty— hence the falsetto voice. In birds, the crucial experiment was performed in the 1960s and involved removing the testes from a young male chaffinch, before it had perfected its song. The bird stopped singing, as expected, but two years later (well after the age at which a chaffinch would have normally perfected its adult song), on being given a shot of testosterone, the bird began to sing and copied a recording of chaffinch song played to him. The conclusion from this experiment was that the critical period for song-learning was not simply determined by age, but by the stage of the bird’s own neural development, and of course by testosterone. Critical periods, as they are called, or windows of learning opportunities, occur for many kinds of behaviour, but are crucial for songlearning in birds. Young birds must hear the songs of others (often their

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father) at a particular time, and later they have to practise to perfect their performance. Since song is both a courtship device and a territorial ‘keepout’ signal to other males, young birds try to avoid trouble by practising very quietly, singing to themselves in what we call ‘sub-song’. The first time I ever heard sub-song was as I walked home from school as a five or sixyear-old, already keen on birds, and listened—amazed—to a blackbird inside a beech hedge, just a metre away, singing softly to itself in wonderful melodic tones. The seasonal increase in testes size is triggered by increasing day length in the spring. The enlarged testes start to produce testosterone that travels through the bloodstream to the brain where it stimulates particular cells in a region referred to as the song centre; that in turn causes the bird to start singing. This is the general ‘model’ of how song is created, but it isn’t quite the full story. Conducting field work in Zambia in the southern hemisphere during the northern winter, I was amazed to hear willow warblers singing in the mopane woodland, knowing that their testes (had I been able to see them) would be all but invisible.5 A clue as to what may be going on came from studies of song acquisition in the zebra finch, a popular cage and laboratory bird that originates from the arid regions of Australia, where the breeding season is triggered not by increasing day length, but by environmental changes such as rainfall. American researchers, keen to follow up on results of the chaffinch research described above, used the zebra finch as their study species (because the chaffinch was unavailable in North America), but to their astonishment found that castration had absolutely no effect on the birds

song: male zebra finches without testes sang as normal. This seemed to fly in the face of the—by then—generally accepted ‘model’ of song production. Subsequent research revealed the explanation: unlike the chaffinch, the zebra finch brain, astoundingly, produces its own steroid hormones, testosterone and oestrogen, independently of the testes. This may be an adaptation to the zebra finch’s nomadic, arid-country opportunist breeding strategy, where they have to be ready to respond rapidly to breeding opportunities. We do not (yet) know whether the willow warbler’s winter song is produced in this way, but it seems plausible. When testosterone was first produced synthetically in the 1930s dishonest bird dealers injected female canaries with it to make them sing, allowing them to sell them as males. The effect was essentially identical to injecting castrated male birds with testosterone: they started to sing. Just how this worked was discovered in the 1970s. Giving testosterone to female canaries caused those areas of their brain concerned with detecting and processing male song to grow: the length of certain neurons doubled in response to testosterone! This is essentially the same as the effect of the naturally occurring testosterone surge that occurs in male birds as day length increases in the spring: their neurons also grow. This was a truly monumental discovery, not just for our understanding of birdsong, but for biology as whole and neurobiology in particular. Up until this time it had been assumed that cells in the brain neither replace themselves nor regenerate, hence the inability of the brain to repair itself after injury. The discovery that parts of the brain in birds could grow in response to a hormone led not only to a revolution in bird song studies but also to a surge in collaborative research between neurobiologists, molecular biologists, endocrinologists and students of behaviour.


We can summarize the results of the bird research briefly as follows: large differences exist in the brains of males and female birds, specifically in songbirds; the vocal centres in the brain are typically larger in males than females and larger in species with larger song repertoires (Daines Barrington would have been delighted by this). Like the testes, the song regions of the brain also undergo huge seasonal changes in size and organization in response to the sex hormones, including the creation of new neurons, something that was once thought to be completely impossible. I have provided an historical overview of how we know what we currently know about how and why birds sing. Some of the early studies were brutal, but we have to acknowledge that those were different times and such experiments would not occur today, at least not without extreme scrutiny and appropriate welfare considerations. I wonder however, whether our understanding of birdsong would be where it is today without them. In this respect they remind me of the equally brutal maternal deprivation studies of primates conducted by Harry Harlow in the 1930s and 1950s, that ultimately caused the seismic shift in our understanding of social attachment in humans. The ability of songbirds to learn complex vocalizations by means of auditory feedback continues to provide us with an excellent model for human speech learning. Since much of what has been discovered in birds turns out to be true in mammals, the studies of songbirds have also had a dramatic impact on studies of brain development and function in humans. Together with new developments in stem-cell biology this promises new treatments for a range of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Footnotes 1. From E A Albin, 1737, Natural History of Song-birds, Butterworth & Co, London. 2. See Aristotle, History of Animals, book II, chapter xii, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p 115. 3. See G J Beckers, B S Nelson and R A Suthers, 2004, ‘Vocal-tract filtering by lingual articulation in a parrot’, Current Biology 14, pp 1592–1597. 4. See D H Barrington, 1773, ‘Experiments and observations on the singing of birds’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 63, pp 249–291. 5. Mopane is a characteristic, modest tree from the northern part of southern Africa. See https://


& each song constructed carefully strands of sound and gaps to let the syllables breathe nests woven in space before the nesting


Birdsong Hannah’s Wood, Heart of Wales


am thirsty for this music. I lean nearer. The tiny twig of a tail juts up—the wren stops. I freeze. He sings again. It is as if my listening is stretching out through my fingers to hear more nearly this mini-Paganini, the chanterelle of birds to me, the sweetest, highest string of the violin. (Its vocal range is one of the highest-pitched of birds, singing up to one full octave above the top note of a piano keyboard.) My ears, though, are perplexed by him. I cannot hear fast enough to keep up, so the last notes of his cadence fall silent before I have properly heard the first, and by the time I deeply hear his song, he has already finished. If starlight is emitted light years away, and we may only see it after a star has ceased to shine, so I seem to hear this bird only after it has ceased to sing, its song emitted just sound-seconds ago but always uncatchable. It is both fleet and fleeting, fast and evanescent. Quick and quickening, it touches the quick of the spirit, in the acuteness of time. It quickens the woodlands with liveliness, germinating its seedling songs in the leaves, inseminating the air. Dawn in the woods. A little riff-raff of sparrows chitter in the hedge. Blue tits and great tits chip in a divertimento in hemidemisemiquavers. The crow’s croak cauls around the dark branch. A robin fills its little red sail with wind and sails into the day. All keel, no anchor. (Not solely a metaphor, that: a bird’s flight muscles are attached to what is called a keel bone.) As soon as I hear it, I want to describe it, as if once I have breathed in birdsong, I must transpose it into a human key and breathe it out in language. This imitation seems to be a perennial human desire, from childhood stories with the owl’s to-whit, to-whoo, or John Clare’s transliteration of a nightingale’s song, ‘Chew-chew chew-chew … jug jug jug’, as if to set a filigree net of little letters to catch a song without breaking

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its wings. It is sweetly futile: the ineffable may be indicated but not reproduced, but still we try and birdsong seems to turn us all into diligent but endlessly frustrated secretaries to St Francis, missing his knowledge that the only way to speak with birds is simply to laugh (aloud: silently) and to let the birdsong blow across his strings. John Bevis’ book Aaaaw to Zzzzd: The Words of Birds, a compendium of the notation of bird sounds, dedicates itself humorously and eagerly to the acknowledged impossibility of the task, but ever willing to give it a try. But-but is a bullfinch, chack chack a fieldfare, zzzzd is the lazuli bunting and aaaa is a jay, not to be confused (clearly!) with the aaaaw of the black skimmer. Mnemonics also mimic the songs, such as the yellowhammer’s ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ or the wood pigeon’s ‘take two cows, taffy’, or the great tit’s ‘teacher, teacher’. Onomatopoeic naming evokes birdsong on the instant, as the cuckoo calls its name in its two-note pan pipe, or the owl (ule in Old English, ulula in Latin) softly cries its way through all the nights of the world: owl, howl and ululation are all thought to be from a Proto Indo-European root, u(wa)l, created in imitation of the owl. The chiffchaff chatters its way to day unless it hears the sinister mew of the kite keening its onomatopoeic name overhead, while the stonechat does what its name tells, making the sound of two stones clacking against each other. The hoarse cries of the crow (crawe in Old English) or rook (hroc in Old English) or raven (hræfn in Old English) speak their own names. The ornithologist-poet Don McKay captures the latter in metaphor, describing the call of a raven as ‘doorbell / crossed with oboe’. The words peep, pipe and pibroch are onomatopoeic, from Old English pipian, to play on a pipe, which derives from Latin pipare, ‘to peep, chirp’,

of imitative origin, because the word itself derives ultimately from the peeps of birds. (Sardinian has pibiare, retaining a form closer to Latin than Italian does, and Sardinian children, chicks nestled in bed, are told: ‘Como muda, mancu unu pibiu’—‘Now be quiet, not even a peep’.) Many collective nouns for birds paint a sound picture: a murmuration of starlings; a bellowing of bullfinches (that’s not kind, now, is it? nor true); a dole of turtledoves; a clattering of choughs or jackdaws; a gaggle of geese; a storytelling of crows; a tittering or a tidings of magpies; a quarrel of sparrows; a clamour of rooks; a party or a scold of jays. (That’s unfair too: they’re too much like Sid James to be cross.) Whether it is whistled, written, copied or played, birdsong seems compulsively mimicable—in visual form too, and there are artists who have tried to draw birdsong, or use computer-generated images for it. Seeing birdsong written on a musical score is like concrete poetry, a graphic score, a fizzy dizzicato pizzicato of acciaccatura—that species of grace notes theoretically timeless. Every dawn they sing up the sun in a vivace creation. Woodpecker braggadocio on the castanets of a chestnut tree. Four finches fiddling fugues in F sharp for a fiddlehead fern. Urchin sparrows flicking cheeps as a fox trots past on a dawn errand (get that pheasant, get that pheasant). If I offered my notation, birds seem to sing the names of composers (particularly Russian): Straviiinski, Straviiinski, or Tchaíkovski, Tchaíkovski, Tchaí! Sometimes chirping Tippett, Tippett, Tippett then calling low and sweet Keeats, Keeats, Keeats. This is my scherzo giocoso, undisprovable glee to my ears, and meanwhile the madrigal widens to a crescendo of coloratura as each bird becomes the maestro of its own cadenza into full morning.


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Musicians and composers have an elective affinity with birdsong. Human music has entwined with birds since the earliest records of culture: the world’s oldest recognizable musical instrument is a flute made of a hollow bird’s bone, from a Griffon vulture. The cellist Beatrice Harrison famously performed with a nightingale and the duet was broadcast on BBC from 1924 until 1942 when it was interrupted by the drone of aircraft on the ‘Thousand Bomber’ raid. ‘In my hours of gloom’, Olivier Messiaen wrote, when I am suddenly aware of my own futility … what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music somewhere off in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seashore, among the birds. Vivaldi composed his flute concerto Il Gardellino, The Goldfinch, in 1702. Or so they say. But when you listen to that flute solo you know, of course, the bird composed it first. When Beethoven composed part of his Pastoral Symphony, he said ‘The yellowhammers up there, the quails, nightingales and cuckoos around about, composed with me.’ Mozart had a pet starling, and when it died, the composer held a full funeral for it, which has a certain sad prolepsis for a genius who would himself have a pauper’s funeral. Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, that sheer saturation of joy, was inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name, which was inspired, of course, by the bird itself. Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome requires a recording of a nightingale, and Magnus Robb’s piece Sprosser: Hallucinations of Purity (1998) uses percussion to imitate the rhythms of the thrush nightingale, the Sprosser. ‘Birds instructed man’, wrote Lucretius, ‘and taught him songs before

Figure 1, opposite: Clattering of Jackdaws

his art began.’ There is a case, some linguists say, for arguing that we sang before we spoke, that the emotional content of our language, in pitch, timbre, musicality, came before the lexical part. Shigeru Miyagawa, a linguist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that, between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, humans merged the expressive songs of birds with the information-bearing communications of other primates to create the unique music of human language. Was it their grace notes which sang at the very source of our language? Is it possible? Is that part of the reason for my keen and keening listening, as if I am not just learning to hear but dimly remembering how we first learnt to speak? As if humanity’s compulsive imitation of birds is because we are collectively unable to forget that we may have learnt language from the birds? I am drinking the wren’s silver laughter, thirsty for its liquid song. I’m not alone: ‘One moment just to drink the sound / Her music made’, writes John Clare of the nightingale, a beak, rather than a beakerful, of the warm South. George Meredith pictures the skylark’s song as a jet of water soaring ‘With fountain ardor, fountain play’, this carefree—spilling—overflow as if the bird’s song in its pure liquidity dissolves all the dry distinctions of joy and light, the listener and the singer, in an aural alchemy. I listen soundlessly. I breathe in for this wren, but then I am rapt in beauty and each note reminds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pretended that drops of water were diamonds and I was surrounded by priceless treasure. Our best applause: first silence, then song. In Western myth, the figure behind every poet and musician is Orpheus, singer in the woodlands, whose music is so sweetly compelling


that the trees uproot themselves to come closer to him, the stones hop nearer like birds while the birds become as stones, transfixed. According to Ovid, the shrieking maenads who tore Orpheus apart killed the birds first, and as his spirit vanished down the wind ‘the birds, lamenting, cried for you, Orpheus’. As if Ovid heard what so many people do, a melancholy in birdsong, longing for the very soul of music. It seems we humans sing most like birds when we sing most in our Orphic keys of music and poetry, as if to be a poet is to be part bird, and poets have long made the comparison resonant. Shelley’s skylark is Like a Poet hidden In the light of thought. To me, the skylark high in the sky is the cloudless psyche at noon, and yet it has a tension of pleasure which can feel bittersweet. The speck of a bird, a punctuation of pure joy, pierces the sky and my heart. Birdsong, like poetry, tends towards poignancy, sharp, quick and deep: the beak is a flint which strikes the heart of feeling, so Robert Burns hears in the woodlark ‘nocht but love and sorrow join’d’. The nightingale, its nocturne a solo sung in the dark, rhymes with the twilit knowing of poetry’s shadow vision and Keats tends the night of both nightingale and poetry. The word ‘nightingale’ means ‘night singer’, for ‘gale’ is from Old English galan, to sing, which also gives us galdor: song, spell or enchantment; the song of the nightingale releases the song of the poet. To me, every blackbird is John Donne, singing a tender confluence of beauty without knowing whether he sings for the female or for the divine. Why do they do it? The obvious deadening answers lie at my feet like litter. Courting. Mating. Territory. Machines for survival. Mechanical

embodiments of genetic compulsion. Oh, I know these things are all true, I know it well. I have watched a woodpecker almost sheepish with horniness until, in order to broadcast his message louder, he became a metalpecker, clinging to a telegraph pole, rattling the metal strut with its beak, and I thought he would get a terrible headache as he tried to drum up a mate from thin air: roll up, roll up, can’t hold on much longer. Drrrrrrrrrum úp. (Pause.) Drrrrrrrrrum úp. (Pause.) Drrrrrrrrrum úp. (Please?) But here’s the thing. Birds are known to sing beyond what is necessary to find, impress and keep a mate, beyond what is necessary to get and hold their territory. They sing well after the chicks have flown the nest, long into autumn, so late and so well. And this is the gap to watch, the opening which begs that the question is asked again, and willingly, why? The gap between need and achieve that lets the beauty in. The eager profusion, the unmeasured abundance. You can’t miss them, the ones which tickle the leaves of the woodlands for joy, tinkling the ivresseries, the ones which can’t stop themselves, whose songs run rings of bright sound around themselves like otters chasing their own tails at a noon tide high as—ha!—not kites, please god, not if you’re a small bird in the woods, a wren hushed in quick quiet. The musician, philosopher and writer David Rothenberg, author of the beautiful book Why Birds Sing, argues that as well as the obvious reasons, birds sing for joy. As a musician himself, he feels a camaraderie, an understanding that birds as much as humans are musicians and they sing for the sheer pleasure of performance, far over and above their need. ‘Music is a songbird’s utmost desire, an endless yearning to sing.’ Rothenberg plays music with birds, a gift between players, an exchange of beauty. Gift culture takes many forms and in my garden it is

Figure 2, opposite: Skylark

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strawberries. I give the blackbirds strawberries; they give me song. I think this is a good exchange. Joseph Addison gave his blackbirds cherries for the same reason. Hans Christian Andersen explores the nature of gift in ‘The Nightingale’, where the bird works within gift culture, singing free in the woods, responsive to wishes, seeing tears as true treasure. The ethic of the gift is dramatized: it cannot be bought; should not be sold; must not be caged, or held, meanly, in a tight fist. The emperor is sent an artificial nightingale, covered with diamonds, rubies and sapphires, and when it is wound up, it sings. The court decides the birds should sing a competitive duet and while the real nightingale sang its own song, ‘the artificial bird sang only waltzes’. Yes, I thought, reading that: I have never heard a waltzing bird. The real nightingale is scorned, despised and banished, but only she can save the life of the emperor when he is ill, and only if she is allowed to sing for him as a gift. The wren is watching me. I breathe out as quietly as I can. His tiny eyes are a brilliant, liquid black—he blinks. He is the smallest bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loudest and this is why, open-heartedly, simply, gratefully, admiringly, I love him. He dazzles my ears. There is courage here, cocky, proud, brave and beautiful. This is undaunted gift; how much sheer magnificence can you pack into one tiny wren? Other songs nearby include the nuthatch—do it, do it—and the yip yip yip of the great spotted woodpecker, with the chiffchaff chafing at the bit bit bit. Together, they are getting the dew giggling and creating a pointillist painting in sound. Their calls are so familiar to me in the woodlands where I live that they are my belonging—and it was the wood pigeon which signed the title deeds of my heart’s home, as a child. Chaffinches

Figure 3, opposite: Pied Flycatcher

have dialects: the male chaffinch sings a variation on a shared theme, depending on geography. A Kentish chaffinch is different from a Welsh one, while chaffinch song in Scotland can alter from valley to valley. They co-create their landscapes. A blue tit banks sharply to perch, an arpeggio in motion. A blackbird glides a glissando stream. A buzzard swoops an octave between hillsides. A pied flycatcher hops a staccato twig. To imagine one’s landscapes without their soundtrack of birdsong is a bitter desolation, a fearful silent spring: air without birdsong is like a garden without flowers; nights without dreams; language without metaphor. Our woodlands would be, year-round, ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’, as Shakespeare wrote. ‘If you want a red rose you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s blood’, wrote Oscar Wilde in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’: the nightingale must sing with its breast against a thorn. This, poets know as well as birds, is the willing though poignant sacrifice. But can you price the sacrifice, or measure this cost? Could you weigh a nightingale’s song? The very question delights me: there is something joyously pure in its superfluity of curiosity; this is science for science’s sake. And someone has indeed tried to do so. Robert Thomas of Bristol University measured nightingales before singing, at dusk, and after singing, at dawn. The individuals which sang more lost more weight: it costs them dearly to sing. It is not the weight which fascinates, of course, but the lightness of the birds themselves which is part of their appeal, their weightless flight contrasted with our flightless weight: the light lift of a bird, yet full of such weight of emotional message. The flight makes visible the gap of yearning, the leaning longing which


Figure 4. Wren

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humans feel for their song. The feathers are the nearest tangible thing to their near-immateriality of music, the blue note of the song dropped on the path, and the mind has feathers which, unfurled, can sing our thoughts soaringly. In a beautiful rhyme of pragma and poetry, a bird-feather quill is a pen for the plumage of the writer, and in myth the god of writers, Hermes or Mercury, is feather-capped with wings at his heels. Feathers are to the air what individual private thought is to public meaning, and a word is like a secret feather of a hermeneutic language, placed carefully, winged to fly, free. Each word is freighted with its meaning and fretted too with its etymology, which draws lines, fret-marks scored to the word’s biography, as a bird’s feathers can have fret-marks, showing for the rest of the bird’s life its history of stress or hunger. I hate the idea that I am making this wren fret. While it sings, I know it is okay, and if it peeps its alarm call, I will step away. Even as I want to be nearer to it, I know I do not ever want to catch it, hold it or cage it. So much do I love birds and their elemental freedom that injured or caged birds, birds kept indoors, trapped or killed, can disturb me to the point of panic. ‘He who binds to himself a joy / Does the wingèd life destroy’ in Blake’s words. I have, of course, tried to get close to birdsong by listening to it online, to the great perturbation of my cats. (When it is running at actual speed, they go glittery as predators and pounce on my computer; when it is slowed right down so that a nightingale sounds like a humpback whale, they become fear-warped like prey and hide under the bed. Sorry.) When I heard wren-song slowed down nine times, my ear could finally catch up, and weigh the song’s beauty recalibrated to human scales. In a glorious

duet of bird and human voices, Marcus Coates first recorded birdsong then slowed it down up to sixteen times, and asked different humans to take different bird voices: their singing was then played at bird-speed, so the humans sound like the chirping birds. The gifts of birdsong are given even in our inattention, and sometimes in the woods I have become aware that I have been lost in myself and have not been listening. Then, letting their windfall song wash over me again, I feel as if they had been pouring out a blessing, playing softly on, pedalling the priceless whether I noticed them or not. And what am I to the wren, after all, whose audience is other. Angels are usually pictured winged like birds, flying to deliver their messages. The word ‘angel’ comes from the Greek word for messenger. Birds, meanwhile, have long been thought to be messengers, whether it is the casual remark, ‘A little bird told me’, or birds in folk tales offering wisdom or advice, and the birds’ manifold messenger-role in myth. There is a leitmotiv of longing when we humans hear birdsong, whether it is science’s longing to measure, record and question; art’s longing to translate the music; or the human spirit keening for all that quickens the soul. The same tangent of longing is there, yearning for the beyond. Hearing the song without seeing it, seeing the bird without touching it, the quest, not the destination. The skylark circling higher and higher in the air becomes an invisible source of song always beyond, and a line of Browning is in my mind: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for? What the senses can actually grasp is overtaken by the yearning to reach beyond them. Height beyond sight. Pitch beyond hearing. The


song beyond the reasons. Reason not the need, Shakespeare wrote, as if only humans yearned for The Beyond. Birds, we know, sing beyond needfulness, and to the human mind they are the angels of abundance, creating and reflecting joy. Birdsong seems to happen on the horizon of the human mind, just beyond the extent of our senses. Immanent but untranslatable—the dash —!—the glimpse, the hint, the ellipsis. All birdsong is always partially eclipsed to us, as if it is always leaning towards the leading note, the seventh keening for the tonic, as a skylark, self-leading, rises higher and higher, to the high-octane octave—yet—always—leggerissimo, as lightly as possible, where light is both weight and sound, both brightness and joy, and the octave is reached only at a point of silence created by the very quintessence of its own music. ‘Till lost on his aërial rings / In light,’ writes Meredith.

Coda. It is evening now and serene. In the low trees a blackbird is serenading the world, distilling the day to a rhapsody of gold and candle-song.

Till lost in light. The quality of the silence after Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the silence into which we pour our hushed applause of the heart. Between sound and silence. Between earth and sky. Between visible and invisible. Between literal and metaphoric. Between seeing and dreaming. Between sight and insight. Shelley and Keats alike between waking and sleeping, as the skylark flies higher, sings its furthest reach yet, ‘Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there’, writes Shelley. I am drawn out of myself into its ecstasy of sound, and I have become the tangent of my yearning. Between all categories, this, before memory and beyond longing, both the nostalgic possibility and the charisma of loss at once, a synaesthesia of the soul.

Opposite: Blackbird

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Celestial Melody

2nd Dawn Encouraged by the empathy he has now fostered with the chorus he is keen to take his place in the performance. By being part of it, he figures, the chorus will reveal itself to him.

1st Dawn He takes his place, arms outstretched, ready to receive this phenomenon. The sky brightens … The birds sing ‘This joyous song is like a light inside me. I am transcendent in its exultation. I am now truly awake, truly alive. I am lifted by this fanfare to the sun. I feel free, maybe for the first time. Pure and untouched, simple and innocent, here is clarity, uncontaminated. This is how I want to be, how I still could be, at one, attuned, in synchronicity. Your songs are new and clean, they are washing me. I can begin again, I am alive through you.’ The birds sing on ‘Somehow you know what I am thinking and know what I need to hear. This is a special connection I have with you. Everything I despise about my world is absent in yours.’ On leaving he wonders whether he could get more from these dawns, to go further than these ecstatic moments? To rise higher even? ‘I want to hold your songs in the palm of my hand, to know your essence.’

He stands motionless with his eyes closed. A dry dead twig is held delicately in one hand. Both hands rise up, pointing out into the semi darkness and on a cue known only to him, they jolt downwards, beginning a frenzy of impassioned and articulated movements. He is conducting his choir. Anyone coming across him might think he is possessed. The songs are brought in one by one from the surrounding circle. Taking centre stage he shapes the ensemble. At first he struggles to predict and respond to the variety of songs, confused by their lack of structure and discipline. He sets out to do what he can, provide a focus for unity and provide order to this beautiful but chaotic performance. ‘Your melodic meanderings need guidance!’ he advises the blackbird and leads by example with exacting baton technique. ‘Accent and punctuate!’ He likes the instructional voice he has found, it is empowering and somehow liberating. ‘That’s better.’ Some encouragement for the blackbird. Scolding the song thrush he yells ‘Repeat! repeat! not once but five times! Do you not know your part!’ Flailing and spinning, he catches and directs songs coming at him from every angle. ‘Ah the chiffchaff, see how delicately I bring you in, keeping you to time so precisely.’ And indeed the chiffchaff continues to keep to time very accurately. He turns his attention across to some vibrant and sporadic phrasing ‘Ah, the liveliness of the robin, it’s always a challenge, you have to coax and …’ he breaks off to grapple with the irregularities of his wayward soprano ‘… and finesse these phrases,

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show her who’s in charge.’ He demonstrates his dominance with grand expansive gestures, cutting at the air, as if to break and bring definition to the robin’s liquid notes. A crude new voice is brought to his attention, his sixth sense for equilibrium is irked, the harmony he is working so hard to refine is being punctured. He intuitively swivels to home in on his culprit. Without needing to see the bird he points his stick in the direction of what he instinctively knows is a wren. With a forefinger raised to his lips as a school teacher might and with his stick stroking the air downwards he employs a quiet authority to quell the misplaced eagerness of this song. To help this tiny bird understand its own voice, he raises his voice above the chorus, ‘You need to learn when to use it and when to hold back, you have immense power, choose your moments wisely. Watch and wait for my cues.’ He is crafting this chorus at last. The birds sing on ‘Everything here is in balance, I see the patterns of the universe in your song, I feel the energy in everything, you show me I belong!’ Exhausted, he steps back from his task and basks in his chorus. Applause ripples over him as the wind shakes the canopy. He looks to sit down and survey this eden in rest, but the woodland floor looks dirty. ‘Keep singing, practice makes perfect!’ is his departing remark. The birds sing on

3rd Dawn He wakes. ‘Here they are, before my thoughts, the first songs call me. My chorus is waiting.’ The cold early darkness is not welcoming and he’s slightly annoyed they have started without him. Rallying himself and spurred on by the thought of ‘even better birdsong’ he ventures forth. Although how exactly it would improve on the previous morning he isn’t sure. He concludes that everything must strive to improve itself as he does: ‘Surely that is what drives us, provides us with fuel and purpose.’ He takes his place at the centre again. Listening with anticipation. ‘Give it time’, he tells himself. He moves on, towards a place where he expects the songs to be more intense. ‘More birds, more species, better birds, better songs.’ The birds sing on A few times the perfect place shifts to just beyond him. When at last he finds an adequate sound a flock of rooks fly over, circle and shambolically occupy the trees overhead. ‘Such crude and primitive calls, so unmusical.’ He judges them too human in tone to merit his attention; they remind him of the world he had left behind. Deciding that his chorus has been compromised, he’s forced on, towards a cleaner, purer, soundscape he hopes will not be far away. He resents having to walk so far. As the light and heat are turned up, more songs start up. The long tangled song of a blackcap in the distance hooks him. ‘At last some cultured


song.’ With new purpose he perseveres through bramble thickets to get close enough. But it has already left without telling him. He forgives its elusiveness, seeing it as part of its artistry, the uncompromising temperament of a wonderful warbler. The songs he most values are the rarest and the most complex. He has reserved a place in his mind for these truly talented singers, but they are not showing up. The birds sing on Amongst the many birds singing around him now, a robin sings especially close. ‘Sorry, not special enough.’ The robin, he expounds to himself, is very common, the Christmas card bird that everyone knows and loves. Popular, prosaic and abundant. What more could this song offer him that he hasn’t heard a thousand times. ‘Your song is cheap.’ He chuckles at his unintended wit. He moves on, away from the usual suspects, seeking greener grass. ‘If only the birds knew the sacrifices I’d made to be here with them. Where are the songs that will take me beyond myself?’ He calls it a day, although it has barely begun, and returns empty-handed. The birds sing on

4th Dawn The songs that wake him now, don’t lie so easily with him. They make him feel more alone somehow. He steps out earlier than before, hoping to beat them at their game. He acknowledges to himself the endeavour of these birds, for this he almost admires them. Although their efforts now have a desperation about them. Indiscriminate, hopeful, futile and lonely, signalling out across the dark of dawn to no-one in particular and everyone at once. There is a pathos to it. He feels in reflection diminished by it, as if this singing were just a functional and artless strategy. He remembers being a teenager, dancing at a disco, watching his friends showing off and hoping a girl would notice him, but never really believing that was possible. ‘Who are you singing to?!!’ The birds sing on The songs and calls appear changed, uncultured and pedestrian. They are pulling away from his beautiful vision of them, indifferent to him and his desire for oneness. It strikes him as naive that he’s never seen their indifference before. That they really don’t care about him, or even consider him in any way is surprisingly shocking to him. All this attention he was giving to them, this was clearly undeserved. He stands, calm and motionless, for some time. ‘Aaaaagghhhhh!’ Screaming with arms flailing wildly he charges through the brambles, straight toward a singing dunnock he’s singled out. It takes flight, a blue tit does the same, just far enough to be outside his field of influence, which he notes they have the measure of. They continue with their business as if nothing had happened, mocking his wasted energy.

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That they acknowledged and noticed him, even if it was in fear, gives him some satisfaction. Evidence, however fleeting, that he exists beyond the trampled path behind him. The birds sing on Still stewing, he feeds his feelings of abandonment enough to summon up another roar. It is less impressive this time, more self-conscious. It creates a moment when their songs cease, but they’re soon back to full power and motoring on regardless. Their single-minded purpose, whatever that is, doesn’t involve him. He tries to reconcile himself to the passive role forced upon him. ‘If they don’t care about me why should I care about them?’ As he mumbles this out loud it sounds like something a child might say, but he pursues its logic none the less. ‘Then I won’t’, addressing them directly. He has given them his adoration, he has worshipped their ritual, now he looks foolish for believing in these songs.

5th Dawn On waking he feels tired at the thought of going back into their lives. Has he developed a tolerance to this dawn chorus drug, whose first effects were so ecstatic? He reluctantly admits to himself he doesn’t have their stamina, they have beaten him at that game, he can’t be in life like them after all. The tireder he gets, the stronger, louder and more oppressive their songs become. As he steps out they invite themselves in, setting up their stalls in his head. Sleep hasn’t brought the clean slate he’d hoped for. His own mind is feeding the birds against his will. Each song comes with a different claim for territory in his mind. Stuck in there, along with his thoughts and nowhere to go, issuing and repeating their proclamations, insisting on their importance. There is less and less room for himself in there. The birds sing on Overhead, like the leaves, the songs are closing in, a green mass of sound. With their sharp batons they prod and goad him. Their persistence is draining. ‘You’re just a mess of desperate voices!’ He shouts upwards to everyone and no-one in particular. Even before he reached centre stage this morning he knew he had lost the class. All shouting at once with their different grudges and bones to pick, each with their own technique of tormenting the teacher. As he feeds this image he can see the faces of kids he once knew, but whose names he has long forgotten. They are turning on him. Don’t they know he is one of them? He covers his eyes with his hands, imagines himself in a quieter, darker,


simpler, purer place, shielded from this savage confusion and force, where he can transcend the madness of this nature. He remembers how the birds must have seen him rise above them on that first day, he can hear their sarcastic encouragement to try that again. The birds sing on Exposed and surrounded, there is no place for him, not even in his own mind. They won’t let him think, now every room is taken. He wills the sun to rise faster. Distinct and individual, each song punishes in its own way. Each note and phrase has its way of cutting through. He is defenceless against their tactics and guises. The endurance grinds him down, the repetition maddens him, the melodies nauseate him, the complexity frustrates him and the mimicry deceives him. All of them supremely confident in their own potency. The birds sing on They fill every cavity. Insisting and repeating their slogans, over and over, like a politician’s campaign mantra. So familiar and embedded they sound like his thoughts. He has wandered into the birds’ minds and lost his own. He is more them than him. Thoughts, now notes, detached from their source, roll into and over each other. Still no quarter is given, grinding him down, downwards to the ground, away from the songs. Kneeling, he finds his face drawn to and eventually pressed against the ground, into the detritus, with a longing for the silence of a world of worms below. A respite of sorts, he leaves himself there. The birds sing on

6th Dawn Their intent, their stress and urgency are the only things he recognizes of himself. The possessed outpouring of so many small throats shows no mercy. They sing as though their lives depend on it. He has no doubt now that they do. He knows the failures that await him: to find a mate, to build a nest, to find food, to raise young. He feels the ever-present threat of predation, of starvation, of exposure to the cold and wet. He scratches at his ticks, or are they lice, tormented by these phantom parasites. The songs work together, tirelessly. The last remnants of him are herded into pockets of pressure that build upon themselves. With nowhere to go they begin erupting from him as bursts of vocal noise. Sporadically at first and then as a steady flow; guttural shrieks, clipped yelps, coughs, snorts, groans, chaks and ticks, all with their own will and alive in their own right, some subtle and some violent, some otherworldly, all without his design. More sounds come, demanding to be heard, sounds that can’t be spelled, sounds that contort and shape him, sounds that have not been made by him or perhaps any person before. He sings on Author’s Notes 1st Dawn; perfection, worship, alignment through projection and idealization, bliss. 2nd Dawn; order, impose, centre, orchestrate, seek connection through inclusivity, separation from mutuality, value judgments, disappointment in other. 3rd Dawn; progress, deeper separation, re-possession. 4th Dawn; lack of reciprocity, indifference, outside, rejection, perceived betrayal. 5th Dawn; escape, regression, submission, surrender, non self. 6th Dawn; empathy, embodiment, automatic, creativity, acceptance, belonging.

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Becoming a Listener On Robert Schumann's Bird as Prophet (from Forest Scenes, op 82)



f you grew up in the temperate vegetation zone, one of your lasting childhood memories will be the silence befalling an entire forest grove after a jay or a blackbird sounded an alarm call. And the ease and reliability with which, after this general pause, life begins to resume its rhythm and the bird chorus envelops you again. The sudden onset of silence casts the individual song and its resonances with others into sharp relief. Sometimes the excited mating call of a nuthatch, the hammering of a woodpecker, or the screech of a raptor circling above the canopy rupture our solipsism. They do not interfere with the chorus, but it sounds as if the entire forest had imperceptibly shifted key. Birdsongs are part of our sensory embeddedness in the world that we rarely notice, a tightly woven web that cradles us. Yet, quickly we filter it out as white noise—and hastily we return into the echo-chambers of our own minds. Birds leave no one untouched. They appear as angelic messengers between the chthonic and celestial realms; they are envisioned as envoys between humans and spirits of the dead; their flight embodies ideals of freedom with unrivalled grace; and their songs speak to a deep-seated utopian hope that the creaturely and the creative dimensions of human life may have the same root. Many cultures have thus assigned birds particular symbolical or allegorical roles in their folklore, mythology and literature, perhaps most prominently in the twelfth-century Persian mystical poem The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar. In German medieval poetry, for example, birds are often imagined as mystagogues. Parzival’s mother Queen Herzeloyde, in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s eponymous epic, retreats into a forest wilderness to shield her adolescent son from her husband’s fate,

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death as a crusader on the battlefield. Parzival develops a particular bond with songbirds. When he, by mistake, kills a bird while practising his bow and arrow, his heart is shattered:1 erne kunde niht gesorgen, ez enwære ob im der vogelsanc, die süeze in sîn herze dranc: daz erstracte im sîniu brüstelîn. al weinde er lief zer künegîn. He had no care in the world save the singing of the birds overhead. Its sweetness pierced him to the heart and brought a tightness to his breast. All in tears he ran to the Queen. In order to protect him from future heartache, Herzeloyde orders her knights to kill all the birds in the forests around their hermitage. Unsurprisingly, this absurd enterprise deeply alienates Parzival from his mother. His ability to listen to birds and allow their songs to touch his heart, shows his emotional depth and his receptiveness for music—aspects of the human personality cherished by medieval courtly civilization. The songbirds in the forest guide Parzival towards his destiny: becoming a heroic knight and redeeming his uncle Amfortas, the ailing guardian of the Holy Grail. Throughout European courtly traditions, birds often feature as witnesses of a love secret. They are tacitly complicit in the consummation of an illicit erotic encounter, most famously in ‘Unter der linden’ by Walter von der Vogelweide (whose surname, aptly, translates as ‘bird pasture’). Here, a little bird is enlisted as confidant of the lovers and vouchsafes

for the truthfulness of their feelings. By contrast, the dawn song, which originated among the Provençal troubadours (as alba) and was particularly popular in the German courtly tradition (as Tagelied), features a bird rudely interrupting a night’s intimate togetherness at daybreak. Here, the bird becomes a representative of the social and moral order interfering with the lovers’ privacy. In the idyllic vein in European poetry, birds often serve as messengers connecting humans with realms beyond the human. Even in a poem like Friedrich Hölderlin’s ‘Heidelberg’, whose residual idyllic imagery is firmly embedded in a complex philosophy of time, the bridge across the River Neckar is likened to the flight of a forest bird. The bird unifies the synaesthetic rendition of this boundary between civilization (the dramatic cityscape of Heidelberg) and wilderness (mountain, forest, river) and symbolizes the flow of energy between these realms:2 Wie der Vogel des Walds über den Gipfel fliegt, Schwingt sich über den Strom, wo er vorbei dir glänzt, Leicht und kräftig die Brücke, Die von Wagen und Menschen tönt. As over hilltops birds of the forest fly, Across the river gleaming past you the bridge Vaults over, sturdily and lightly, Loud with the traffic of feet and coachwheels. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, by comparison, epitomizes the Romantic use of birdsong as a metaphor for poetic inspiration, which ultimately remains woefully unattainable due to the human inability to


live and keep silent in the here and now. John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ expresses a deep desire to become one with nature that is, however, mired in profound confusion about what is reality and what is delusion: 3 ’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness,— That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

‘Es kam ein Jungfräulein gegangen, Die sang es immerfort, Da haben wir Vöglein gefangen Das hübsche, goldne Wort.’

German Romantic poetry often renders problematic the monadic nature of human imagination and its tendency to appropriate elements of nature for its own projections. This is already a feature of the experimentation with role-play, humour and irony in early Romanticism and it reaches a climax in Heinrich Heine’s brilliant consummation and acerbic deconstruction of Romantic sensibility. In his ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ (‘I wandered among the trees’) the speaker is imagining birds mocking him by imitating his unfaithful mistress’s voice: 4 Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen Mit meinem Gram allein, Da kam das alte Träumen, Und schlich mir ins Herz hinein.

I wandered among the trees, Alone with my own grief, But then old dreams returned once more And stole into my heart.

Wer hat euch dies Wörtlein gelehret, Ihr Vöglein in luftiger Höh’? Schweigt still! Wenn mein Herz es höret, Dann tut es noch einmal so weh.

Das sollt ihr mir nicht erzählen, Ihr Vöglein wunderschlau; Ihr wollt meinen Kummer mir stehlen, Ich aber niemanden trau’.

Who taught you this little word, You birds up there in the breeze? Be silent! If my heart hears it, My pain will return once more. ‘A young woman once passed by, Who sang it again and again, And so we birds snatched it up, That lovely golden word.’ You should not tell me such things, You little cunning birds, You thought to steal my grief from me, But I trust no one now.

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Nature here features as a mere echo-chamber for subjective sentiments—in this case a projection screen for past (or unrequited) love. The final stanza adds an ironic twist: it turns out the poet does not, in fact, scold the birds for mocking him, but rather for disturbing his melancholic self-affectation. He is so enamoured with his own sorrow and his poetic ability to express sorrow that he experiences the birds’ mimicry as an attack on his self-affirmation through melancholia: ‘You thought to steal my grief from me.’ The dispersal of secret expressions of love he once shared with his lost mistress offends him, but he does not want to acknowledge the fact that it was her who desecrated their secret in public. Robert Schumann’s rendition of this poem (Liederkreis, op 24/III) dramatizes precisely Heine’s insight that the expression of emotions is always prone to a tilting moment, when we realize that what we perceive as innermost evidence of individuality is, in fact, derivative—part of the collective body and memory of a shared language. The dependence on originality as sole evidence for individual autonomy is rendered unstable in Heine’s lyrical self who is claiming an expression of love, which is already mimicked by the birds, as inalienably his. 5 Birds in this poetic tradition are not, as generally believed, predominantly a stock symbol for poetic inspiration and human creativity; they are often a respectively joyful, melancholy or ironic reminder that subjective self-expression is always already shaped by a language that cannot be fully appropriated by the individual. The birds that traverse the leaves of German letters draw attention to the cultural, anthropological and biological conditions of aesthetic expression. In doing so, they expose a paradox at the heart of modern selfhood: defined by creativity, it is being expropriated in the very act of creation. Birds in

modern literature and music are not so much transcendent but rather transcendental agents: they extend an invitation to contemplate the conditions for the possibility of our self-expression. Their songs teach us that life is ultimately not at our disposal and defies the individual sovereignty we have constructed for ourselves.

2 Theodor Adorno, whose maternal German-Jewish middle name, Wiesengrund, translates as ‘forest valley meadow’ and thus connotes a fertile cultural landscape in central European imagination, turns to Joseph von Eichendorff ’s poetry to reflect on the ambiguity of subjectivity. Eichendorff ’s poem ‘Zwielicht’ (‘Twilight’), written in 1812, is often read as a dark struggle with loss of love, friendship and home. For Adorno, by contrast, the poem is a chamber play about how easily humans become victims of their own delusions and how carelessly they project their imaginings onto the natural world. This ‘uncontained Romanticism’ in Eichendorff ’s poetry,6 he argues, dispels the mythology of the autonomous subject and ‘confidently lets itself be borne along by the stream of language, without being drowned in it’. 7 This ethos of ‘letting be’ forms the condition for the possibility of experiencing resonances with other human beings and the natural world. It articulates an implicit critique of the nineteenth-century cult of self-formation (Bildung) and its focus on perpetual self-control and self-advancement: 8


Dämmrung will die Flügel spreiten, Schaurig rühren sich die Bäume, Wolken zieh’n wie schwere Träume— Was will dieses Grau´n bedeuten?

If you have a fawn you favour, Do not let her graze alone, Hunters sound their horns through the forest, Voices wander to and fro.

Hast ein Reh du lieb vor andern, Laß es nicht alleine grasen, Jäger zieh’n im Wald’ und blasen, Stimmen hin und wider wandern.

If here on earth you have a friend, Do not trust him at this hour, Though his eyes and lips be smiling, In treacherous peace he’s scheming war.

Hast du einen Freund hienieden, Trau ihm nicht zu dieser Stunde, Freundlich wohl mit Aug’ und Munde, Sinnt er Krieg im tück’schen Frieden.

That which wearily sets today, Will rise tomorrow, newly born. Much can go lost in the night— Be wary, watchful, on your guard!

Was heut müde gehet unter, Hebt sich morgen neu geboren. Manches bleibt in Nacht verloren— Hüte dich, bleib’ wach und munter! Dusk is about to spread its wings, The trees now shudder and stir, Clouds drift by like oppressive dreams— What can this dusk and dread imply?

The actual source of anxiety here, Adorno suggests, is not nightfall but the monadic obsession with one’s own anxiety—a paranoid fear of having lost all ability to create resonances with the world. Eichendorff takes issue with the subjectivist vein in Romanticism and with modernity’s compulsion to exploit every aspect of the world as resource for selfadvancement, including one’s own creative power of self-expression. Adorno dismisses the common facile identification of Eichendorff with a nostalgic or even revisionist political agenda, enlists him in his intellectual battle against instrumental reason, and claims his poetry as the codification of a quintessentially modern experience: the concurrent irretrievable loss of and irrepressible yearning for home (Heimweh).9

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Yet, this existential rift of Heimweh that perforates German Romanticism, Adorno hastens to add, affords the reader a deepened understanding of the ambiguity of language: It forces us to acknowledge that we can only inhabit the world through language—and yet can never appropriate it as our very own. Language is always already an expression of life beyond human life rather than the congelation of fixed meanings serving exclusively human (let alone individual) ends. The ‘subject’ in Eichendorff ’s poetry, Adorno continues in an evocative passage, turns itself into Rauschen, the rushing, rustling, murmuring sound of nature: into language, living on only in the process of dying away, like language. The act in which the human being becomes language, the flesh becomes word, incorporates the expression of nature into language and transfigures the movement of language so that it becomes life again.10 The acknowledgement that language can only be grasped when it is ‘dying away’ (and thus eludes appropriation) lies at the very heart of what Adorno regards as Eichendorff ’s ethos of humility. The inverted beginning of the Gospel according to St John (‘the flesh becomes word’) turns into the harbinger of a rejuvenated language beyond the ‘stereotypical symbols of an already reified Romanticism.’ 11 Rather than perpetuating the western epistemology that subjects matter to mind in the form of ‘meaning’ or ‘objective order’, Eichendorff turns it upside down: his poetry, according to Adorno, articulates the creaturely dimension of life in language. Experiencing the unavailability of the ‘sound of nature’ to human appropriation, the subject is able to relate to language as gesture beyond the subject—as part of a body beyond the individual body.

Incarnation, inspiration and incantation thus become indistinguishable. It is this experience of the inextricable intertwining of flesh, breath and song that transgresses the distinction between a somatic and a cognitive sense of the self. A utopian hope resides in that transgression as an agent of keeping language malleable and resonant—and thus a democratic force rather than a tool of hegemony. Adorno emphasizes that the obsessive use of Rauschen—‘the rushing, rustling and murmuring sound of nature’—in Eichendorff ’s poetry is not a rendition of Klang but of Geräusch. The translation of Klang as ‘sound’ and Geräusch as ‘noise’ is misleading in this context:12 Klang often implies a sense of harmonic consonance, a certain recognizable structure or even composition; Geräusch, by contrast, is the trace of a sound—an acoustic track reminiscent of something familiar yet elusive or even hard to identify: the nibbling of a squirrel hidden in a treetop, for example, the shuffling of a hedgehog in the undergrowth, or the various sounds pond dwellers leave on the water surface when they emerge to breathe. It is precisely this elusive nature of Geräusch, Adorno seems to suggest, that resonates with us and quickens our imagination in ways Klang does not. We perceive Geräusch as part of a language that we do not comprehend, as much as we intuit that it subcutaneously connects us with the rushing, rustling and murmuring of the web of life.13 ‘Twilight’, according to this reading, is a plea for the power of selfreflection to avert the dangers of monadic self-absorption. It culminates in an epigrammatic ending ‘Be wary, watchful, on your guard!’ It is this final line that Schumann had originally intended as a motto for Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet) from the cycle for solo piano Waldszenen (Forest Scenes, op 82), composed in early 1849 (see figures 1 and 2).


Figure 1. Autograph of Robert Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet, Waldszenen, op 82/VII, courtesy of Bibliotèque nationale de France, Paris

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Figure 2. Autograph of Robert Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet, Waldszenen, op 82/VII, courtesy of Bibliotèque nationale de France, Paris


Schumann ultimately scrapped all mottos he had originally intended for the nine Forest Scenes except for one.14 Yet, the abandoned motto of Bird as Prophet leaves a trace in the piece that allows us to listen more attentively to the bird. It seems to me that Schumann engages with the ramifications of Eichendorff ’s poem in ways that resonate with Adorno’s approach. His music dramatizes the bird both as singer and as creature: it sings a song without words that nevertheless speaks a language. Rather than following the conventional metaphysical interpretation of the eerie, ambiguous first theme as the sound of fate and the chorale-like second theme as an epiphany of hope, I suggest Schumann’s piano piece points towards a semantics of human creatureliness and other-than-human life, whose traces are often silenced by human cultural production. It aims both at representing a forest scene by working through a specific musical tradition (as Klang) and at articulating the forest as a self-expression of life (as Geräusch). Bird as Prophet is marked by a symmetrical ABA’ structure that combines aspects of the Romantic song tradition with features of what has been described as Schumann’s enigmatic late style of making the musical structure plain and, in so doing, creating the impression of opacity and equivocation.15 Its first theme is a spellbinding figure that never crystallizes into a melody and yet conveys a mysterious sense of clarity. Its dotted rhythmic structure with the demisemiquaver triplet renders the movement of a bird skipping from branch to branch or frisking the undergrowth and the iridescent reflections of its plumage in the chequered light under the forest canopy. Schumann seems to chart a diagram of the bird’s movements, looking for musical correspondences for its somatic traces in the foliage. The theme combines sharp dissonances

with euphonic triads, an ambiguous and chromatic right hand with a bassline that holds its own diatonic autonomy. The dissonances are shaped by chords that account for the fascination of the piece: major seventh or diminished octave; augmented fourth or diminished fifth, commonly called a ‘tritone’ (see figure 3):

Figure 3. Example of a tritone

The second theme is set apart from the first one, but seems to draw energy from the tonal exposition of the first theme (G minor); after all, it is written in the tonic major (G major) and starts with root-position G chords. It is a chorale-like surging melody that harks back to Lutheran church music and the Baroque tradition, even hinting at contrapuntal polyphony between the left and the right hands on the keyboard.16 Taken together, the dotted rhythm in part A and the nascent fugal work in part B clandestinely refer back to the dual structure of the dotted French overture. The fugal potential of the chorale theme, however, is quickly abandoned; during the first tonal variation from G major to Eb major in bars 23– 24, the chorale theme seamlessly morphs back into the original tritonal figure in G minor (bar 25), which envelops it organically and resumes its Rauschen without the need for any further thematic development—as if nothing had happened (see figure 4):

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The piece ends as it began: both enigmatic and evocative, disturbing and soothing, uncanny and familiar. We remember it as a Geräusch. Schumann weaves the Klang of the chorale, steeped in musical tradition, into the forest Geräusch—an otherness that cannot be bridged by tradition. While the boundary between parts A and B in bar 18 is solid (though connected through sharing the same tonic of G), the boundary between parts B and A’ in bar 24 is porous and fluid, creating the impression that the tonal design of the chorale returns to where it originally came from: the tonally unstable realm inflected by the tritone. Schumann here seems to invert the conventional idea that it is human form that transcends the supposedly inarticulate murmuring of nature. Ironically, he uses the quintessential symbol of poetry, the bird, for this inversion. Commonly mistranslated as ‘The Prophet Bird’, the original title of the piece reads ‘Bird as Prophet’. While the ‘prophet bird’ turns the

two themes into musical allegories of doom or hope, respectively, ‘bird as prophet’ suggests that the ‘prophet’ is only a role the bird adopts in human imagination, while always remaining a ‘bird’. That very ‘bird’, however, embodies a language rather than pointing beyond the semantics of the flesh of life.17 This is enhanced by subtle compositional aspects that do suggest continuities between the two parts that complicate the common understanding of the piece as an articulation of binary oppositions, such as immanent vs transcendent, natural vs cultural, creaturely vs human. Apart from the harmonic unity established by the parallel tonic keys, the two sections are also related by rhythmical and modal similarities. Both parts are marked by a tension between the composed off-beat rhythm and the tendency to slide into the downbeat—a tension that is only temporarily resolved in bars 11–12 and 21–22, respectively. Generally, the phrase marks throughout the piece go across the main beats of the music,

Figure 4. Bars 23–25


except for these two resolving moments, which feature phrases starting on the downbeat in closely analogous structures (see figure 5). What is more, the two sections also resonate with each other through inversive constellations, for example when the appoggiatura figure at the beginning of many of the basic dotted phrases of part A is inverted in part B from an upward to a downward resolution of the appoggiatura. Because of these parallels, it seems that the chorale is subcutaneously but organically interwoven with the voices in which it is embedded. It is both of the same cloth and substantially different. The initial theme, a middle voice between recitative and dance, is still present as an echo in the chorale and gestures towards an alien element at the very core of what is perceived as the epitome of western sacred music. When the chorale recedes back into the initial tonality through a breathtaking chromatic manoeuvre, Schumann takes pain to instruct the pianist to use the soft pedal (Verschiebung) and thus soften the sound fabric. As a result, the player is prevented from indulging in the expressive potential of the key shift and nudged ‘into the attitude of a listener’.18 Schumann’s enactment of the bird as a mystagogue into the creaturely foundations of human life, however, is never naively affirmative. Part of the unique softness and subtlety that is explicitly written into Schumann’s playing instruction ‘langsam, sehr zart’ (‘slow, very tender’) is an acknowledgement that the realms of creaturely self-expression and of human aesthetic self-reflection cannot easily be mapped onto one another. Human self-expression, as Schumann explores it in his music, encompasses an awareness of its creaturely basis—and an awareness that this creaturely basis eludes total human control and, ultimately, complete aesthetic appropriation.19 Schumann’s art forces the performing pianist

into a tension that will be resolved only temporarily and seemingly in the chorale section: the rhythmic pattern of the first theme appears to the reader analysing the score like a reference to tame dance rhythms, while the actual performance requires an untamed off-beat-rhythm where the phrases start on a weak beat and end on a strong one (with the

bars 11–12

bars 21–22

Figure 5. Phrasing parallelism between parts A and B

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exception mentioned above). This creates an ambiguity between what we see and what we hear, between representation and articulation, between compositional conception and somatic practice—and it runs counter to the nineteenth-century apotheosis of music as the most eidetic art. This impression is exacerbated by deliberate modes of harmonic ambiguity:

bars 18 (last beat) to 20—implicit canon-like figures highlighted in red

Figure 6. Implied contrapuntal technique in Vogel als Prophet

the frequent chromatic tension between dotted quaver and the following triplet, the use of enharmonic equivalents that blur the boundary between consonance and dissonance (for example, in bar 3: G–Bb/D#), canon-like exchanges between the two hands that hint at contrapuntal techniques (for example, in bars 19–20, see figure 6), and moments of extreme dissonance such as those in bars 14 and 15 with F against F# and C against C#. Schumann’s experimentation with the tritone in Bird as Prophet can also be seen in this context of creating musical ambiguity. What is more, it has retained the association with the proverbial ‘devil in music’ that it had

acquired in the Middle Ages.20 From early medieval to late Renaissance music, the tritone, which separates an octave exactly into two halves, was seen as an unstable interval in the system of church modes, and epitomized dissonance. The ‘diabolic’ trace it leaves in later music is its very tonal ambiguity, some of which it retains in the modern tempered system (whose tonality is rooted in the fifth). Although the tritone had lost its negative associations and had even become fashionable as a mode of exploring the unexplored by the Baroque Age, it continued to carry ominous associations, in particular in nineteenth-century opera. Strangely enough, the fact that Schumann, while penning the Forest Scenes, was working on two large-scale works steeped in the Romantic revival of the Middle Ages—the opera Genoveva (1850) and the oratorio Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844–1853)—has escaped most commentators. The chorale in Bird as Prophet features a direct melodic quotation from Schumann’s Faust scenes: it alludes to the question the Chorus of Blessed Boys poses to Pater Seraphicus—a thinly disguised St Francis figure, anachronistically living in a colony of anchorites (an Early Christian predecessor of later communal monasticism):21 Sag uns, Vater, wo wir wallen, sag uns, Guter, wer wir sind? Glücklich sind wir: allen, allen Ist das Dasein so gelind. Tell us who we are, dear Father. Tell us, Father, in what place? We are happy, all together, Life to us is such mild grace.


The Chorus consists of ‘[u]nbaptized children who died immediately after being born and are thus without sin, yet also without experience of life.’22 They are one of Goethe’s many allegorical reflections on the self-dynamism of the mind dissociated from the body. Pater Seraphicus’ attempts to connect the Boys with their natural environs and their own sensual malleability remain fruitless (lines 11898–11913). Like the historical St Francis, a millennium later, he is—at least according to hagiography—able to communicate with other-than-human life forms in a play that dramatizes humans’ ever-accelerating alienation from nature in modernity. It is, of course, ironic that Goethe chose an anchorite to point to the bodily, sensual and environmental basis of human life from which Faust, through his striving and the various embodiments of the modern spirit he encounters on his way, is increasingly dissociated. If the middle section of Bird as Prophet directly quotes from the Boys’ question to Pater Seraphicus in the Faust Scenes (see figure 7), the tonal shift back into the original theme can be read as corresponding to Pater Seraphicus’ answer: he invites the boys, who have no awareness that they are of flesh and blood, to see the world through his eyes: 23 Steigt herab in meiner Augen Welt- und erdgemäß Organ, Könnt sie als die euern brauchen, Schaut euch diese Gegend an! Sink into my eyes, employ them Fit at world and earth to peer, As your own you may enjoy them, Gaze at these environs here.

Yet, this invitation falls onto deaf ears: the Blessed Boys remain unable to feel physical resonances, a sense of shared sensual perceptions or cohabitation with their surroundings. Schumann’s self-quotation from the Faust scenes turns the chorale theme in Bird as Prophet into an enigmatic question rather than a musical revelation, as most readings suggest. The answer to that question—Who are we? In what place?—is not given by St. Francis, but by a bird—arguably one of the birds he talked to. As a ‘Prophet’, the bird slips into the holy legend of St Francis and points to nature herself rather than a metaphysical reality beyond it. In this context, the return of the chorale from G major through Eb major to the G minor of the first theme can be perceived as a gesture referring to the irrepressible, yet ultimately inappropriable, creaturely sources of human creativity, for which the tritone becomes an arcane gesture: the abundance of life and the mortality of life. Without these sources, art is stillborn. Through these sources, however, the ‘movement of language’, including the Romantic musical idiom, can ‘become life again’, as Adorno hopes.

3 Schumann’s contemporary Søren Kierkegaard, who was aware of the composer’s music and critical writings, explores the complexities of the modern subject that is also at stake in Bird as Prophet.24 He roots subjectivity in the paradox of creativity as that which affirms the self and always already wants to transcend it. In his uncompromising homilies on the parables of

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Figure 7. Goethe used this depiction of anchorites as forest dwellers as an inspiration for his final scene in Faust II: Carlo Lasinio’s etching after a fourteenth-century fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco, Francesco Traini or Pietro Lorenzetti on the Campo Santo, Siena, Gli Anacoreti nella Tebaide, 1812, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Š bpk / Hamburger Kunsthalle


the lily of the field and the bird in the air, he takes issue with ‘the poet’— his shorthand term for the modern subject that defines itself through the expansion of desire and the refinement of aesthetic sensibility: For the poet’s life is really based upon despair of being able to become what is wished for, and this despair begets the wish. But ‘the wish’ is the invention of disconsolateness. For of course the wish provides momentary consolation, but upon closer inspection it can be seen that it does not in fact console.25 Because modern humans, in Kierkegaard’s mind, are under the delusion that they can make up for their homelessness by the aesthetic sublimation of their desires (what he calls ‘the eloquence of the wish’), they are incapable of facing their existential situation head on, incapable of summoning the courage for the spiritual leap demanded by life. They are lacking ‘the earnestness of eternity.’ 26 He offers the lilies and the birds in the parable ‘No one can serve two masters’ from the Gospel according to St Matthew (6:24–34) as teachers with the potential to liberate us from the Janus face of language, which endows humans with consciousness, but also makes them spin themselves into the cocoon of their eloquence. When Kierkegaard says ‘the lily’ and ‘the bird’, he is not only referring to their parabolic quality, but more importantly to the actual lily in the field and the actual bird in the sky—creatures tied into the web of life. In his homilies they become mystagogues into the artless art of keeping silence. The command ‘seek the kingdom of God first’, in Kierkegaard’s view, epitomizes the spiritual ability to confront the Either-Or of human

existence: either the loquacity of desire and its aesthetic deferral—or the ability to keep silent in the fear of God. For him, keeping silent means becoming a listener; becoming a listener finds its expression in praying; and praying is the origin of poetic language. In this sense, his ‘poet’ is a betrayer of poetry’s source language. Silence, as emphasized in some of the most lyrical passages of these homilies, is not at all the absence of sound. It is rather the ability to create and tune into resonances with the world around us. Nature, for Kierkegaard, is an educator leading us from ‘the poet’s’ attitude, who ‘lets nature dream of him’, to a focused attention to the world.27 This mindfulness constitutes the precondition for an existential leap of faith: There is silence out there, and not only when everything keeps silent in the silence of night, but also when a thousand strings are in motion all day long and everything is a sea of sound, as it were—and nonetheless there is silence out there … The forest keeps silent; even when it whispers, it is nonetheless silent. For the trees, even when they stand most closely together, keep their word to one another … The sea keeps silent; even when it rages loudly, it is nonetheless silent. … When the silence of evening descends upon the countryside, and you hear the distant lowing of cattle from the meadow, or you hear the familiar voice of the dog from the farmer’s house, it cannot be said that this lowing or the dog’s voice disturbs the silence— no, this is a part of the silence, it has a secret, and thus a silent, understanding with the silence; it increases it.28

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This ability to experience ourselves as a sounding board for other voices creates a shared sense of ‘solemnity’, a chorus of resonances. Being attuned to one’s embeddedness in the web of life implies an acknowledgement of the derivative nature of self-expression. It thus calls into doubt the modern ethos of rooting a sense of the self exclusively in acts of creation and innovation. And it calls for the inner strength to let go of the narcissistic pretensions inherent in this ethos. Only once we have mastered this artless art of waiting, Kierkegaard suggests, are we ready for the right moment (kairos)—a moment of recognition in which we become aware of our ethical call to be in the world. Kierkegaard is ruthless in his psychological penetration of the postEnlightenment aesthetic investment in perpetual innovation. He regards it as an exploitative attitude towards the world, driven by the creator’s dependency on an economy of self-affectation. The modern human as self-creator ‘makes everything echo his pain’ and submerges it in the instrumental reason of originality, ‘even imagining that he is meritorious for having, as is said, lent words and speech to the bird and the lily’. 29 An awareness of the precarious nature of modern aesthetics and its latent complicity with an exploitative instrumentalism has been part of Romantic self-reflection from the very beginning. In the German-speaking world, authors such as Friedrich Hölderlin, Jean Paul and E T A Hoffmann, to name but a few, obsessively reflect the paradoxical premises of their aesthetics with very different effects, ranging from a chiliastic mythology via literary practices of humour and irony to the apotheosis of music as absolute art. Schumann is deeply engrained in that cultural milieu.30 Contrary to the

misleading perception of Schumann as a beacon of bourgeois escapism, his music is marked by a perpetual engagement with meta-reflection. Kierkegaard’s radical challenge to the self-apotheosis of the modern subject in the creative act is part of that meta-reflective dimension that has accompanied Schumann’s entire work.31 Especially his late style can be regarded as a commentary on the futility of exploiting the world for the sake of positing one’s own self. Here, he often espouses a perceptual aesthetics of attuning oneself to environs akin to the artless art of keeping silent in Kierkegaard—as opposed to a production aesthetics of originality. In foregoing the compulsion to express ‘a self ’ and in refusing to subordinate the ability to resonate with the world to that compulsion, Bird as Prophet articulates an unconditioned language. It is a language that resonates with us, but that we cannot exploit for our own ‘eloquence’ or as a mode of representing selfhood. In this lacuna, life’s movements can be charted without being codified. The unconditioned becomes palpable as the condition of life: Marvellous security in encountering the unconditioned and having one’s life in it! And yet, o you profound teachers, could it really be possible to find security anywhere else than in the unconditioned, since in itself the conditioned is of course insecurity.32 Arguably, no contemporary writer had a closer elective affinity to the sensibility expressed by Schumann’s music and by Kierkegaard’s philosophy than the late Tomas Tranströmer. And no one expressed more powerfully the disconnect between human ‘words’ and the creaturely


‘language’, between representation and articulation, whose subcutaneous connections Schumann dramatized so viscerally in Bird as Prophet: 33 Från mars -79 Trött på alla som kommer med ord, ord men inget språk for jag till den snötäckta ön. Det vilda har inga ord. De oskrivna sidorna breder ut sig åt alla håll! Jag stöter på spåren av rådjursklövar i snön. Språk men inga ord.

From March 1979 Weary of all who come with words, words but no language I make my way to the snow-covered island. The untamed has no words. The unwritten pages spread out on every side! I come upon the tracks of deer in the snow. Language but no words. Coda 29th July 1856, a sweltering hot summer day about two weeks after Schumann’s death, made it into the history books. In a quarry twentyfive kilometres east of the Schumanns’ home in Düsseldorf and sixtyfive kilometres north of the mental asylum in Endenich where Robert

had been hospitalized for two years, workers chanced upon bones in the ground, deemed them to be worthless and discarded them. The owner of the quarry stumbled across the bones, thought they belonged to a cave bear skeleton and consulted the local fossil hunter Johann Carl Fuhlrott. The naturalist immediately recognized the find from the Neander Valley as belonging to hominoids. Overnight, the discovery of the Neanderthal Man put humans on an evolutionary scale—a scale that was dramatically expanded three years later by the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Is it, in the light of these epochal changes throughout the 1850s, too speculative a leap to contemplate the avian prophecy in Schumann’s Bird as Prophet, composed on the eve of that decade, as an ominous presentiment that the position of humans would soon be re-assessed in the light of their creatureliness?

Acknowledgements I would like to express my gratitude to the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation for a fellowship at the Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, during which this essay was written, to Bennett Hogg for sharing his expert knowledge on music, to Christian Thal for introducing me to Schumann, and to the blackbird in the garden for her musical companionship.

Footnotes 1. Von Eschenbach, 2006, pp 200–202, § 118, 14–18. The English translation is by A T Hatto; see p 71. 2. Hölderlin, 1994, pp 50–53. Hamburger renders ‘birds … fly’ in the plural, presumably for metric reasons. This, however, distracts from the ornithological specificity of the image of ‘der Vogel’ in the singular: the comparison of the vaulted bridge to a bird’s flight pattern makes a clear association with woodpeckers, who tend to be solitary.

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3. Keats, 1977, p 346. 4. Stokes, 2005, p 460. 5. The birds are called ‘wunderschlau’: this neologism can be taken as a synonym for ‘priggish’, which would carry negative connotations; it can also simply mean ‘clever (schlau) at dealing with miracles (Wunder)’. This is a witty play at the expense of the classicist notion of mimesis and, at the same time, an ironic meta-reflection on the wunderschlaue nature of art that replaces resonances with the real world by projections onto the world.

of the violin concerto (1851) and the theme of his last finished composition, commonly known as Geistervariationen (1854). The final variation of the latter features a tritone (Eb–A) that obsessively infiltrates the original chorale motif, creating rich resonances with Bird as Prophet. 17. There is also a strong political dimension that has often been overlooked in this context. The bird gestures at the unsustainability of escapism into an aesthetic realm at a time of frequent street battles in the wake of the 1848–1849 revolution in the German states. 18. Uhde and Wieland, 1988, p 418.

6. See Adorno’s ‘In Memory of Eichendorff ’, p 82; the original, ‘entfesselte Romantik’, evokes considerably stronger associations along the lines of ‘unchained’ or ‘unleashed’ Romanticism.

19. Roland Barthes explores this aspect in his celebrated essay ‘Rasch’ on Schumann’s Kreisleriana, in The Responsibility of Forms, 1991, Richard Howard, trans, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 299–312.

7. Ibid, p 82, translation adjusted. At this juncture, Adorno suggests, for the first time, an elective affinity between Eichendorff and Schumann: ‘Love [as rendered by Eichendorff and Schumann] is in bondage to death and oblivious of itself. In it the ego no longer becomes callous and entrenched within itself. It wants to make amends for some of the primordial injustice of being ego at all.’ (pp 82–83)

20. See extensively Hammerstein, 1974.

8. Stokes, 2005, p 449. 9. Adorno, 2019, p 78. 10. Ibid, p 86. 11. Ibid, p 87. 12. Ibid, p 87. 13. Geräusch is the so-called nomina rei actae derived from the verb rauschen (‘to rush, rustle, murmur’), ie, a verbal noun that refers to the grammatical patient of the action. The distinction between Geräusch and Rauschen can be related to the distinction between parole (concrete utterance of language) and langue (abstract system of language) in Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of language. 14. The role of the literary mottos for the composition process remains unclear, since the mottos only occur in the second of three extant autographs; see Jensen, 1984, pp 80–82. The only motto Schumann did not delete in the version he submitted to print is the one for ‘Verrufener Ort’ (‘Notorious Place’), two stanzas from Friedrich Hebbel’s poem ‘Böser Ort’ (‘Wicked Place’). Schumann wanted to avoid being associated with ‘programme music’ and may have therefore deleted the mottos. The main aesthetic reason, however, may have been his fear that the ‘consecutive procession’ of words and their semiotic autonomy might interfere with the temporal flow, syntax and semantic ambiguity of the piano pieces; see Gülke, 2010, p 154. Schumann’s most important literary model, Jean Paul, practised a prose style whose musical qualities constantly seem to free themselves from the semantic gravity of the word and become non-semantic language.

21. Goethe, (1806/1832) 2001, part II, lines 11894–97; English translation by Walter Arndt. ‘Seraphic’ used to be a common epithet for St Francis. See on this context Seiffert, 2010. 22. Commentary in Goethe, (1806/1832) 2001, p 338. This motif, as many in the final scenes of Faust II, is taken from Dante’s Divina Commedia. Even Tunbridge, who draws attention to the motivic affinities between the chorale in Bird as Prophet and the Chorus of the Boys ignores this complex intertextuality and falls into a conventional hermeneutic pattern by reading the former as ‘a message of danger’ (Tunbridge, 2007, p 194). 23. Lines 11906–09. 24. See Harwell Celenza, 2005, pp 8–14. 25. Kierkegaard, (1849) 2016, pp 11–12. 26. Ibid, p 12. 27. Ibid, p 30. 28. Ibid, pp 22–23. 29. Ibid, pp 33, 34. 30. Meta-reflections on aesthetics are omnipresent in Schumann’s writings and probably most evident in the Davidsbündler writings from the 1830s, in which different critical positions are antagonized by different characters – Florestan, Eusebius and Raro – thus aiming to create critical depth, transcendental self-reflection, and narrative humour. See eg Schumann, 2009, pp 24–33; 97–100; 123–125. 31. See Perrey, 2008, pp 40–68.

15. Tunbridge, 2007, p 191.

32. Kierkegaard, (1849) 2016, p 51.

16. The chorale theme resonates throughout Schumann’s late compositions, for example, ‘Frühlings Ankunft’ in Lieder-Album für die Jugend (Album of Songs for the Young), op 79/xx, the slow movement

33. Tranströmer, 2006, p 164.


Bibliography Theodor W Adorno, 2019, ‘In Memory of Eichendorff ’, in Notes to Literature, Rolf Tiedemann, ed, Shierry Weber Nicholson, trans, Columbia University Press, New York, pp 74–95 Wolfram von Eschenbach, 2006, Parzival, Karl Lachmann, ed, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, Frankfurt am Main Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1980, Parzival, A T Hatto, trans, Penguin, Harmondsworth Johann Wolfgang Goethe, (1806/1832) 2001, Faust: A Tragedy, Cyrus Hamlin, ed, Walter Arndt, trans, Norton, New York Clemens Goldberg, 1994, ‘Going into the Woods: Space, Time, and Movement in Schumann’s Waldszenen op. 82’, International Journal of Musicology 3, pp 151–174 Peter Gülke, 2010, Robert Schumann: Glück und Elend der Romantik, Zsolnay, Vienna Reinhold Hammerstein, 1974, Diabolus in musica: Studien zur Ikonographie der Musik im Mittelalter, Francke, Bern Anna Harwell Celenza, 2005, ‘Imagined Communities Made Real: The Impact of Robert Schumann’s Neue Zeitschrift für Musik on the Formation of Music Communities in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Musicological Research, 24:1, pp 1–26 Friedrich Hölderlin, 1994, Selected Poems and Fragments, Michael Hamburger, trans, Penguin, Harmondsworth Eric Frederick Jensen, 1984, ‘A New Manuscript of Robert Schumann’s Waldszenen Op. 82’, The Journal of Musicology, 3:1, winter, pp 69–89 Peter Jost, 1989, Robert Schumanns Waldszenen op. 82: Zum Thema ‘Wald’ in der romantischen Klaviermusik, Saarbrücker Druckerei John Keats, 1977, The Complete Poems, John Barnard, ed, Penguin, Harmondsworth, p 346, ll 5–10 Søren Kierkegaard, (1849) 2016, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses, Bruce H Kirmmse, trans, Princeton University Press, New Jersey Beate Julia Perrey, 2008, Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Early Romantic Poetics: Fragmentation of Desire, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Robert Schumann, 2009, Schriften über Musik und Musiker, Josef Häusler, ed, Reclam, Stuttgart Wolf-Dieter Seiffert, 2010, ‘Robert Schumann, „Vogel als Prophet“: Einige Gedanken und Aufführungsvorschläge’, media_file=schumann_prophetbird_de.pdf Richard Stokes, ed, 2005, The Book of Lieder, Faber & Faber, London

Charles Taylor, 1985, ‘Atomism’, in Philosophical Papers, Cambridge University Press, pp 187–210 Tomas Tranströmer, 2006, The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, Robin Fulton, trans, New Directions, New York, p 164 Laura Tunbridge, 2007, Schumann’s Late Style, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Jürgen Uhde and Renate Wieland, 1988, Denken und Spielen: Studien zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Darstellung, Bärenreiter, Kassel

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'The notes that did so haunt me' Birdsong, Twilight and the Great War

Birdsong and the First World War he singing of birds in the trenches of World War I is one of many seemingly paradoxical images from that catastrophe. The football matches played during the first Christmas of the conflict are probably the best remembered of these, but the young German voice that soldier and historian Guy Chapman heard in the British trenches one misty morning serves as a less well-known, more localized, example. Chapman, in his autobiographical A Passionate Prodigality (1933) describes the voice, ‘raised in some Dorian-moded folksong’, that rose higher and higher ‘echoing and filling the mist, pure, too pure for this draggled hillside’. Hearing this singing lifts the listener, even if only momentarily, out of the all-pervading horror of war. The soldiers hearing this voice stop their work and listen, until the mist begins to lift and they hurry back to the cover of the trench, the voice fading into the distance ‘as if it was only an emanation of the drifting void’ (quoted in Fussell 1977: 237). I first came across this episode in Paul Fussell’s classic study of literature and the First World War, The Great War and Modern Memory (1977), in which, as well as elaborating the extent to which the war changed the nature of memory and its role in British culture, he draws on the elegiac tradition of literary pastoral, and explores the ways in which pastoral imagery and ideas have ‘always been a favored mode for elegy’ (Fussell 1977: 253). Alongside the idyllic lives of shepherds and their sheep, literary pastoral also ‘requires birds and birdsong’, and Fussell notes the correlation of larks with military stand-to in the early morning, and nightingales with the evening stand-to, as recorded by servicemen in diaries, letters and poems of the time. These two birds are, of course, counted among the most literary of avian species. There is always already a place established


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for them in the cultural imaginary, through Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Meredith, inter alia, a tradition continued in a poem like Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Returning, We Hear the Larks’, whose imagery resonates so poignantly against the joyful associations of Shelley’s widely known and oft-quoted ode that begins ‘Hail to thee, blithe spirit!’. Though Sebastian Faulkes’ 1993 novel Birdsong—and the subsequent 2012 film adaptation—may have brought back into focus the association of birds, and especially their singing, with the experience of the trenches in World War I, the number of diary accounts, letters and works of literature from the time that mention the singing of birds is quite remarkable. It is clear that the continued singing of birds, despite the human horror unfolding all around, is another of the resonant paradoxes—like football and folksong—of the trench warfare experience. Humbert Wolfe’s ‘A Thrush in the Trenches’ and Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Returning we hear the larks’ are probably the poems still most widely read and remembered today, but there are many more. John Lewis-Stempel, in his Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, the Great War (2016), has researched and assembled a vast range of sources in which birds and birdsong are mentioned by men on active service. Larks seem to be strongly associated with the early morning (a fact emblematized in the title of the still widelyplayed Irish jig The Lark in the Morning). Rosenberg hears ‘heights of night ringing with unseen larks: / Music showering on our upturned listening faces’ returning from a night-time manoeuvre just before the dawn, and many of the references to early morning in both Lewis-Stempel and Fussell note the association with larks singing and the dawn. However, H Perry Robinson, writing in the Daily News just before the June 1917 offensive prior to the Third Battle of Ypres, describes what we now think

of as the dawn chorus as ‘the greatest miracle of all, for with the roseflush in the sky the whole bird-chorus of morning came to life’ (quoted in Lewis-Stempel 2017: 56). Robinson’s report continues slightly later to record how the birds could still be heard singing between the artillery explosions ‘as if each bird were struck with frenzy and were striving to shout down the guns’ (p 57). This phenomenon is very widely noted: the persistent singing of the birds despite the terrifying sounds of industrialized warfare. In many instances, this functions as a kind of solace, either through nostalgic recollections of birdsong in more peaceful or idyllic settings, or as a sort of hopeful reminder that whatever human folly is capable of, ‘Nature’ continues unchanged and unchanging, and will continue when all the insanity is over. Lewis-Stempel, for example, quotes Alexander Douglas Gillespie, who, writing about the singing of a nightingale heard in the trenches, says that it is ‘the only real thing which would remain when all the rest was long past and forgotten’ (Lewis-Stempel 2017: 44).1 Elsewhere Lewis-Stempel quotes Robert Sterling saying that birds ‘seem to repeat … the very essence of the Normal and Unchanging Universe carrying on unhindered and careless amid the corpses and bullets and the madness’ (Lewis-Stempel 2017: 62). Fussell finds this ideology alive and as well as could be hoped for in the Second World War, quoting Alex Bowlby for whom the joyful singing of a skylark heard between explosions ‘made the war seem sillier than ever’, and who hears in the singing of a nightingale ‘a tremendous affirmation that “this would go on”’ (Fussell 1977: 242). There is often a sense that this figuration of nature as eternal and unchanging represents a deliberate and wilful disregard of the evidence of evolution and ecology, which foreground the fact that nature is in a


constant state of change; such a disregard seems to me to underline the ideological rather than scientific nature of this thought. The Dawn Chorus The pre-dawn and early-dawn singing of birds has come to occupy a very prominent position in contemporary culture. However, the Oxford English Dictionary credits the first use of the actual term ‘Dawn Chorus’ to Sir Edward Grey in his 1927 book The Charm of Birds. The context in which the term is used indicates that the phrase may have originated in a text by his second wife, Pamela (née Wyndham, later Lady Glenconner), whom he quotes as having written that ‘The Dawn Chorus is like a tapestry translated into sound’ (Grey 1927: 72). Grey—who, as British Foreign Secretary at the start of the First World War, famously said ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall never see them lit again in our lifetime’ (Grey 1926: 20), evoking the twilight not just of a particular evening but of a whole historical era—is also credited with the first published mention of the dawn chorus. I found this unexpected connection between dusk, dawn, birds and the war irresistible as a starting point for the present essay. Given the association of dawn and dusk with the singing of birds, and his authorship of one of the more popular ornithological books of the twentieth century, Grey stands as a kind of cipher for some of the themes of the war: the birds’ chorus rising out of the darkness, the fading of the light at dusk along with the gradual withdrawal of the voices of birds, except for the nightingale and the owls. But if the birder politician Grey is the cipher, our code-breaker and guide will be Edward Thomas, nature writer and, for the last two years of his life, poet. Thomas was killed in action on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, and is

buried in the military cemetery at Agny. Having had a reasonably successful career as a literary reviewer and author (though he confessed frequently to hating this ‘hack work’) his meeting in 1913 with Robert Frost was instrumental in his eventual embrace of poetry as something he produced himself, rather than only commenting on the work of others: he was widely respected as a literary critic, probably one of the reasons Frost, who was struggling to get his poetry noticed in London, initially sought him out. Thomas included his observations of birds and their singing throughout his writings; the quotation in the title of this chapter is taken from his mysterious poem ‘The Unknown Bird’ (Thomas 2008: 55). However, it is through his references to Thomas Hardy in his 1914 book In Pursuit of Spring (written just before his turn to writing poetry) that it is already possible to trace how birdsong stands as a marker of both the invincible persistence of nature, and its transcendence of human concerns. Thomas draws attention to how Hardy, in his poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, entertains the thought that the thrush, singing in the winter twilight at the dawn of a new century, has ‘“some blessed hope” of which he [Hardy] is unaware’ (Thomas 1914: 197). Matthew Hollis’s biography of Thomas’s final few years, Now All Roads Lead to France, mentions a letter from Thomas to his wife Helen that describes a thrush continuing to sing from a gorse bush—and, in a folding together of the pastoral, sheep continuing to graze—while riflemen fire off almost deafening practice rounds in the training camp where he was stationed (Hollis 2012: 308). Articulating a related sentiment, in In Pursuit of Spring he quotes a whole stanza from Hardy’s ‘Let Me Enjoy’: Let me enjoy the earth no less Because the all-enacting Might That fashioned forth its loveliness

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Had other aims than my delight. (Hardy, quoted in Thomas 1914: 198) There is a hope here articulated to both the beauty of nature but also the extent to which it transcends and exceeds the human. This sentiment— or, more properly speaking, this ideology—is something that resonates across the various accounts of nature, and especially birdsong as a marker of nature, in the trenches. Thomas and Birds The temporal persistence, and the transcendent aspect of nature, and birds in particular, in time of war is brought into focus in Thomas’s 1916 poem ‘February Afternoon’, in which ploughing goes on, and rooks and gulls follow the plough while ‘men strike and bear the stroke / Of war as ever, audacious or resigned …’ The poem begins: Men heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw, A thousand years ago even as now, Black rooks with white gulls following the plough … (Thomas 2008: 109) The juxtaposition of black and white here is not just Thomas being the observant naturalist but suggests the coexistence of oppositions that, as I will demonstrate, characterizes some aspects of Thomas’s poetic understanding of the ambiguous nature of temporality. There is a hint of this in the sonic near-palindrome of the first line, ‘… roar of parleying starlings, saw …’ This is a sonic device Thomas also uses in association

with ploughing, as an immemorial practice of rural life, and war as a contemporary anxiety in his ‘As the Team’s Head-brass’, also from 1916. Thomas and an anonymous ploughman discuss the war, in which one of the ploughman’s ‘mates’ has been killed. The conversation moves onto how things might have been had his friend not gone out to France, the upshot being that the two of them would have moved the dead tree on which Thomas is now sitting, and the present conversation might never have happened. Thomas speaks: “ … Everything Would have been different. For it would have been Another world.” The ploughman replies … “Ay, and a better, though If we could see all, all might seem good.” (Thomas 2008: 124) This pivoting of the sound around the repetition of the word ‘all’— ‘could see all all … seem good’—works like another of these sonic palindromes that seem briefly to put time into reverse. The ambiguity of past and present is a strong theme in many of Thomas’s poems. Edna Longley, in her edition of the collected poems (2008), notes how ‘Thomas uses millennia to focus a day in 1916; a day in 1916 to focus millennia’ (Longley 2008: 274) in the poem mentioned earlier, ‘February Afternoon’. The pecking order of the rooks constitutes … a law


Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how A thousand years might dust lie on his brow Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw. Time swims before me, making as a day A thousand years … (Thomas 2008: 109) In this context, the internal rhyme of ‘thousand’ with ‘now’ in the second line of the poem seems to articulate more than just a sonic connection, and the same sound in thousand rhymes later with ‘brow’, continually pinning, through the concealed rhyme—almost a subconscious rhyme—the sense of a thousand years ago to the present we experience in the poem. A sense of temporal ambiguity, either as the persistence of the past in the present, or as the possibility that time may not always flow forwards, inhabits another of Thomas’s war-associated poems, ‘Roads’. Here the uncanniness is marked in the fourteenth verse of the poem, which also provides the title for Matthew Hollis’s biography, already mentioned. Now all roads lead to France And heavy is the tread Of the living; but the dead Returning lightly dance: (Thomas 2008: 107) This is preceded by mention of a thrush singing ‘Bright irrelevant things’ heard in the morning and the evening. In a book devoted to birds in Thomas’s writing, Judy Kendall notes that the singing of this thrush

‘is set within uncertain unsteady time zones, dawn and twilight, times of moving light. Thus, it appears not only as a marker of time but also as a kind of portal out of time’s inexorable forward march’ (Kendall 2014: 59). There is another level of temporal ambiguity in the morning cry of a cock, ‘the chanticleer’ who Calls back to their own night Troops that make loneliness With their light footsteps press … (Thomas 2008: 107) It is their own night that the dead return to at dawn; they are called back, rather than simply disappearing in the dawn light, or at the sound of cockcrow (often the point in folk tales and songs where a ghost or other uncanny visitor vanishes, as in the British folksong The Lover’s Ghost; Roud 179; Child 248). This uncanny temporality extends to the eponymous roads of the poem themselves, ‘From dawn’s twilight … They wind into the night’. This is a very telling image of how Thomas’s poetic imagination responded to this moment of diurnal transition: the dawn marks, in part at least, a retreat back into night rather than the uncomplicated forward movement into day, a sense of time that is, perhaps, less linear. Longley notes the tensions established in many of Thomas’s poems between opposites, and links the way in which Thomas ‘exploits poetry’s license to play with syntactical order’ with the ways in which memory ‘comes or calls or hangs or hangs back’. For Longley, Thomas’s line ‘The past hovering as it revisits the light’, from ‘It Rains’ (1916), ‘shapes the metaphysics of Thomas’s forms and language’ (Longley 2008: 23). This is of a piece with the importance to Thomas of seasonal cycles recurring, and birds often mark these points of

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recurrence. The chiffchaff, a visiting summer warbler to the UK, is a bird whose distinctive call he claims to have awaited every year since he was fifteen years old. He writes, in In Pursuit of Spring: ‘Nothing so convinces me, year after year, that Spring has come and cannot be repulsed, though checked it may be, as this least of songs’ (Thomas 1914: 91). There is, therefore, a frisson of tragedy to read, in Collingwood Ingram’s war diaries published as Wings Over the Western Front, that Ingram, one of the leading ornithologists of his era, recorded the singing of the first chiffchaff he had heard that year on Easter Sunday, the 8th of April, in Candas, the day before Thomas was killed, only some thirty miles from where Thomas was stationed (Ingram 2014: 67). The cuckoo, though, is probably most associated in the popular imagination with the arrival of spring, its significance marked by Delius’s tone poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and, of course, letters to The Times. In a short prose piece published by Thomas in T. P.’s Weekly in May 1914, he writes that the first cry of the cuckoo is more to us than the new moon. … The first snowdrop, the first blackbird’s song or peewit’s love cry, the first hawthorn leaves, are as nothing … compared with the cuckoo’s note, while there are many for whom it is the one powerfully significant natural thing throughout the year … (Thomas 1981: 115). But even in this pre-war reflection on the cuckoo’s call—printed at the start of that ‘last’ summer of 1914—Thomas weaves in a sense of mortality, and a sense of uncertainty: ‘The old become fearful lest they should not

hear it: having heard it, they fear lest it should be for the last time’ (ibid). In his 1915 poem, ‘The Cuckoo’, a shepherd’s widow, elderly and deaf ‘cannot hear it’. She is unable to recall the last time she heard it but can recall Too well the year when first I failed to hear it— It was drowned by my man groaning out to his sheep ‘Ho! Ho!’ (Thomas 2008: 54) The shepherd’s ‘Ho! Ho!’ is clearly reminiscent of the two note call of the bird, but He died that Summer, and that is how I remember The cuckoo calling … (Thomas 2008: 54) When Thomas (the presumed interlocutor here, as in ‘As the team’s head-brass’) points out the cuckoo’s call, the woman says that she … was hearing Not the cuckoo at all, but my man’s ‘Ho! Ho!’ instead. And I think that even if I could lose my deafness The cuckoo’s note would be drowned by the voice of my dead. (Thomas 2008: 54) Something of this uncanniness can be felt in the earlier prose piece; though the cuckoo’s call is ‘loud, clear, brief, and distinct … it has a human and also a ghostly quality which earns it the reputation of sadness or joyousness at different times’ (Thomas 1981: 115). Though many of the soldiers on active service in France noted the presence of many other living things—rats and flies (who proliferated on


the abundance of human corpses), sheep, hares, as well as wild flowers, fruits, and trees—birds have acquired quite a symbolic presence. This is perhaps unsurprising. As Christopher M Moreman notes, in many cultures and in many different historical epochs birds have symbolized either the spirits of the dead, or the psychopomps who guide the souls of the dead to the next world. Drawing extensively on the Jungian concept of the archetype—an idea that is itself connected to some of Jung’s ‘visions’ connected to the war (Jung [1961] 1995: 200–205)—Moreman notes how ‘there are specific symbolic elements that make the bird particularly wellsuited for the role’ (Moreman 2014: 3). Their flight, and their aerial existence, conform with the idea of spirit found in many cultures: many cultures see the disembodied spirit taking on the form of a bird, and conventional representations of angels in European culture have them winged like birds. In Homer’s Iliad ‘[spirits of the dead] “flutter” free from the body to go “winging” to the underworld … Algonquin, Finnish, and Polynesian lore all describe ghosts that chirp, whistle, or squeak’ (Moreman 2014: 10). The Kaluli people of the New Guinea highlands—whose sonic culture is the subject of one of the most influential books of ethnomusicology, Steven Feld’s Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression—believe that the human dead are reincarnated as birds. In his wonderfully wide-ranging and erudite meditations on mortality, Hydriotaphia, Urne Buriall, or, A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk … (1658), Sir Thomas Browne writes, ‘And therefore the souls of Penelope’s Paramours conducted by Mercury chirped like bats, and those which followed Hercules made a noise but like a flock of birds’ (Browne 1967: 39). Moreman, following the Jungian approach, associates birds with the

archetypal image of rebirth, but makes it clear that there is not ‘an instinctual bird-image ingrained in the human psyche, but rather that particular unconscious contents are evoked most clearly by characteristics particular to birds’ (Moreman 2014: 12). Particularly relevant to my endeavour to parse the complex meanings of birds in World War I, Moreman suggests that the archetype of rebirth, symbolized by the figure of a bird, emerges from the individual’s collective unconscious in times of emotional need, as when one is confronted by the fact of personal mortality. The archetype of rebirth incorporates the elements of transcending life and of personal transformation. These elements are both necessary in order to avoid falling into a void of despair over one’s impending extinction. (Moreman 2014: 14). This puts into poignant context statements such as that of the unnamed Scottish soldier reported by a journalist as saying ‘If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be’ (Lewis-Stempel 2017: 33) or Philip Gosse’s ‘… without the birds I dare not think how I should have got through the war at all’ (Lewis-Stempel 2017: 45). On the one hand birds and birdsong evoked a sense of (relatively) uncomplicated natural beauty, as well as a sense of the permanence of nature already discussed. There is, too, nostalgia evoked on hearing recognizable songs associated with home. But there is also, I think, connected to these tropes of memory, of loss, and of the persistence of life despite it all, a strong sense (a hope, perhaps?) of rebirth and survival beyond death connected to these experiences of birds. A further interesting, and probably non-causal correspondence:

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Pamela Grey, credited with the first use of the term Dawn Chorus, as quoted in her husband’s book, became a devoted explorer of ‘the other side’ following the death of her beloved son Edward Wyndham ‘Bim’ Tennant. Tennant, a talented poet, who was killed at the Somme on 22nd September, 1916, continued to communicate with his mother from beyond the grave through a series of seances and, appropriately for such a literary family (Pamela herself published several volumes of essays and poetry), by sending messages via a medium to look on certain pages of certain books in the family library in answer to questions put to him during seances (Glenconner 1920). Given the connections between birds and the spirits of the dead, it seems to me resonant that the woman who gave us the term ‘Dawn Chorus’ should have had such a marked interest in communications with ‘the beyond’. Thomas and Twilight: Uncanny, Liminal Spaces The dawn and dusk are marked by birdsong almost as much as they are marked by the changes of the light. In the poem ‘March’ Thomas writes of the exuberance of the thrushes that ‘had but an hour to sing’ before darkness would fall, trying to … pack into that hour Their unwilling hoard of song before the moon Grew brighter than the clouds. In ‘Good-night’ Thomas conflates ‘the call of children in the unfamiliar streets’ with ‘the voice of nightingale or lark’ as they echo in the ‘familiar twilight’, perhaps evoking the literary more than the ornithological, but marking twilight with at least remembered birdsong. In ‘Home’ not only

does he hear the thrushes singing at nightfall but experiences a heightened sense of connectedness to them. But now it seemed I never could be And never had been anywhere else; ’Twas home; one nationality We had, I and the birds that sang, One memory. (Thomas 2008: 81) But this sense of home is touched with an uncanniness—an unheimlich quality, where The April mist, the chill, the calm, Meant the same thing familiar And pleasant to us, and strange too, yet with no bar. (Thomas 2008: 81) This articulation of the familiar with the unfamiliar within a single phenomenon, and the role played by the ‘homely’—das Heimliche—in the ‘uncanny’—das Unheimliche—is a defining quality of what Freud identified as the uncanny in his publication of that name in 1919. The German terms das Heimliche and das Unheimliche, though apparent opposites because of the ‘un-’ prefix, interpenetrate one another and acquire an ambiguity in evoking what is generally translated into English as ‘the uncanny’. Freud writes We can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche into its opposite, das Unheimliche; for this


uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. (Freud 1919: 241) This combination of the ‘familiar … and strange too’, in a poem called ‘Home’ seems almost to anticipate Freud’s Unheimliche; indeed, the proximity of the poem’s images to Freud’s uncanny, combined with the significance of the figure of ‘the double’ or Doppelgänger in other writings by Thomas, which will be discussed presently, seems in itself almost uncanny given that Thomas would have been dead for more than two years when Freud published his text. Allusions to earlier literature are a widespread Modernist trope—we need only think of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land with its extensive glossary of references—but in the context of the war the paradoxes of references to the pastoral bring an uncanniness to these returns; Rosenberg’s larks referred to earlier, for example, or the shadowy echoes of pastoral in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ with its men ‘who die as cattle’, its ‘choirs’ of ‘wailing shells’, and ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’ standing in for ‘passing-bells’. These references to the English pastoral elegy that is perhaps best exemplified in Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in an English Country Churchyard’ find their way into many different writings at this time. There are echoes of Gray’s ploughman plodding his ‘weary way’ homeward in the final stanza of ‘Home’. Then past his dark white cottage front A labourer went along, his tread

Slow, half with weariness, half with ease; (Thomas 2008: 82) This resonance of the pastoral elegy is, as Fussell notes, characteristic of much of the English writing around the First World War, and I believe that within the cultural context of the war these pastoral ‘returns’ acquire an uncanny character. The explosion in popularity of A E Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad after 1914, and the titular poem in particular, seems to me to be part of this. There is undoubtedly a sort of protective mechanism in play where the popularity of this collection (first published in 1896) is concerned. There is an exquisite if quite conventional Victorian sentimentality in the melancholy of ‘Those blue remembered hills’, that roots the subject into a nostalgic rural ‘England’ of ‘spires’ and ‘farms’. An elegiac pastoral very much in keeping with the latter part of the nineteenth century’s mourning of the passing of the rural life, going back at least to the first decades of that century, and documented in the work of William Blake, as well as Samuel Palmer and the other ‘Ancients’. But surely the opening two lines of the poem, Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows acquired a particularly sinister edge when read after the first wave of prowar euphoria had dissipated and the true horror of what was emerging became more and more widely known; ‘that far country’ becoming Flanders, Macedonia, or the Bosphorus. A poem that was already widely familiar acquires a strangeness, and uncanny quality, insofar as it now seems to have presaged the killing air from ‘yon far country’. Another of

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the poems from the collection, ‘On Wenlock Edge’, ties the present into the distant past as a continuity, rather as Thomas’s ‘February Afternoon’, described above, does. In both these poems, one from 1896, the other from 1916, there is a sense of the presence of a double, a contiguity between the ancient figure and the present narrator/author. In ‘On Wenlock Edge’ the narrator says Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman At yonder heaving hill would stare: The blood that warms an English yeoman, The thoughts that hurt him, they were there. There, like the wind through woods in riot, Through him the gale of life blew high; The tree of man was never quiet: Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I. The present ‘blood’ was there in Roman times, and there is an implied identity between the Roman and the ‘I’. On the one hand this serves to connect the present into the past, and to guarantee a sort of Blut und Boden English identity connected to physical place and the persistence of human occupation of that land. In this respect it mirrors and duplicates the comforting nostalgia of A Shropshire Lad’s farms and spires. On the other hand, though, there is an uncanny sense of having been ‘there’ before, and the image of the double, the Doppelgänger is very close to the surface. The double is, of course, another of the markers of the Freudian uncanny, and Freud notes how the double or Doppelgänger has deep cultural meaning as a harbinger of death. ‘The idea of the eternal soul allows us an energetic

denial of the power of death. This was the first double of the body. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death’ (Freud 1919: 235). The double is a motif that has been widely noted in connection to Thomas’s prose and poetic writings. In his 1914 publication In Pursuit of Spring, for example, he ‘encounters’ a fellow cyclist who is clearly Thomas’s double. Indeed, Thomas acknowledges this fact when he says to Jesse Berridge ‘You mustn’t give away the fact that the Other Man is rather a lie’. Thomas’s biographer Matthew Hollis goes on to suggest that this Other Man ‘was a projection of Thomas’s alter ego, just as the figure of “the philosopher” and the “ghostly double” of the rain had been in The Icknield Way’, one of Thomas’s travel books, first published in 1913 (Hollis 2011: 65). This Other Man is first encountered sheltering from the rain and, very suggestively for this essay, releasing a caged chaffinch which he was seen buying from a shop by the narrator while sheltering from the same shower. In the broader context of Thomas’s work, and the connections I am trying to draw between birds and the spirits of the dead, this combination of Thomas’s Doppelgänger with a bird released from captivity is particularly suggestive. This is one of the many episodes from Thomas’s prose writings which eventually found expression as a poem: Thomas’s turn to poetry was in part driven by Robert Frost’s encouragement that he was, in a sense, already writing poetry and only needed to work up some already existing writing into a more poetic structure. The poem that emerges is called, quite simply, ‘The Other’. As Longley notes in her commentary on the poem, Thomas’s syntax mirrors the ambiguity of the narrator and his double such that, as William Cook puts it, ‘[e]ven the syntax makes him the pursuer of himself ’ (quoted in Longley 2008: 158). Like the uncanny


temporality of the sonic palindromes noted earlier, and the roads and the dead soldiers disappearing back into night as the dawn breaks, this uncanniness is not only described but embedded into the materiality of the language Thomas uses. The double is the return of the familiar in an unfamiliar state—the return of a ‘self ’, a ‘me’, that is impossibly over there, often taken, especially in folk cultures, as a harbinger of death. In ‘February Afternoon’ there is … a law Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how A thousand years might dust lie on his brow (Thomas 2008: 109) In ‘The Other’ the ‘one like me’ has been seen by others. The first verse ends with They asked me if I did not pass Yesterday this way? ‘Not you? Queer.’ ‘Who then? and slept here’ I felt fear. (Thomas 2008: 40) The narrator follows, looking for this double, becoming obsessed by the search. I travelled fast, in hopes I should Outrun that other. What to do When caught, I planned not. I pursued To prove the likeness, and, if true, To watch until myself I knew. (Thomas 2008: 40)

To know oneself by watching an ‘other’ suggests a particularly intense experience of the Doppelgänger, especially connected as it is to a palpable sense of anxiety and fear through sections of the poem. A sense of desperation creeps into the search such that the narrator drops back and in a stilted, almost stunned sentence recounts that ‘I sought then in solitude’, the repetition of the ‘s’ and the ‘t’ sounds in ‘sought’ and ‘solitude’ seeming to freeze the sound of the line. The solitude into which the narrator has slipped becomes associated with the presence of birds, contributing their own weird blend of naturalism—creatures we might quite conventionally expect to encounter in an English poems of this period set ‘in nature’— and deathliness. And all was earth’s, or all was sky’s; No difference endured between The two. A dog barked on a hidden rise; A marshbird whistled high unseen; The latest waking blackbird’s cries Perished upon the silence keen. The last light filled a narrow firth Among the clouds. I stood serene, And with a solemn quiet mirth, An old inhabitant of earth. (Thomas 2008: 41–42) The ambiguity of twilight (no difference between what is of the earth or of the sky), the fading voices of birds—if you have ever heard birds such as oystercatchers or golden plovers calling in the darkening sky you will recognize the eeriness of the marshbird’s whistle—and the sense of

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being ‘an old inhabitant of the earth’ collates several of these uncanny tropes. Birds come, quite literally, flocking back in the final dénouement of the poem. It seems that in the tap-room of an inn the other is finally encountered in the flesh, but Thomas the narrator ‘… said nothing. I slipped away’. And now I dare not follow after Too close. I try to keep in sight, Dreading his frown and worse his laughter. I steal out of the wood to light; I see the swift shoot from the rafter By the inn door; ere I alight I wait and hear the starlings wheeze And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight. He goes: I follow: no release Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease. (Thomas 2008: 42) This final stanza, as well as containing the physical presence of birds— the starlings whose ‘parleyings’ roar at the start ‘February Afternoon’ and the swift, a bird that flies well into the twilight in search of insects—is filled with bird-like actions: like a bird the narrator alights, and waits for the other’s flight, a fleeing but also a flying away. Twilight of an Era Fussell suggests that a line from Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a FoxHunting Man (1928), ‘John Homeward had just come past with his van, plodding beside his weary horse’, is ‘almost a verbal anagram of Gray’s

“The plowman homeward plods his weary way”’ (Fussell 1977: 236). This can be read as another instance of the return of an older, pastoral, literary world that I have suggested acquires a particularly uncanny quality in the context of the war. But these reminiscences also mark a much broader sense of elegy for many writers from the turn of the century onwards. Thomas is one of those who, in his prose and poetry, marks the passing of an old rural, pastoral era that had been disappearing since (at least) the Industrial Revolution. It is somewhat startling to read that the percentage of inhabitants of England living in cities by 1880 was only a few percentage points less than it is in the present day, changing from about fifteen per cent of the population before the Industrial Revolution to about eighty per cent by its zenith. The war, in one sense, becomes the apotheosis of the Industrial Revolution, the industrialization of slaughter and destruction on a scale hitherto unimaginable. It is partly as a reaction to this industrialization of warfare that observations of the natural world, and the singing of birds in particular, are brought into such poignant and paradoxical relief. But this is not a straightforward historical moment, though the war was clearly a major historical watershed. This was a process that had been coming for more than 150 years; the replacement of the pastoral with the industrial. Though, as Fussell writes, ‘If the opposite of war is peace, the opposite of experiencing moments of war is proposing moments of pastoral. Since war takes place outdoors and always within nature, its symbolic status is that of the ultimate anti-pastoral’ (Fussell 1977: 231). The anti-pastoral had been a long time in coming. David Wright, in his introduction to the 1981 Penguin edition of Thomas’s selected writings, writes that ‘the England that Thomas was so intimately observing was an England that


was on the point of disappearing forever’, but significantly he connects this aspect of Thomas’s work back to the poet John Clare ‘who also lived through a period of radical change’ (Wright in Thomas 1981: 19), notably in describing the effects of enclosure on rural England, and who, though Wright does not note this, also wrote many poems directly about, or otherwise featuring, birds. Two of the most celebrated icons of the English modernist pastoral, Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and Thomas’s ‘Adelstrop’, were both born just before this watershed moment. Both reference birdsong, in their different ways, and both are intensely nostalgic. Thomas’s most famous poem was apparently conceived near the start of that last summer before the war, as noted in a notebook entry dated 24th June 1914 (Hollis 2011: 203). Vaughan Williams’s piece—allegedly started in the week the War was declared—has become the warm bath of a particularly indulgent sense of Englishness, but musicologist Christopher Mark finds a depth and complexity to it that is somewhat belied by its latter-day appropriation by Classic FM. Though the outer sections of the piece represent an idyllic atmosphere, Mark identifies the central section as more of a ‘commentary’ that leads to ‘an undermining of the idyllic—a distancing from the scene depicted that creates a powerful sense of loss’ (Mark 2013: 185). Mark argues that the subsequent return of the musical material of the opening section is more of a reminiscence than ‘the thing itself ’ (the reprise is, after all, truncated) … the second return of the cadenza material is imbued with an even greater sense of loss, the ambivalent modal final and niente ending intensifying the melancholy as an already distant vision vanishes. (Mark 2013: 187)

Mark’s interpretation falls into the broader reappraisal of English art music from the first decades of the twentieth century that had been rather denigrated as ‘pastoral’ or, even more scathingly, ‘cowpat music’; as a marginal, local phenomenon outwith the sanctioned canon of Modernist music. As Eric Saylor notes in his essay on ‘English Pastoralism and the First World War’, though, ‘a strain of thought has arisen over the last decade recognising that twentieth-century English pastoralism is a much more complex and progressive musical category than … its past treatment might suggest’ (Saylor 2008: 41). This complexity is played out in another of Vaughan Williams’s works, his Pastoral Symphony, a work that the composer is supposed to have begun having ideas for while working as an ambulance orderly in wartorn France. In a letter to Ursula Wood (who would become his second wife) from 1938 he describes the Pastoral Symphony as being ‘really war-time music … it’s not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted’ (quoted in Saylor 2008: 48). Even had the pastoral in English culture not come already freighted with a sense of loss—from Gray through Clare to Thomas and his peers—the war probably finally consigned to a shadow existence the world that had been imagined to have clung on throughout the changes wrought by industrialization, an English rural idyll that, as David Wright notes, ‘so many of Thomas’s poems … are a record and an unconscious farewell’ (Wright in Thomas 1981: 19). Stand-to at dawn and dusk, the bird choruses of these times, the ideological notion of the permanence of nature, the nostalgia associated with this, and the deeply embedded cultural associations of birds with the spirits of the dead, all work to overdetermine the significance of birdsong as it was experienced in the trenches, and as we might interpret it with the

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benefit of more than a hundred years of hindsight. In Thomas’s poetry, as I have argued, the liminal times of dusk and dawn afford a glimpse into a non-linear temporality that is, at times, reflected in the sonic, syntactic, and cognitive structures of the language he uses; what Longley has called ‘poetry’s license to play with syntactical order’. This sense of the ambiguity of temporality often has an uncanny edge: the proximity of the (sometimes distant) past and therefore its dead, the man of 1,000 years ago in ‘February Afternoon’, the silenced inn and smithy that Thomas describes in the poem ‘Aspens’, or the dancing dead returning from France in ‘Roads’. Though Thomas’s references to the dawn often have a sense of exhilaration—in the poem ‘The Glory’, for example, or ‘Cock-Crow’ (Thomas 2008: 87, 101)— there is also a more ambiguous feeling of its connection back to night, and a sense of loss for an older, vernacular pastoral combines with the ambiguous twilight to overdetermine these moments of the diurnal and the historical passage of time. Siegfried Sassoon, in his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, gives another glimpse into this traumatization of time associated with the war. At several points in his Memoirs he notes how the past is gone for ever. On route to France he writes that in a soiled fawn-coloured first-class compartment, we clanked and rumbled along and everything in the world was behind us … To have finished with farewells; that in itself was a burden discarded. And now there was nothing more to worry about. Everything was behind us, and the First Battalion was in front of us. (Sassoon [1928] 1942: 221)

On receiving a letter from his old groom, Dixon, who is now posted to France, Sassoon felt that Everything I had known before the War seemed to be withering away and falling to pieces … but with Dixon to talk to I should still feel that the past was holding its own with the War; and I wanted the past to survive and to begin again; the idea was like daylight on the other side of this bad weather in which life and death had come so close to one another. (p 240) Dixon stands as a living link with the ‘burden discarded’ of the past, but back in England on his last night of leave at his Aunt Evelyn’s at Butley, he writes how Looking round the room at the enlarged photographs of my hunters, I began to realise that my past was wearing a bit thin. The War seemed to have made up its mind to obliterate all those early adventures of mine. Point-to-point cups shone, but without conviction. And Dixon was dead … (p 244) Some pages later comes the almost anagrammatical reference to Gray’s ‘Elegy’ noted by Fussell, but which continues ‘He [the farmer John Homeward] had said good-bye and good-night and set his horse going again. As he turned the corner the past had seemed to go with him … a bird had begun to sing …’ (p 255). The solitary bird is a cipher of a particular formation of melancholy and regret; Sassoon notes the first thrush he’d heard since arriving in France (p 228) in a sentence in which he similarly associates solitude, briefly snatched on a Sunday morning in France, with


the singing of a single bird. Edward Grey’s comment about the lamps going out all over Europe perhaps has acquired its sticking power because it too marks, in combination with the singing of birds at dusk, the always already disappearing rural idyll, and the elegiac pastoral, a point of overdetermination where twilight is connected with the First World War. In connection specifically to Thomas’s poetry, Edna Longley notes how ‘long eco-historical perspectives bring agriculture, culture and war into an unstable pastoral frame’. This unstable pastoral, a pastoral that trembles on the threshold of its disappearance, a pastoral as ‘the opposite of experiencing moments of war … [which is] the ultimate anti-pastoral’ (Fussell 1977: 231) is invoked as the last lingering grasp of an eternal and unchanging nature in the face of the apotheosis of industrialization in mass warfare. This localized near-extinction event for the human species is a socio-cultural trope prolonged into the aerial bombardment of cities in the Second World War, attempts at genocide, and the real possibility of a worldwide extinction event through nuclear war up to the present day. It seems horrifically poignant, therefore, to reflect that what war was unable to extinguish—nature—agriculture since the Second World War seems to be achieving in our lifetimes. A drop of the insect population by an estimated seventy to eighty per cent in much of Europe is widely ascribed to the industrial use of insecticides in farming, though there are of course many additional pollutants released on a wholescale basis that have contributed to this catastrophic decline. According to Hallmann et al, in one of the many scientific papers investigating this phenomenon, ‘pesticide usage, year-round tillage, increased use of fertilizers and

frequency of agronomic measures … may form a plausible cause’ (Hallmann et al 2017). It is disturbing to read reports of the distinctive call of the corncrake being heard in No Man’s Land, a common enough summer breeder until after the Second World War in the UK and France, a bird that has become effectively extinct across much of its former range. I can recall my grandfather, a gamekeeper on the Delaval Estate in Northumberland, telling me he’d heard a corncrake ‘the other day’— this would be in the late sixties—and how it was the first one he’d heard for a while. ‘You rarely hear them these days.’ I remember at age eight or nine not understanding how that could be. Something as apparently innocent as cutting the hay earlier than we used to, because artificial fertilizers make that a viable possibility, along with other forms of habitat destruction, is understood to have played a major part in the corncrake’s elimination from English farmland. What could be more rural-idyllic than cutting the hay? Though farming also plays a role in climate change, we are all of us deeply complicit in that catastrophe. The cuckoo, where I live, is a marker of this change. Alongside habitat destruction and the decline in insects (and their larvae on which cuckoos like to feed), the migratory routes of those birds that used to come to my corner of Northumberland have been more adversely affected by the climate emergency than the route taken by birds headed further north (Hewson et al 2016). Thomas’s reference to the ‘ghostly quality’ of the cuckoo seems uncannily prophetic as a once common species becomes more of a memory than a reality. A bird whose first call in spring was immortalized by Delius in his On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is more and more heard of these days in sentences that begin ‘the last time I heard a cuckoo around here was …’

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Footnote 1. Gillespie died in the trenches in 1915. Bibliography Sir Thomas Browne, (1658) 1967, Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk, Together with The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered. With Sundry Observations., John Carter, ed, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Sebastian Faulkes, 1993, Birdsong, Hutchinson, London Steven Feld, 1982, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia

Judy Kendall, 2014, Edward Thomas, Birdsong and Flight, Cecil Woolf, London John Lewis-Stempel, 2017, Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London Edna Longley, 2008, ‘Introduction’ and ‘Notes’ in Edward Thomas, 2008, The Annotated Collected Poems, Edna Longley, ed, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset Christopher Mark, 2013, ‘Chamber Music and Works for Soloist with Orchestra’ in Alain Frogley and Aidan J Thomson, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 179–198 Christopher M Moreman, 2014, ‘On the Relationship between Birds and Spirits of the Dead’, Society and Animals (2014), pp 1–22 Siegfried Sassoon, (1928) 1942, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Faber & Faber, London

Sigmund Freud, (1919) 1955, ‘The Uncanny’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, XVII, James Strachey, ed and trans, The Hogarth Press, London, pp 219–256

Eric Saylor, 2008, ‘“It’s Not Lambkins Frisking at All”: English Pastoral Music and the Great War’, Musical Quarterly, 19:1&2, pp 39–59

Paul Fussell, 1977, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, London and Oxford

Edward Thomas, 1914, In Pursuit of Spring, Thomas Nelson & Sons, London

Pamela Glenconner, 1920, The Earthen Vessel: A Volume Dealing with Spirit-Communication Received in the Form of Book-Tests, John Lane Company, New York and London

Edward Thomas, 2008, The Annotated Collected Poems, Edna Longley, ed, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset

Charles Edward Grey, Viscount Grey of Fallodon, 1927, The Charm of Birds, Hodder and Stoughton, London Charles Edward Grey, Viscount Grey of Fallodon, 1926, Twenty-Five Years: 1892–1916, vol II, Hodder and Stoughton, London Caspar Hallmann et al, 2017, ‘More Than 75% Decline Over 27 Years in Total Flying Insect Biomass in Protected Areas’, PLoS ONE, 12:10, np, available at plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809&_ga=2.42103269.1751527880.1531267200635596102.1531267200, accessed November 2020 C M Hewson et al, 2016, ‘Population decline is linked to migration route in the Common Cuckoo’, Nature Communications 7, article number 12296, np, available at articles/ncomms12296, accessed November 2020 Matthew Hollis, 2011, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, Faber and Faber, London Collingwood Ingram, 2014, Wings over the Western Front: The First World War Diaries of Collingwood Ingram, Ernest Pollard and Hazel Strouts, ed, Day Books, Oxfordshire Carl Gustav Jung, (1961) 1995, Mirrors, Dreams, Reflections, Richard and Clara Winston, trans, Fontana Press, London

Edward Thomas, 1981, Selected Poems and Prose, David Wright, ed, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth


& there is no signal that says begin (even the low-watt light is loath to shift) but the blackbird sounds two notes at 04.12 (as good a time as any) the morning is built from there

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& house sparrows: 04.29 song thrush: 04.40 starlings emerge (sotto voce): 04.44 swallows preen (silent): 04.52 corvids assemble: 05.05 willow warbler: 05.21


Singing the World A Speculative Exploration of Birdsong in a Dawn Chorus

Prologue n his book Out of the Wreckage (2018), George Monbiot suggests that our remarkable capacity for altruism and reciprocity has been supressed by a neoliberal ideology of extreme individualism and competition. Neoliberalism, the cultural philosophy that has increasingly defined our world over the last hundred years, is a powerfully argued story that has alienated and trapped us. Furthermore, as writers such as Rachel Mundy (2018) have suggested, this cultural ideology has affected the way natural history research has, until fairly recently, been conducted and contextualized. Can we devise another equally compelling narrative? Monbiot says (and I paraphrase here) that by confronting the politics of alienation with a politics of belonging—with a collective and collaborative philanthropy— we can rekindle our imagination. Together we can develop a culture of belonging, of sharing, of cooperating and collaborating; we can tell a new story and discover our power to act. My story is about the collaborative re-imagining of a dawn chorus. It’s about how birds interact culturally, musically, in a dawn chorus, and the narrative of this re-imagining, here in the text, takes the form of a set of notes loosely structured around a conversation that extended over years.


Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus Most of my work is collaborative—with artists, poets, musicians, composers, natural historians and the natural world. The knowledge exchange in these informal relationships is rich, rhizomatic and hugely stimulating. I suggest that collaboration can help to bring us closer to the experience of what it is to be a part of a more-than-human world that we

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share with others (flora and fauna). This ongoing project (of which the book Songs of Place and Time forms one part) is the result of such a collaboration with musician, sound artist and composer, Bennett Hogg, printmaker Alex Charrington, sound recordist and birdsong expert Geoff Sample1 and myself, based on our responses to the dawn chorus. Out of respect for this collaborative model of working, I have included the voices of Bennett, Geoff and Alex in this essay, bringing together some of the discussions that have taken place and developed organically between us over a three-year period while working on the project. Mike: Our project is a collaborative synthesis standing at the meeting point, or even overlap, of various established and emerging fields of research and practice, including zoomusicology, ecoacoustics and biosemiotics. It links artistic practice with philosophy and the environmental sciences, and aims to explore ways for reimagining our complex, embodied and participatory engagement with a particular aspect of local ecosystems—a dawn chorus. By evidencing the extent to which dawn choruses represent complex intra and inter-species relationships, something like place-specific cultures of birds can become legible to a human audience. Geoff: We’re exploring what might be called the quasi-symphonic aspects of the dawn chorus. Not only do individuals share the limited available acoustic space in terms of the timing of their songs (though sometimes there appears a strategy of masking or drowning out others), but one would expect the co-evolution of species-songs in an established ecological community to produce a range of song patterns

that fit together. Otherwise, if a species is producing a song-style that is not distinct enough from another species, or is tending to be masked by another species, one would expect this to lead to reduced breeding success. We are aware of the risk of anthropomorphizing implied in the term ‘quasi-symphonic’ and one of the key aims of the research is to find ways of distinguishing between anthropomorphization as projection, and anthropomorphization as means to connect with, to in a sense ‘translate or re-imagine’ into human terms. A Dawn Chorus? Geoff: The established understanding of birdsong is rooted in the premise that each singing bird is only, or predominantly, concerned with intraspecific communication. Yet on listening to the mass of birds singing at dawn we have intuitively described the phenomenon as a chorus; and a close analysis of the whole auditory scene suggests inter-specific structure as well as intra-specific relationships, giving rise to the ‘chorus’ impression, rather than random cacophony. The idea of the ‘dawn chorus’ probably vies with nightingale song as the aspect of birdsong most engaging to the general public, as evidenced by attendance on dawn chorus walks, and the gradual proliferation of events celebrating International Dawn Chorus Day. Yet in strictly scientific terms there appears little justification in labelling it a ‘chorus’; and indeed, there has been very little research on interspecific features (which Mike has called interactivity in his text) of the phenomenon. Thus, while in Darwinian terms an individual’s song is an expression of intraspecific competition for territory and mating, and at its peak the chorus may approach random cacophony, in our project we investigate


the widely-perceived impression of a kind of quasi-symphonic concert. The word chorus first appears in literate history in ancient Greek. American classicist Kenneth Rothwell (2007) proposes that the chorus of Greek comic drama, in its traditional archaic form, emerged from the ritual mimesis of social animal gatherings. Parallels and paradigms flow across species in cultural expression: this is our arena. The conventional view on birdsong proposes that birds are primarily concerned with communicating with their own species. Yet close analysis of the dawn chorus suggests that each species takes into account the song of other species, resulting in the ‘chorus’ effect rather than cacophony. Any locality will harbour particular collections of species which contribute to the broader ecosystem of the place, and thus to place-specific song behaviours, and we have explored how different ecosystems and bird populations are mutually determining factors traceable through birdsong, visualizing their song patterns. Transcriptions of birdsong date back to antiquity and imitations of it feature in every culture’s music. However, ‘hearing music in birdsong’ can be little more than a projection of human codes and conventions on to the natural world, avoiding the radical unknowability of this more-thanhuman world. Can We Think and Feel Like a Bird? Mike: This dilemma lay at the heart of much of the work undertaken for this project. The problem of avoiding this ‘projection’, acknowledging and engaging with the unknowability in what several scientists increasingly refer to as the ‘culture’ of non-human species.2 In her introduction to Animal Musicalities (2018) Rachel Mundy asks the questions:

What is difference? What is a humanity? Humanity’s study of birdsong, whether in the science laboratory or in the field, has sometimes been what Mundy calls ‘exclusionary’, undertaken within a white, privileged, colonial and patriarchal culture. In recent decades it has also been conducted against the backdrop of a neoliberal ideology, which undermines the sense of community and collaboration that should extend not just to human societies but, ecologically, to morethan-human cultures. ‘What makes song sparrows, Verdi, medieval monks, and minstrelsy part of the same taxonomy?’ asks Mundy. ‘How are assumptions about race, gender, class, sexuality and other forms of difference tied to assumptions about species?’ Does it help to explain the culture of a Dunnock if we describe its behaviour as ‘promiscuous’, I ask, since the word promiscuous has no meaning for a Dunnock; or indeed to compare the sexual activity of a Dunnock to that of, say, a Mute Swan or an Atlantic Puffin—birds that mate for life. On the other hand, to try to completely objectify our study of birds (which, by the way, I consider to be an impossibility, since context and culture are always present in both the laboratory and the field) is to remove any feeling of empathy we may feel for a bird. Furthermore, there was a great deal of cruelty involved in earlier ‘discoveries’ about how a bird sings. Whilst acknowledging the progress and understanding that such research practices have brought about, I wonder whether we might not have made even more profound and significant ‘discoveries’ had we tried to understand birds and their language—their sense of self and sociality—by watching and studying them subjectively in the field. We could have empathetically and phenomenologically re-imagined

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what it might be like to be them—‘the Other’—rather than studying them as scientific objects in the laboratory. As Professor Tim Birkhead says in Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2012): … our understanding of bird behaviour is simultaneously informed and constrained by the way we watch and study them. By drawing attention to the way these frameworks both facilitate and inhibit discovery, we can identify ways to escape from them to seek new horizons in bird behaviour. So, is it possible to put oneself into the mind of the bird? Well of course it isn’t. But is it worth the effort to try to imagine what it might be like to think, feel and indeed to live like a bird? I suggest that it is crucial that we do so, whilst recognizing the dilemma that in doing so, we can never ‘unlive’ our own experience as human animals. We can still try to re-imagine what it might be like to be a bird and to displace a sense of ourselves in the process; to recognize as we do so that birds do have a sense of themselves, that there is such a thing as distinctive bird cultures in different species— and that birds interact with each other as well as with their local ecological place in a knowing way. Birds are extremely intelligent creatures, but perhaps we make the mistake of only recognizing this intelligence when it mirrors or overlaps with our own understanding of what ‘intelligence’ means. We have to grasp that there are all kinds of different intelligences out there in the world. Dawn Chorus: A Symphony of Sound Geoff: I wonder if there could be some factors in the way birdsong has evolved that could help generate an impression of symphony. Symphony

conveys a notion of different themes fitting together, beyond the literal etymological derivation of ‘voicing together’. The arrangement of parts in counterpoint is crucial to our symphonies, as well as the development of themes into movements. There are several reasons why dawn is a good time to sing, including the fact that the still, cool air helps the transmission of sound, and almost all territorial males of most species sing for some time during the dawn period. Competition for acoustic space amounts to the same as competition for physical territory, space to be heard: but in this sonic rush-hour there’s a chance you’ll be drowned out by other species singing nearby. And at times the dawn chorus approaches cacophony. A phenomenon more to be witnessed for the sheer exuberance of life at the dawn of the day, than listened to for the synergistic beauty of the birdsong patterns. However, a number of factors contribute to reduce such interference: the overall pitch of songs varies with species, so reducing the amount of masking—like radio stations broadcasting on different frequencies. Also, many species sing in verses with intervals between each verse. And several studies have shown that birds can actively avoid the interference of overlapping songs from other species by adjusting the timing of their verses. So, there is a degree of arrangement in both the frequency and time domains. Mike: The initial impetus behind our discussions was the offer of an exhibition at Cheeseburn Grange in 2017, and subsequent requests to show this work followed. Each exhibition allowed us a further opportunity to reflect on the way the project and its ideas were developing and the second part of this essay is a story told through a series of five exhibitions.


THE EXHIBITIONS First exhibition: ‘Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus’ at the Stables Gallery, Cheeseburn, 2017 3 Mike: This exhibition was initially inspired by listening to the dawn chorus at Cheeseburn Grange—a choir of sixteen bird species heard early one morning in May 2016 when walking through the grounds of a Northumberland garden. All the subsequent exhibitions drew from the information gained whilst experiencing this dawn chorus. This particular dawn chorus started slowly between 3.30 am and 5.30 am, listening to Robin, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush and Wren; gradually the sound built… a choir of ‘voices’ singing through the thin morning air: Dunnock, Chiffchaff, Song Thrush, Blue Tit, Great Tit— Nuthatch, Redstart, Goldcrest, Greenfinch, Spotted Flycatcher, and in the background, the soft, repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ of the Woodpigeon. At the height of the chorus—between 4.30 and 5 am—I could hear all the voices together, what I described then as a yellow bloom of sound. Listening carefully, I could unpick the sounds of individual species—the liquid song of Blackbird; the operatic Wren; songs that wove texturally in and out of each other. Rhythms and melodies (and, yes, there are melodies) merged, forming complex and rich sonic patterns. Together, Alex, Bennett, Geoff and I discussed the complications of re-presenting this experience—both visually and sonically—in a gallery; how to re-imagine, and not just illustrate, something of the experience

of listening to the dawn chorus outside. I had thought about overlaying a series of visual notations of birdsong in a way that was equivalent to my luminous, sonic experience of the dawn chorus. Our conversation explored the very idea of birdsong as music; is it music? Was this to anthropomorphize bird behaviour or was it a recognition that birds do indeed have a sense of themselves as unique and individual, and that such a thing as bird culture does exist? This is a question taken up by soundscape composer Michael Rüsenberg (2005), who suggests that ‘however bird “songs” may sound like music, they cannot be music— unless, of course, we ascribe to birds a mental life comparable to our own, which few of us will want to do’. Geoff: Is it music? This is a question that is almost impossible to answer— but what is staring-in-the-face remarkable is that so many musical figures are shared between our music, in a traditional sense (ie not including what might be more accurately described as sound art), and birdsong. For instance, consider how many birdsongs and calls use note intervals that strike us as melodic, particularly the major and minor third and the slides between (blue notes). Mike: In our research, Bennett and I came across visualizations of birdsong in a book by W H Thorpe (1961) and Bennett noted that the rough, printed symbols taken from a 1950s oscilloscope illustrated there bore a superficial resemblance to handwritten ‘neumes’, a medieval form of musical notation (see figure 1). The word neume is derived from ancient Greek πνευ̃μα, pneuma, meaning ‘breath’, and is an early musical notation

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from the Middle Ages (neumatic notation). It was a more embodied, if less complex and scientific, form of musical notation, a form that might lend itself well to the kind of visual layering I had in mind, where the complex rhythmical patterns and structure of the dawn chorus could weave their magic across the surface of the print. In this way, we could also explore the concept of the palimpsest as both metaphor and model in responses to the natural world stretching back to the early Medieval period and beyond in this Northumberland landscape. As Professor Elizabeth Leach explains: Dating from early medieval times, the earliest neumes were inflective marks which indicated the general shape but not necessarily the exact notes or rhythms to be sung. The monks learnt the songs by heart, but the choirmaster still needed a form of written notation that gave him an expressive set of instructions (to do with emphasis, length of note, pitch/ energy of note sung etc). Later developments included the use of heightened neumes which showed the relative pitches between neumes, and the creation of a four-line musical staff that identified particular pitches. (Leach 2006)

Figure 1. An example of neumatic notation: illuminated chant manuscript, late 15th century, Germany, collection of V&A (Prints and Drawings), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The earliest Western notation for chant appears in the ninth century. These early staffless neumes, called cheironomic, appeared as freeform wavy lines above the text. The introduction of one to four staff lines—an innovation traditionally ascribed to Guido d’Arezzo—clarified the exact relationship between pitches and by the eleventh century cheironomic neumes had evolved into square notation, separated from the text. It is


this latter form that I have used in my prints (figure 4).4 To represent musical sounds on a page is very different to writing down language. So, early neumatic notation depended almost entirely on the singer’s recall of the music being represented, which is, quite probably, also the way birds sing—from memory of learned cultural song.

Geoff was able to modify the view of the sonograms to closely resemble the sorts of images that would have been generated by 1960s technology so as to get something closer to the image of neumes that had initially inspired us. And, indeed, ‘neumes’—or squiggles resembling them—appeared in abundance (figures 2–3).

Bennett: We decided to collect examples of all of the dawn chorus birds heard at Cheeseburn and, working with Geoff, we isolated the different songs to make detailed sonograms 5. This was, of course, done digitally, but

Mike: We worked together from Geoff ’s sonograms, extracting any elements that could be construed as neumes or ligatures, and overlaid them onto a medieval four-lined stave. We stretched and pulled, squeezed and

Figure 2. Mistle Thrush sonogram, recorded by Geoff Sample

Figure 3. Nuthatch sonogram, recorded by Geoff Sample

pinched these visual scientific notations, and slowly they actually began to look like early neumatic musical notations. We searched for rhythm, tone, pattern, pitch, colour and melody (this was a delicate process, finding that ‘sweet spot’ between science and art), and then developed a set of notations for all the birds heard. We now had the basis for developing our visual and musical ideas, and a series of re-imagined abstractions developed. The process in recreating these neumatic notations involved both a remembering of the experience of our dawn chorus at Cheeseburn Grange and listening to Geoff ’s recordings of each individual bird in the studio as we ‘drew’ these notations. In subsequent discussions about the links between these neumatic notations and language with Bennett and Alex, we developed the idea of making a multilayered screen print using visual patterns of individual birdsong from the dawn chorus. We aimed to use the process of layering both opaque and transparent colours, creating rhythmical surface patterns— neumatic re-presentations of notations in print—which could reflect the sonic complexities of birdsong in the dawn chorus (figures 5–8). Alex: In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky wrote of the ‘shrill singing’ Canary and the colour yellow as an abstracted reference to the temperature of its song as much as a literal reference to the physical colour of the bird (Kandinsky [1912] 2006). As an artist with a specific interest in the subjective and abstracted use of colour, this was a real opportunity to use the qualities of colour to describe a visual iteration of sound. The conversation around these colour representations was an important part of remaining true to the sound of birdsong. Geoff sat

Blackbird 1 Blackbird 2 Blackbird 3 Blackbird 4 Blackbird 5 Blackbird 6 Blackbird 7

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B l u e Ti t Chaffinch 1 Chaffinch 2 Chaffinch 3 Chaffinch 4 C h i ff c h a ff C h i ff c h a ff C h i ff c h a ff C h i ff c h a ff C h i ff c h a ff C h i ff c h a ff

1 2 3 4 5 6

Dunnock Great Tit 1 Great Tit 2 Greenfinch 1 Greenfinch 2 Goldcrest Mistle Thrush 1 Mistle Thrush 2 Nuthatch 1 Nuthatch 2 Nuthatch 3 Redstart 1 Redstart 2 Robin Robin Robin Robin Robin

1 2 3 4 5

Spotted Flycatcher Song Thrush 1 Song Thrush 2 Song Thrush 3 Wood Pigeon 1 Wood Pigeon 2 Wren Wren Wren Wren Wren

1 2 3 4 5

Figure 4. Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus Key, 2018, digital print, 80 x 40 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions, Bennett Hogg and Geoff Sample


Figure 5. Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus Neumatic Notation No. 1, 2018, digital print, 100 x 100 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions, Bennett Hogg and Geoff Sample

Figure 6. Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus Neumatic Notation No. 2, 2018, digital print, 100 x 100 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions, Bennett Hogg and Geoff Sample

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Figure 7. Alex Charrington (Charrington Editions) working with Mike Collier on the Dawn Chorus silkscreen print in 2017

Figure 8. Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus, 2017, silkscreen on 410 gsm Somerset paper, a set of ten monoprints, 101 x 100 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions, Bennett Hogg and Geoff Sample, assisted by Rachael Clewlow


Dunnock—Prunella modularis

Figure 9. Bennett Hogg, transcription of the song of a Dunnock, Prunella modularis

with us and played birdsong whilst we (Mike and I) discussed colour representation and the ‘colour’ of the dawn atmosphere. Colour is a subjective medium and the choice of ground colour in each work guides how the form and frequency of each notation is delivered in much the same way as Geoff describes the importance of air temperature in the delivery of chorus sound. For example, think about the colour that comes from the hollow sound of a Woodpigeon. Tonally the sound feels like it sits as a dark echo in relation to the tone of its environment. Those three elongated notes carry the melancholy of a shade of Purple. This wouldn’t be a warm purple on a white ground but a cold purple on a ground close enough in tonality to reduce the edges of each notation to an echoey mist that slowly comes and goes and fades into obscurity. Bennett Hogg’s Musical Pieces Bennett: We decided early on in our project that there was little point trying to imitate birdsong in the music—not only is this artistically uninteresting, but you are surrounded by the real thing at Cheeseburn where the initial project was to be shown. We spent several days transcribing and refining the digital transcriptions of birdsong until something close enough to a medieval musical notation emerged.6 I then re-transcribed these ‘neumes’—which, it has to be said, threw up rhythmic patterns that would not be recognized as music by a medieval musician—into modern notation. Figure 9 is an example of how the ‘neumes’ we transcribed from the sonograms of birdsong result in melodic material, in this case the song of a Dunnock, Prunella modularis, often known as the Hedge Sparrow in the UK. In the first piece, ‘… singing every minute high up in the golden-green

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blossom …’ , Robin and Blackbird are joined by Dunnock, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Wren. The title comes from a short prose piece by Edward Thomas (1878–1917), whose poetry, like that of John Clare almost a century earlier, is infused throughout by birdsong. A subtle change of atmosphere halfway through signals a shift from the brightness of the dawn chorus to the softer, more mellow evening chorus, dominated by Woodpigeons. The seven different bird species complement the seven different layers of Mike’s silkscreen print The Dawn Chorus (2017, see figure 8) for which the music was composed, though this correspondence was more serendipitous than designed. Mike carried out a similar transcription to me, but in his case gradually simplifying each neumatic transcription into patterns of square notes. In a sense, Mike’s prints operate on a level twice removed from the original birdsong; the digital visualizations, and then the further refining and stylization of these images into the prints you see on the walls. In the music I decided to do the same, composing music into a complex and multi-layered piano piece. This extra distance from the original sound of the birds seemed to connect quite intuitively to Mike’s image. Though the music is based on birdsong, it doesn’t mimic birdsong, and in this it closely parallels Mike’s approach. To a visitor it is probably not even apparent which piece is being heard, let alone which birds are ‘present’. But this is not the point. Just as we can listen to the dawn chorus, or indeed birdsong at any time of the day, and not necessarily recognize each and every species, the combination of the music and the images is intended to stage, for want of a better word, an ‘experience’, inside of which we can, of course, make our own connections.

Second exhibition: ‘Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus’ at Drawing at Projects UK, Trowbridge, 2018 Mike: In our studio discussions, Geoff had described what he called a transitional narrative from the darkness of early morning, when Redstart, Robin and Blackbird may be heard, to the gradual unfolding of the full chorus. So I developed a new series of digital prints called The Dawn Chorus: A Transitional Narrative. Collaborating with Alex, together we listened carefully to Geoff ’s recordings in the studio and began to tell a story in print about the development of our chorus of birds, with notations of individual birds overlapping and ‘interacting’ in the way that birdsong itself weaves in and out of the early morning chorus. Pamela Grey, wife of Edward Grey, is quoted in his book The Charm of Birds (1927) as describing the dawn chorus as ‘a tapestry translated into sound’. This set of thirteen prints represents the patterned transition from pre-dawn darkness at around 3.30 am (when the dawn chorus actually starts) to its height between 4.30 and 5 am. After this, the peak of noise is past and the sonic excitement subsides. Although my prints describe a narrative sequence over a three-hour period, the work should not be read as a completely literal translation… it is a re-imagined sequence with its own internal aesthetic and notated dialogue. Illustrated here are four prints from this sequence (figures 10–13), each of which is 50 cm square, printed digitally onto 310 gsm handmade paper. Bennett: To accompany this new series, I composed a new piece of music ‘… out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night …’ (2018; the title is


Figure 10. Mike Collier, Redstart 3: 3.30 am, print # 3, 2018, digital print on 310 gsm Marrutt fine art paper, 50 x 50 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions and Geoff Sample. The Redstart is often one of the first birds to be heard in this liminal period between night and day. The first three prints play with simple notations of Redstart song derived from Geoff Sample’s sonograms.

Figure 11. Mike Collier, Turdine Chorus Build Up 2: 4.05–4.10 am, print # 7, 2018, digital print on 310 gsm Marrutt fine art paper, 50 x 50 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions and Geoff Sample. The sky lightens and the whole turdine chorus is rolling: Robin, Blackbird and Song Thrush as well as Redstart, with the soft, repetitive ‘coo, coo, cu cu’ of the Woodpigeon beginning to underscore the soundscape.

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Figure 12. Mike Collier, Dawn Chorus Progression 1 with Turdines and Sibilants: 4.15 am, print # 8, 2018, digital print on 310 gsm Marrutt fine art paper, 50 x 50 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions and Geoff Sample. The morning air acts as a filter allowing the warmer colours (pink and yellow) to glow, and individuals of other species start to sing: Wren, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Chiffchaff, Chaffinch, Nuthatch and Warblers.

Figure 13. Mike Collier, Full Dawn Chorus, print # 10, 2018, digital print on 310 gsm Marrutt fine art paper, 50 x 50 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions and Geoff Sample. Between 4.30 and 5 am the full chorus of sixteen birds in our dawn chorus approaches cacophony—a sense of ordered chaos. ‘Is this just a mass of random polyphony like the sound of a milling crowd, or might there be some interactive relationship more suggestive of a human choir? The result of this repetition of verses, answering motifs, referencing phrases is rather like looping in music; an interwoven, rolling complexity of cyclical themes and, with the physical spacing of different males, often generating a soft echoing effect into the distance. It’s rather similar to some of the minimalist pieces by Terry Riley, Philip Glass or Steve Reich—or some sequenced electronic music,’ says Geoff Sample.


Figures 14 & 15. Left: Mike Collier, Redstart singing at 3.30 am; right: Mike Collier, Dunnock singing at 5.10 am. Both from Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus: 3.30 am–6.00 am, 2018, a set of sixteen digital prints each 42 x 42 cm produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions

Figures 16 & 17. Left: Mike Collier, Blackbird singing at 3.40 am; right: Mike Collier, Robin singing at 3.45 am. Both from Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus: 3.30 am–6.00 am, 2018, a set of sixteen digital prints each 42 x 42 cm produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions

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taken from ‘Cock-Crow’, a poem by Edward Thomas), which is in three sections, beginning with Redstarts in the before-the-dawn darkness, moving through two sections in which Chaffinch and Wren, then Blackbird and Robin duet with one another, to a final section again based entirely upon Woodpigeons. Mike: I also produced a second onomatopoeic narrative sequence for this show—called simply Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus: 3.30 am– 6.00 am (see figures 14–18 for four examples of this series). ‘Linguistic meaning … is rooted in the felt experience induced by specific sounds and soundshapes as they echo and contrast with one another, each language a kind of song, a particular way of “singing the world”’, says philosopher David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996). In these sixteen pieces of mine (again, each one 42 cm square digitally printed onto 310 gsm handmade paper), I represented the individual songs of the sixteen birds in my dawn chorus using an onomatopoeic circular form. The sequence follows an imaginary narrative from the Redstart singing in the darkness of night around 3.30 am to the song of the Greenfinch and Goldcrest heard later in the early morning around 5 am. Abram suggests that human language originally derived from our sensuous engagement with the land—and its soundscapes; ‘it cannot be completely cut off from the soil of direct, perceptual experience without withering and dying’. This link with the earth is still demonstrated in some birdsong. Take, for instance, this passage from C A Witchell (1896): Sometimes, when in a wood during a heavy storm, I have noticed that the patter of drops of water on fallen leaves was, in rhythm, not unlike the lit it it of the Robin. When

Figure 18. Mike Collier, Wren singing at 4.30 am, from Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus: 3.30 am–6.00 am, 2018, a set of sixteen digital prints each 42 x 42 cm produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions


walking in a forest in July, I seemed suddenly to be close to a noisy trickling stream, the sound of which was clearly audible through the dense growth of trees. In a few seconds, the sounds ceased, but were soon repeated in exactly the same way. I was astonished to find that the sounds were the song of a little bird, apparently a Wren. In that mountainous district, rushing streams of all sizes are prevalent. It seems to me that some song-birds, such as Robin, Wren, Hedgesparrow, Blackbird and Blackcap, which have mellow tones and intervals of pitch rather than imitation of other sounds, may have acquired this music partly through the influence of the murmurs and gurgles of rippling streams. I was further interested to read an article in the American Anthropologist, ‘Words Expressive of Cries and Noises in the Kootenany Language’ (Chamberlain 1894), in which the author described how the language of this Native American tongue often mirrored sounds in nature. For example: the babbling of a brook is ‘gā’kinōqō’nōkqō’mēk’; the noise made by the wind is: ‘gā’kātlō’mē’; and the rustling of leaves: ‘gā’kōtla’kpē’kqō’mēk’. There is, it seems to me, an onomatopoeic richness in this language, what Abram calls ‘the soundful influence of spoken words upon the sensing body that supports the more abstract and conventional meanings we assign to those words’ (Abram 2010). Before the invention of sonograms, mnemonics, onomatopoeia or musical notations were the main ways we had of describing what a bird sounded like. James Castell, in his essay for this book ‘Uttering John Clare’s Nonhuman Onomatopoeia’ (see page 142), explores this relationship:

As the OED has it, onomatopoeia ‘is the formation of a word from a sound associated with the thing or action being named’. In this sense, it is mimetic. But its etymological origins in Greek combine onomato(pertaining to names and naming) with -poeia (making). It is, in other words, the making of a language which displaces the very referent that it is trying to imitate. Third Exhibition: ‘Singing the World: Mimesis and Birdsong’ at Platform A, Middlesbrough, 2019 Mike: One of the ideas at the heart of our project was this exploration and speculation about where speech and song came from originally—and to re-present or reimagine what we heard and experienced in the dawn chorus. The title of the exhibition changed from ‘Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus’ to ‘Singing the World: Mimesis and Birdsong’, a change that reflected our own developing research around the relationship between birdsong and our visual and sonic re-imaginings of birdsong, mediated in part by Geoff ’s sonograms. The recognition and exploration of the idea of mimesis and art has a long history in western culture. Plato suggested that art is mimetic by nature; it is an imitation of life. He believed that ‘idea’ is the ultimate reality. Art imitates idea and so it is imitation of reality. He gives an example of a carpenter and a chair. First, the carpenter thinks of the idea of a chair—something for him/her to sit on—which she/he then makes. The painter, on the other hand, imitates the chair of the carpenter in his/her picture of a chair. Thus, the painter’s chair is twice removed from reality—and therefore inauthentic.

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Plato thought poetry or painting inferior to philosophy because it is mimetic in nature. The real thing, for Plato, was the idea—and it was the philosopher who grappled with ‘the idea’. However, and conversely, Aristotle suggested that art is important as a way of thinking precisely because it is mimetic in nature, and based on an understanding through observation of nature. This is philosophy in action—reimaging our understanding of the world in the best way we can. Moreover, the imitation of natural sounds in various cultures is fundamental to a set of belief systems, and is entangled with human ways of living. For example, in what is called ‘overtone singing’ in indigenous cultures for whom this is the case, the ability to mimic sounds of the environment includes hunting calls, and is present also in a traditional singing tradition preserved by some indigenous peoples.7 Bennett: Mimesis was of central importance to magic and alchemy but gradually fades in significance under the epistemological transformations of the Enlightenment, particularly with the rise of rationalism. Musicologist Matthew Head, however, investigates the extent to which mimesis was still drawn on to account for the origins of human music—particularly in relation to birdsong—as the eighteenth-century progressed. More recently, composers such as Einojuhani Rautavaara and Hildegard Westerkamp have used actual recordings of birdsong in their compositions, but going back through Messiaen, Beethoven and Vivaldi, to the madrigalists of the Renaissance, and even earlier to the English round Sumer is i cumin in (with its imitation of the cuckoo), birdsong and mimesis have formed shifting constellations with music. Arguably this goes back to at least the first century BC when Lucretius wrote that imitating

… the liquid notes of birds With mouth and lips came long before men learnt To charm the ears by singing tuneful songs … (Lucretius, De rerum natura, book V, lines 1379–1381). Michael Taussig, in his book Mimesis and Alterity (1993), suggests that photography, film and sound recording have brought the mimetic faculty back from the philosophical margins and into the heart of our cultural consciousness. One of the consequences of the rise of these technologies is that, because they do the job of imitating the real so well, we no longer need to do it ourselves. This has in turn has led to a cultural urge—a drive, even—to find creative ways around literal mimesis, but without throwing the mimetic baby out with the philosophical bathwater. Practices based on mapping, decontextualizing, translating and abstracting (which is not the same thing as abstraction) have emerged as strategies whereby this ‘drive’ might be fulfilled. Fourth and Fifth Exhibitions: ‘Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus’ at ACA, Allenheads and Black Swan Arts, Frome, 2019 Mike: The last two collaborative exhibitions we were involved in (at ACA, Allenheads and Black Swan Arts, Frome in 2019) included further new work that again developed out of conversations between the four of us. Geoff had talked about what he called ‘vignettes’ within the chorus— groups of birds (which he called communities of song) who seemed to be


Figure 19. Mike Collier, Vignette #1, Blackbird and Robin singing before dawn, 2019, acrylic on board, 50 x 50 cm

Figure 20. Mike Collier, Vignette #2, Spotted Flycatcher, Great Tit, Nuthatch and Chaffinch, 2019, acrylic on board, 50 x 50 cm

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Figure 21. Mike Collier, Vignette #3, Wren, Goldcrest, Spotted Flycatcher, Blue Tit and Dunnock, 2019, acrylic on board, 50 x 50 cm

Figure 22. Mike Collier, Vignette #4, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chiffchaff, 2019, acrylic on board, 50 x 50 cm


particularly aware of each other during their morning singing. I therefore made a set of four new paintings especially for the show at ACA (see figures 19–22). Two of the final pieces illustrated here have been produced specially to accompany a special edition of this book, and they explore a further experience of both the dawn chorus, and music/sound in general (see figures 23 & 24). I have experienced quite a few dawn choruses in my life. Each chorus, whilst very specific to a time and place, also carries the ‘memories’ of all the other dawn choruses I have experienced, just as, once having heard a piece of music for the first time, subsequent listenings are suffused with a layered memory of that first time. So, to be specific, when in the darkness at 3 am I am waiting for the song of Redstart and Robin (indeed it is possible I might even hear these early birds), my head is also anticipating the evolving chorus of singers even in that open-spaced darkness. This is the territory that this final set of prints re-imagines.

Coda Mike: There are all sorts of reasons why I continue to make this work; certainly, the collaborative sharing of ideas in the studio and beyond is an ethical statement, but it’s also an extraordinarily rich and positive way of working and generating ideas. As Alex so neatly puts it, ‘this is a socialist and rhizomatic vision for making art that contradicts the way we as abstract artists used to be taught to value individual authorship and the discrete nature of our work’. The collaborative nature of this research process mirrors, in a small way, how I believe we should work together in the world—a world that we share with our ‘other’, more-than-human,

partners on the planet. Alex: Within this essay Bennett Hogg beautifully describes the awkward and imperfect way in which this artistic process unfolded, from recorded sonogram to abstract square via extruded neumatic notations. How imperfectly wonderful and what value there has been in the sparks that have flown as these visual batons were picked up by Bennett, who chose to rework the sound by responding to the translated artwork as well as the original birdsong recordings. Mike: It has to be said that at heart I am colourist. Bennett and Geoff ‘hear’ the world, what it sounds like in all its glorious richness; Alex and I explore how our experience of colour (like movement and depth—key phenomenological understandings) effects what I have called elsewhere a ‘momentary crystallisation … awakening a transformative view of the world’ (Collier 2020). Tim Ingold (2015) talks about sensation and atmosphere in the ‘weather world’; Merleau-Ponty talks about vibration and space. I would like to suggest that somewhere between these four words (sensation, atmosphere, vibration and space) or perhaps in the echo of these words, lies the sense of what they both mean when they talk about the role of colour, sound and space in picture-making; both colour and sound vibrate in transformative patterns of the air we breathe. I am, of course, a social animal with a responsibility to care for the world and so the work also explores ways of showing how we might better understand our complex relationship to a more-than-human world, enabling us to value the whole world (birds, plants, animals and people) as a living ecology of cultural differences.8

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Figures 23 & 24. Mike Collier, A Dawn Chorus: Out of the Darkness, 2020, silkscreen on 410 gsm Somerset paper, two screen prints to accompany the current volume, 50 x 50 cm. Here we have Redstart, Robin and Blackbird with memories of Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chiffchaff experienced in the vibrations of the cool, early morning air.


Fundamentally, I think that we need to release ourselves ‘from the dichotomy of regarding nature either as a combination of processes or things … to recognize that nature is a communion of subjective, collaborative beings that organize and experience their own lives’ (Hall 2011). Acknowledgements Mike Collier has worked with, and been inspired by, many artists, writers, poets and musicians, some of whom are included in this volume. He acknowledges the influence of their discussions about birdsong, including those with the artist Jennie Spears Grant, who, back in 2010, showed his work in an exhibition about birds called ‘Sterna: Oblique Ornithologies’.

Bibliography David Abram, 1995, The Spell of the Sensuous, Pantheon Books, New York David Abram, 2010, Becoming Animal, Pantheon Books, New York Rachel Carson, 2000, Silent Spring, Penguin Modern Classics, London A F Chamberlain, 1894, ‘Words Expressive of Cries and Noises in the Kootenany Language’ in American Anthropologist, 7:1, January, pp 68–70 Mike Collier, 2020, ‘Place-walking: The Umwelt Explored through Our Creative Imagination’ in The Routledge Handbook of Place, Routledge, Abingdon Edward Grey, 1937, The Charm of Birds, Hodder and Stoughton, London Matthew Hall, 2011, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, SUNY, Albany, New York

Footnotes 1. Geoff Sample had previously worked with artists Marcus Coates and Hannah Tuulikki, and written a fascinating exploration of birdsong, accompanied by a collection of CDs, which included a short chapter titled ‘Is it Music?’ (Sample 2010). 2. From Dave Pritchard's review of the exhibition at Platform A in Corridor 8 (see https://corridor8. See Dave’s discussion of this project in his essay on pages 128–137 of the current volume. 3. The title ‘Singing the World’ is taken from a paper by the philosopher Ted Toadvine called MerleauPonty and the Ontology of Sense in which he asks the question ‘to what extent can meaning be attributed to nature, and what is the relationship between such “natural sense” and the meaning of linguistic and artistic expression’ (Toadvine 2004). 4. A brief but excellent introduction to the development of neumes can be found here: https://courses. I have taken my comments about neumes from this source. 5. A sonogram is a picture of sound frozen in time. It shows how the sound’s pitch (frequency) and loudness change with time. 6. For anyone interested in a more detailed examination of early musical notation, I recommend The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900–1600 by Willi Apel. 7. See also my chapter “‘Pikin fowru fa yu e singi so moi”—“Oh little bird how beautiful is your song”’ in this book, pp 234–247. 8. Dave Pritchard explores this ideology further in his essay in this book (mentioned above; pp 128–137).

Matthew Head, 1997, ‘Birdsong and the Origins of Music’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 122:1, pp 1–23 Tim Ingold, 2015, The Life of Lines, Routledge, Abingdon Wassily Kandinsky, (1912) 2006, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Michael Sadler, trans, Tate, London Elizabeth Leach, 2006, Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York Lucretius, 2008, On the Nature of the Universe, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford George Monbiot, 2018, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, Verso, London Rachel Mundy, 2018, Animal Musicalities: Birds, Beasts and Evolutionary Listening, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown Kenneth Rothwell, 2007, Nature, Culture and the Origins of Greek Comedy: A Study of Animal Choruses, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Michael Rüsenberg in D Toop, 2005, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory, Serpents Tail, London Geoff Sample, 2010, Collins Bird Songs and Calls, Collins, London Michael Taussig, 1993, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, Routledge, London and New York W H Thorpe, 1961, Bird-Song: The Biology of Vocal Communication and Expression in Birds, Cambridge University Press, London Ted Toadvine, 2004, ‘Singing the World in a New Key: Merleau-Ponty and the Ontology of Sense’, Janus Head, 7:2, pp 273–283 C A Witchell, 1896, The Evolution of Birdsong: With Observations on the Influence of Heredity and Imitation, Adam & Charles Black, London Opposite: Dawn at Cheeseburn Grange, photo: Colin Davison, Rosella Studios

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Dawn Chorus

While the Plough’s still hard at work churning clouds— clouds Turner would have loved, moody, fat— a tawny owl’s set on clocking off, strings of silence plucked, the sound of a heart breaking like glass. Cue to lift the lid off the dark forest of this fairy tale we live: here we sit like old pagans looking at the sky as if it were a god dividing night from day. 4 am and all we can hear is the stir of the wind, held breath, earth not ready to exhale yet. This is the life we normally sleep through, don’t hear for the boil and prowl of our own minds. But the red birds of morning begin to claim their territory. The restless owl closes a door crying out for a drop of oil, the rent air tacked back together with song. Up on their perches, invisible birds buzz with the wake-up call

of hormone and instinct, jostling for longest, loudest, limberest. Listen to me! Listen to me! I’m alive! Alive! Something to boast about after the long night’s fasting. Our first bird, a robin—early riser, fierce defender. Soon, the song thrush, piping his two notes; blackbird rinsing his golden beak, polishing the ring round his eye. Necessary to give voice to this yearning to live and love and have your children survive. 4.25 something different happens— an inchoate elating—in strikes the first warbler, our northern nightingale, the blackcap. All the threads of sound spinning now in a net around us. We are enchanted, words fail us, we are all ears, caught in the net, not knowing if what we’re hearing is spaces or strings. We are liquid, our edges melting into music till we lose our ‘I’ness and we are song. Our little flock huddle,

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warm hands round cups of tea in the chill of what still doesn’t qualify as morning. The trilling and calling, squeaking and fluting crashes in from all directions, so the whole body is tender to it, our core touched by it; a wood pigeon’s aching purr, distant falsetto. This is the way you always wanted to begin the day—met and held, lifted back into yourself after the long night’s forgetting. A small interstice of feeling lost so you can fall into finding why you’re bone-alive again. The erotics of ornithology: living through the senses all the way to rapture, joy. An hour of nothing else between your ears and you can’t stop grinning, mouth widening to make more room for all this glory, all this life for its own sake. 5.40, nothing short of radiance, sun rising above

an elusive horizon, splashing trees, walls, you, with gold, loud and sharp as the birds singing so they become its guardians, mystic visitants, spirits of the day. Pheasant and wagtail, great tit and chiffchaff, goldcrest and wren (little wren, who weighs less than a 50p piece), treecreeper, blue tit and mistle thrush (with his football rattle)— an onomatopoeia of feathered things that Emily Dickinson, dressed all in white, heard as ‘Hope’, vowel and plosive, a gesture, a giving of lips and throat— how we learned to talk after all, by imitating these birds, borrowing their beauty, bringing our very selves to light. And so we hear the compass of our own hearts—tinsel and workshop, too many yesses to count; according to Emily, find ecstasy in life, the mere sense of living joy enough— turning it up, turning it up, us all, ratchet and caw.



magine a big garden on the edge of farmland in Northumberland. You are sheltering in a little stone arbour, crowned with a surviving fragment of the arms of the old Widdrington clan. On either side of you, two fantastical spotted creatures keep a weather eye. So you are already in another world, nestled among honeysuckle and roses clambering over ancient stone walls. As the light of a new day trickles in, this is where you hear the dawn chorus, the slow but sure build of birds singing their hearts out, birds who make this place their home. You hear them, one by one and together, the whole avian company: from tawny owl to robin and thrush, through blackcap and chiffchaff to goldcrest and wren, with many others chiming in over the several hours of your watch. This is where this poem began—after getting up at 3 am one morning in March 2015 to listen to the dawn chorus at Cheeseburn, with a small group of folk, and Chris Watson recording. My poem and Chris’s recordings came together, with three other pieces, in our sound installation Compass, shown in the grounds at Cheeseburn over August Bank Holiday weekend 2016. It was revisited for a new online version released in instalments over lockdown in May 2020, taking on another layer of significance at a time when more and more people were appreciating birdsong in becalmed spaces.

Linda France May 2020 Opposite: Dawn at Cheeseburn Grange, photo: Colin Davison, Rosella Studios

Neee caption here

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A Dawn Chorus as Ecological Art, and its Significance in a Time of Environmental Alarm

Figure 1. Marcus Coates, Conference for the Birds, 2019, installation with audio, exhibited at Cherryburn, Northumberland, UK, photo courtesy of the artist


ust at the time when enforced isolation began to immobilize much of the UK human population at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the natural world was bursting into the full flush of springtime. One of the commonest remarks heard among those in the suddenly trafficfree cities was how much more evident the ambient songs of birds had become. Prisoners and castaways throughout history have shown that when certain stimuli are beyond reach and aspects of life are restricted, others can flourish in their place. Two particular responses of this kind, thanks to the pandemic, have now also been experienced by many more of the population at large. One is a new ‘deep noticing’ of what was always at hand, and the other a reawakening of our dormant reserves of imagination and innate creativity. A combination of these, ‘creative deep noticing’, could easily be a description of the Dawn Chorus project collaboration between Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and Geoff Sample, begun in 2016 and detailed in their own respective essays in this volume. Collier is an artist, curator and academic with a deep interest in experiential interrogations of place and language. Hogg is a composer and cultural theorist. Together they were inspired by one morning’s dawn chorus at Cheeseburn in Northumberland, where the first of several resulting exhibitions was installed. Wildlife sound recordist Sample brought a further array of skills to the collaboration, and Alex Charrington helped with the production of a series of intriguing prints (see figures 2 & 3). Re-shown, re-combined and augmented on various occasions subsequently, this multi-dimensional enquiry into the phenomenon of the dawn chorus could continue developing indefinitely, since every answer offered poses a new question. No linear path to an authored objective was

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defined for it. Instead, as with the birds responding to each other and as with the root-tangles negotiating under the woodland floor, a network of inventive connections has flourished of its own accord. Like the chorus itself, what has been produced is not even a set of components or layers, but a whole organically relational system. The work is significant not only aesthetically but also ethically and ecologically; the latter bearing directly on the role that certain kinds of arts practices can have in developing societal responses to global environmental crisis. Each of these significances deserves some comment. First, the aesthetics. No actual birdsong is heard in the exhibition itself. Instead the visitor is treated to a kind of synaesthetic journey into other ways of reflecting on the codes, patterns, sensations and functions involved in one particular Northumbrian dawn’s chorus. Geometric screenprints, digital prints, colour schemes, onomatopoeic texts, adaptations of sonograms and ancient musical notations range in well-placed groups around the walls. These various presentation media almost dissolve in a sensory fusion, undistracted by curatorial explanation (although an account of the elegant complexity of the work has been produced as an accompanying text). Binding it all together is a soundtrack based on the same underlying patterns and composed for seven interacting pianos. Each of the multiple artistic and technical disciplines in the collaboration is necessary to the co-created result, but each maintains its own identity, nonetheless—just like the individual bird songs in the chorus. The spatial organization of the experience is curated with care too. The positioning of sound sources, and the intuitive thought as to how many of the visuals can be taken in ‘at one glance’, consciously avoids the imposition of any one ‘correct’ point of entry or direction of travel in the

art gallery. Which of course is how things are in the woodland habitat. This helpfully reconciles two potentially conflicting ideas: the ‘place’ is particular; but the ways in which it manifests itself are not. Then there is the time dimension, or, more correctly perhaps, several time dimensions. Hogg’s music necessarily moves along a durational axis; but the time dimension is present too in a sequence of print colours informed by the advance of sunlight as dawn breaks, and in a sequence of bird names that follows the typical order in which the different British species join each morning’s chorus of songs. Overlaid on this is the possibility of imagining the progression from day to day, with the woodland being a palimpsest upon which its ornithological story is repeatedly re-written, while still retaining some bird-memory of (let us imagine) the territorial lines that were defined at the start of the previous day. Transcriptions of birdsong date back to antiquity, imitations of it feature in every culture’s music, and contemporary artists like Marcus Coates, Hanna Tuulikki and Chris Watson have experimented with more transformed adaptations of the natural sounds. The many-staged deconstructions and re-workings in A Dawn Chorus, however, studiously avoid implying that the orchestration and meaning of birdsong can simply be ‘translated’ into some existing human lexicon. What emerges is not a literal translation of the dawn chorus, but an internally coherent evocation of its system complexity and its emotional impact. The ingenuity of this (and no doubt a major part of the effort required in realizing the project) is that far from being a matter of impressionistic abstraction, every ingredient in the artwork can authentically trace back to its wild source. Herein lies the core of the ‘deep noticing’ approach, both for the artist and for the attentive viewer and listener. A simple recording of the chorus


would have given information about it, and would be a memory of it. A painstaking dissection and re-imagining of it, however, breathing all its molecules and journeying in and around it, allows the very different result of understanding. This understanding does not equate to ‘knowledge’. In relation to what birds hear and interpret in each other’s songs, what we gain from this approach is perhaps a greater understanding of (and respect for) just how much we cannot know. What better sensibility with which to be motivated to rise earlier in the morning than usual, to go out and experience the real thing! Turning to the ethical dimension, there is firstly, of course, a deliberately non-interventionist, non-exploitative and low-impact character to the process by which this work engages with the natural environment. (Environmental art in general has become much more sophisticated in this respect since the days of the sometimes hubristic monumentalism practised by a certain cadre of ‘land artists’ from the 1960s onwards. Collier’s parallel interest in arts practices based on walking, in his role as co-founder of the ‘Walking, Art, Landskip and Knowledge’ research centre at the University of Sunderland, reflects the same evolution of sensitivity). The main ethical significance of A Dawn Chorus, however, is in the challenge gently set down by the work; to consider how art may celebrate and engage with the science-stretching and spirit-stretching world of birds, without converting its language into our own by some colonizing act of anthropic appropriation. The connection with music, for example, cannot simply be to imagine that we see music (as we have defined it) reflected in the songs of birds, and then to present that perception in a work of art. To do so would, to some degree, be to project our own codes and conventions on to the natural world, an act as ethically questionable

in this context as it might be to project similarly onto other cultures in human society. This art project, in effect, does the reverse; by accepting a different idea of ‘musical’ experiencing; acknowledging the full otherness (without unwarranted claims to knowability) of what science increasingly refers to as the ‘culture’ of nonhuman species, and by producing homage, not imitation. In this, it may be one of the most sensitive and respectful treatments of the subject yet. Humans have always been curious about what distinguishes us from other animals, prodding the boundary with stories of selkies, shamans, Fionn mac Cumhaill or Dr Dolittle, and philosophically through the theories of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, David Abram, Donna Haraway and others. Pioneers in exploring this theme through art have included Marcus Coates (of whom more in a moment), the arts and environmental justice organization ONCA, and Rosemarie McGoldrick’s series of ‘Animal Gaze’ projects. The best of these prompt us to challenge the orthodoxy that dates back to Aristotle’s ‘Scala Naturae’, which places humans at the top of the ‘ladder of nature’, and remind us of the question posed by Frans de Waal: ‘Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?’ The ability to enter the world of the ‘other’ with sensitivity and an open mind, whether that other is a nonhuman life form with which we share the planet, or a different group within our own society, is clearly important for cultivating empathy and for mutually constructive, compassionate co-existence. There is a fine line to tread, however, between the evident correctness of this on the one hand, and on the other hand the dangers of anthropomorphizing, aestheticizing or objectifying the other. Recognition of the ‘intrinsic value of nature’, for example, is often touted as the counter

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to such objectification, but, however much we might wish to, we cannot escape the fact that it is only we humans who are in a position to frame the values in such a way. Any sense of moral correctness that accrues from doing so is itself inescapably a purely anthropocentric benefit. Imagining that we can detach from this, even with the best of intentions, may be just another version of the same kind of instrumentalizing hubris. The only answer to this, it seems, is to approach with the frankest honesty, a transparency of process, and humility about the vastness of all that we cannot know. A quest for genuinely even-handed (as opposed to coercive or appropriative) ‘co-creation’ in arts practices (eg between the weather, the geology, an artist and an animal) can also honour the same sensibility. The work of artist Marcus Coates (mentioned above, and explored in its own right elsewhere in this volume) frequently criss-crosses the threshold between humankind and other life-forms, questioning notions of interspecies empathy, knowability and relatedness. He is absorbed by the idea of ‘becoming animal’. Paradoxically, for all its frequent overtones of unusual shamanic mysticism, his work is a good example of the ‘transparency’ ethic in operation. As a recent instance, the 2019 installation Conference for the Birds at Cherryburn, Northumberland (which also featured a contribution by Geoff Sample) voiced aspects of the world of certain birds through research-based re-imaginings in the human register (see figure 1). This venture honoured the ethics of ‘philosophical animism’ as espoused by the late Val Plumwood and, rather as with A Dawn Chorus, it succeeded in being an exercise in ‘becoming’, rather than imitation. Audience feedback indicated that, for many, the installation helped to

stimulate empathy with the nonhuman world and to suggest insights into other ways of being. That, however, is only part of the story. As suggested above, any projection of human framings on to the natural world risks exacerbating an anthropocentric hubris. The real import of this work lies in the opposite sense, of how an animal’s experience can make us reexamine our own. The discussions in the avian ‘conference’ were not so much a human enactment of bird concerns, as a set of reflections back to ourselves, which perhaps we can assimilate more readily when they emerge from these ‘othered’ voices. From such nonhuman encounters, something wise, useful and perhaps even healing can be brought back to the human realm. Doing that is indeed the function of the shaman; but the power of this work lay in its honesty about human-animal difference, and the transparency of the process by which the artist explored it. The respectfulness, light footprint and ‘system-level’ considerations mentioned above are part of the ethics and aesthetics of A Dawn Chorus, but they contribute to its significance in an ecological sense too. In recent decades, the field of ‘ecological art’ has become a genre and a form of practice that has spawned a range of organizations, publications, exhibitions, research programmes, pedagogies and practitioner networks around the world. Distinct from decorative ‘nature art’ and from the science collaborations and landscape media of much ‘environmental art’, ecological art has an actively pro-ecosystem agenda. It often takes the form of community engagement projects or direct environmental remediation initiatives, featuring cultural and philosophical challenge and sometimes all-out macro-political activism. In our current era of climate and ecological emergency, the role all this plays (in shifting perceptions, providing a language for new shared concerns, mediating


Figure 2. Mike Collier, Dawn Chorus Progression 2 with Turdines and Sibilants: 4.20am: now the Chaffinch adds to the growing chorus, print # 8 of 12 narrative prints, 2018, digital print on 310 gsm Marrutt fine art paper, 50 x 50 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions and Geoff Sample

Figure 3. Mike Collier, The Evening Chorus, 2017, silkscreen on 410 gsm Somerset paper, a set of ten monoprints, 101 x 100 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions, Bennett Hogg and Geoff Sample, assisted by Rachael Clewlow

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Figure 4. Mike Collier, The Song of the Wren, 2017, digital print, 100 x 100 cm, produced in collaboration with EYELEVEL Creative


policy conflicts and leading transformative change, for example) should not be underestimated. Ecology by definition (the word derives from the Greek for ‘home’) involves an element of locational context. Whether scientific or artistic, any enquiry of an ‘ecological’ nature is likely to be place-specific. It is no accident that Collier, Hogg and Sample’s project is entitled A Dawn Chorus, since rather than aiming to address ‘the’ dawn chorus in a generic way its foundation was one particular chorus on one particular dawn in a named place. Its results consequently invite an intensity of focus by the viewer/listener onto one dawn’s unfolding, as imagined in the singular place. In the woodland at dawn, the birds, the trees, the soundscape, the sunlight and the human noticers are all in very particular spatial and temporal relationships to each other, and the four-dimensionality (and functional rationale) of this is carried into the project’s various subsequent studio re-workings. The whole process could be imagined as a kind of dance performance, or an ‘embodied’ interaction, which is about being ‘in’ rather than being ‘about’ the dawn chorus. The process thus avoids hegemonies of knowledge, by being an experientially-driven or phenomenological form of investigation, and this may allow a truer approach to the ‘system’ represented by a bird community in its habitat. Latent, liminal, richer intangible ways of responding to the world are encouraged to surface. The artists intend that this ‘sensitizing’ effect should remind us (or make us properly aware for the first time, as the case may be) of the importance of engaging with the natural world as one participating species within it, rather than being artificially apart from it.

The particularity of this instance is perhaps more conducive to stimulating the imagination than a wide-ranging overview would be. In the imagination, getting a real grip on one thing can be the manageable point of entry that then gives access to rest of the universe. Perhaps our consciousness about the ecological ‘big picture’ may advance better through intelligent use of ‘sampling’ in this way than by trying to suck into our brains as much information as possible. Today’s school curricula seem to have engineered out many of the former creative methods of cultivating a child’s faculties of evocation and imagination, especially in outdoor settings. This must be a concern for future management of the planet, since these faculties are among society’s key skill-sets for coming up with properly adaptive responses to the dominant challenges of the Anthropocene era. Ecological artists may now be the ones to show a better way. An ecosystem is a matrix of functional relationships between materials, sites, energies and organisms, and also between sounds. Bird vocalizations are a calibrated investment of time and energy on the part of the birds, made worthwhile by communicative functions of territory-defence, mateattraction and so on. The dawn chorus therefore, far from being just a collection of individual outpourings, is an interspecies social phenomenon. Research has also shown that in many species of birds, their songs are developed by a process of social learning. There is a remarkable interweaving of common identity (each species having its own distinctive patterns and register of delivery) with individual difference; but more remarkable still is the now well-studied existence of ‘dialect’ variations between birds of the same species in different locations. A Cheeseburn yellowhammer might be recognized as Northumbrian by voice alone.

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The transfer of learning between birds that produces these nuances is one example of a growing understanding about the existence of ‘culture’ in nonhuman animals. This has implications for conservation, in recognizing the ways in which such non-human culture maps across the landscape, in considering what constitutes a socially viable unit of population, and in facilitating reintroduction programmes, for example where released birds must learn a migration route or where conspecific vocal cues1 are broadcast to encourage settlement in unoccupied areas. There are implications too from understanding how these cultural learning channels (in the case of birdsong) can be unintentionally degraded, not only by habitat fragmentation but also by noise pollution. These are some elements of the kind of sensibility about our place in the world, and our impact on it, that can be awakened by an intimate contemplation of just one supposedly familiar feature. In a context of rampant urbanization of human populations worldwide, it has been suggested that the ability to hear the dawn chorus could be used as one official indicator of the quality of life. Unfortunately, the trends in this would not look good. As well as the social disintegration factors mentioned above, disappearance of habitat, dramatic declines in some songbird populations (and, as we now know from the latest global assessments, dramatic declines of the insect populations on which many of them depend) are hollowing out the planet’s life support systems. But without everyone regularly and personally somehow having contact with the natural world (within our streets and buildings, as well as in the woods), the noticing of fatal change will be left to a few specialists, until it is too late. Without perceiving the interconnectedness of all parts of the system, chain-reactions of indirect consequences (of climate change,

for example, not to mention zoonoses and pandemics), ‘threshold effects’ and tipping points will be poorly understood, even as they come catastrophically upon us.2 Art and artists clearly have a role in communicating, interpreting and educating in this area. But that is not really the point here. It would in fact be a grave mistake to consider ecological art as merely a tool with which to communicate about other issues. The focus instead needs to be on what the art represents in its own right, as part of a repertoire of human capabilities: as an addition to the mix of values and responses involved, and as a broader value basis for everything. This does not reduce it to something utilitarian, but casts it more fundamentally as a component of more ‘artful’ approaches overall; in value systems, in shifting paradigms of what the more-than-human world means and how it is managed, and in fostering a broader kind of creativity that will produce fresh ways of thinking, acting and being in the world. Public policy on environmental management in recent decades has become somewhat zealous about evidence-based decision-making, quantifiable outcomes and models of cause and effect that are explicable in linear ways. The science of ecology, often sadly on the defensive in adversarial planning arenas, has increasingly turned to the language of economics in order to express itself with supposedly greater weight and credibility, sometimes thereby weakening the benefit of its original holistic perspective. There is a body of thinking, nonetheless, that critiques the prevailing ‘managerial’ approach to policymaking, and the biases that emerge from a supposedly objective evidence base. In fact, in real life, a range of intangible, non-measurable, non-linear, unpredictable and process-centred factors


play a part in public decision-making, but our technocratic policy systems are nervous about acknowledging this, and in public life the language for talking about it is generally underdeveloped. When we humans arrive at the limits of our perception, we may give the unknown areas beyond this a name like ‘randomness’, which is really no more than to pretend that knowledge has colonized the territory of ignorance. In truth, there might be an organized pattern at a scale beyond that which we can see, or for which we have no information to verify. In such situations (including, perhaps, aspects of birdsong) it might be more respectful of reality to use a term like ‘mystery’ when that is what we are encountering; to recognize that what we know is a minority of what there is; to recognize our capability to damage what we do not know; and thus to walk a more precautionary path. ‘Knowledge management’ is a valuable skill, but sometimes ‘ignorance management’ may be just as important. Understanding the cultural dimension is fundamental. Many of our supposedly objectively-verifiable ecological values are in fact largely cultural constructs, and matters of societal choice, including (for example) some commonly accepted notions of ‘naturalness’, ‘native species’, ‘healthy systems’, ‘diversity’, ‘stability’ and the like. An aesthetic response to the environment can be an accurate way of revealing generalized truths of form and function, or of universal interconnectedness. Instead of knowledge, based on collected facts or reasoning, this is understanding, based more on intuition. Our sense of how things in nature come to be arranged the way they are, the constraints that operate, and the way the dynamics of an organism interact with the forces of its environment, gives us an understanding about how elements such as wind, growth and fluids behave. Even with the most abstract

or asymmetric forms and patterns, we can have a strong sense of what seems ‘right’ or ‘not quite right’. This is directly relevant to strategies for environmental sustainability: it implies an ability to understand whether we are working with the grain of the realities of nature or not; and whether we are in tune with the limits to its tolerance of change or not. Sometimes this might be cultivated more effectively with aesthetics than it is with science. While it provided this author’s original grounding in the subject of birds and the natural world, science (one quickly discovers) cannot help with decisions about what meaning to give to any experience in the environment, or how to be reconciled to truths of nature that may be spiritually challenging, such as its perceived randomness, waste, paradox and death. For many people it will be art that is more helpful with these more metaphysical dimensions. In an individual life, as with the future of the planet, sometimes the deepest truths are expressible only by poetry or metaphor. The limiting factors in achieving global environmental sustainability are, despite some accounts, not limitations of science. Instead they arise from difficulties in integrating different value-sets, timescales and forms of wisdom. They concern mis-matched world-views and expectations, insufficient transparency about tradeoffs, and failures of governance. And it seems that decision-makers persist in trying to solve these governance failures with precisely the same machinery that caused them in the first place. The policy challenge, then, is to see how these various issues might be ‘re-framed’ in a different way. ‘Re-framing’, however, is not necessarily something that can just be ‘arranged’. History shows that it may as often be

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a by-product, or something that happens in least-expected, little moments, ‘off-camera’. Overt and visible projects for promoting alternative thinking are very necessary, but fostering the enabling conditions for re-framing may be every bit as important a part of the real work. This is perhaps another way of gauging the subtler impacts of the Dawn Chorus project. The artwork here is therefore shown to reside not just in its visual and auditory manifestations, but also in a process of ecological art practice that embodies a decided way of thinking and being in the world. It is an example of that more ‘artful’ approach that asks questions differently, connects people in a different way with the world they inhabit, and fans the sparks of the greater creativity that we need as a society to face the mounting challenges of our age.

Footnotes 1. That is, vocal cues given by birds to others of the same species. 2. Zoonoses are infectious diseases that have jumped from nonhuman animals to humans, as appears to have happened in the case of Covid 19.

Figure 5, opposite: Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn (1), digital print, 75 x 75 cm, produced in collaboration with EYELEVEL Creative. The circular text in this piece lists some of the colloquial names for the sixteen birds in Mike Collier’s Cheeseburn Dawn Chorus: CHANCIDER—Spotted Flycatcher, TINNOCK—Blue Tit, WOOFELL—Blackbird, CRUSHET—Wood Pigeon, RUDDOCK— Robin, REDSTARE—Redstart, THUMMIE—Chiffchaff, SCOPPIE—Chaffinch, HECKYMAL—Great Tit, MIZZLY DICK—Mistle Thrush, CUTTY—Wren, WOOD CRACKER—Nuthatch, SMOKEY— Dunnock, PEASWEEP—Greenfinch, KINGLET—Goldcrest, THROSTLE—Song Thrush




ongbirds are a set of digitally fabricated visualizations which transform individual birdsong into physical shapes. Using a combination of creative coding methods and digital fabrication techniques, the work attempts to capture and re-present the sounds of birds; translating the fleeting experience of each song into a solid, tangible form. In this way, each piece represents a frozen trace of time, the solidification of an instant—a memento of a moment. Digitally recorded sounds of birdsong were used as the starting point for each piece, and bespoke code was written as a framework for translating sounds into visual forms. Although each recording generates an accurate, ‘authentic’, digital rendering of the sound and an audio waveform, it does not, however, capture or communicate anything of the wider poetic ‘authenticity’ of the song as experienced by the listener. Transformative computational processes offered creative opportunities to sculpt digital sounds into forms that may express some aspects of these wider ‘poetic’ qualities, providing a canvas for new visualizations that connect the ‘accuracy’ of the digital sound to the broader experiential elements engendered in each song. Transforming ‘sound’ (digital) into ‘song’ (poetic), and using computational methods to develop visual congruence between the experienced song and its physical representation became the work’s key imperative. The musical qualities heard in each birdsong—notes of strength, delicacy, lightness and depth—contrasted enormously with the visual severity of the digital audio waveforms—which rendered changes in pitch and volume as harsh, jagged spikes. Manipulating code, however, and adjusting the detail of the algorithms allowed the creation of new shapes and forms that had greater visual synergy with each song. The sharp

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spikes of pitch and volume were softened, and more pleasing individual song patterns began to emerge, revealing shapes in the shrill notes of the great tit and the staccato rhythms of the chaffinch. The linear timestamp of each sound file was also re-imagined, as a series of concentric circles, organically radiating from the centre, so that the lifespan of each song creates a series of rings, moments in time that can be read like the rings of a fallen tree. Distances between the rings were generated by the intensity of sound during each moment, so just as the size of tree rings signify periods of growth, the gaps between each ring in the birdsong shape became indicators of loud and quiet passages in the song. By laser cutting the sound patterns into sections of birchwood, the birdsong visualizations underwent their final transformation: from digital shape to physical, tangible object. The material qualities of the fine lines etched into the wood transformed the flat digital shape and reinforced the rich environmental connections between the visualization of the sound and the original experienced birdsong. The sounds etched frozen traces in wood, expressing a synergy between material, shape and sound and completing the transition from digital sound into visual song.

Figure 1, opposite: Andrew Richardson, Chiffchaff (detail), 2017, birchwood, approx 26 x 26 cm, photo: the artist


Figure 2. Andrew Richardson, Blackbird, 2017, birchwood, approx 26 x 26 cm, photo: the artist

Figure 3. Andrew Richardson, Blue tit, 2017, birchwood, approx 26 x 26 cm, photo: the artist

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Figure 4. Andrew Richardson, Great tit, 2017, birchwood, approx 26 x 26 cm, photo: the artist

Figure 5. Andrew Richardson, Chaffinch, 2017, birchwood, approx 26 x 26 cm, photo: the artist


Uttering John Clare’s Nonhuman Onomatopoeia


n what ways are Romantic poems a useful technology for thinking about human and nonhuman beings and their utterances? I want to start to ask this question by focusing on some examples from John Clare’s attempts to voice animals and to animalize the human voice in the early nineteenth century. That duality is very important because, as I will argue, when poets try to make animal utterances, they do not only appropriate animal voices. Instead, with an inevitable reciprocity, the voices of poets are also possessed by what they are trying to utter. In an 1820 poem, ‘Rural Morning’, Clare describes the sounds of a dawn scene. The ‘unfetter’d sun’ ‘wakes all life to noise & toil again’ and ‘Industrys bustling din once more devours / The soothing peace of mornings early hours’. Among the varied sounds, there is a dazzling series of animal utterances: The grunt of hogs freed from their nightly dens & constant cacklings of new laying hens & ducks & geese that clamorous joys repeat The splashing comforts of the pond to meet & chirping sparrows dropping from the eaves For offal curnels that the poultry leaves Oft signal calls of danger chittering high At skulking cats & dogs approaching nigh & lowing steers that hollow echoes wake Around the yard their nightly fast to break As from each barn the lumping flail rebounds In mingling consert with the rural sounds While oer the distant fields more fainter creep The murmuring bleetings of unfolding sheep

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& ploughmens callings that more hoarse proceed Where tuff industry urges labours speed & bellowing cows that wait with udders full The welcome haloo of the maids ‘cum mull’ & rumbling waggons deafen now again Rousing the dust along the narrow lane & cracking whips and shepherds hooting crys From wood land echoes urgeing sharp replys (Clare 1989, II: 614–615, lines 51–52, 55–56, 57–78)1 The morning noise evokes a pastoral scene here that fits with Clare’s status as a preeminent poet of place (see, for example, Gorji 2008). But I want to argue that Clare’s onomatopoeia in this passage—his attempt to utter nonhuman voices—does more than simply create a sense of rural locality. It also opens up a challenging literary and philosophical space, where uttering the voice of the animal in poetry does serious thinking about the relationship between the human and the nonhuman, as well as the role that poetry might play in encounters between the two. I will explore this space firstly by closely reading the passage from ‘Rural Morning’, before then moving on to discuss one of the most remarkable examples of onomatopoeia in Clare’s poetry, his attempt to represent nightingale song in both manuscript drafting and a later poem. To begin, then, I want to look more closely at the passage from ‘Rural Morning’. Clare’s onomatopoeia in this poem induces readers to voice animal sounds: it is full of ‘grunt[ing]’, ‘cacklings’, ‘chirping’, ‘chittering’, ‘lowing’, ‘bleetings’, ‘bellowing’. The human utterances in the passage also take on an onomatopoeic quality: the shepherds’ ‘hooting crys’, the Figure 1. William Hilton, John Clare, 1820, oil on canvas, 762 x 635 mm, primary collection of the National Portrait Gallery, © National Portrait Gallery, London


ploughmens’ ‘callings’ and the milkmaids’ ‘haloo’. Such human and animal vocalizations are further accompanied by the onomatopoeic representation of inanimate things: there are ‘rumbling waggons’, ‘cracking whips’ and a ‘lumping flail’. Even abstract concepts begin to take on a striking sonic quality. The ‘ducks and geese’ repeat ‘clamorous joys’ inspired by ‘the splashing comforts of the pond’, where ‘splashing comforts’ make the ‘splashing’ an unconventional property of the ‘comforts’ as well as of the waterfowl and the water. Similarly, the lines ‘oer the distant fields more fainter creep / The murmuring bleetings of unfolding sheep’ transpose a spatial effect—the doubly onomatopoeic ‘murmuring’ and ‘bleeting’ sound creeping over the fields—into the sheep who themselves ‘unfold’. In Clare’s verse, onomatopoeia becomes a means to voice human animals, nonhuman animals, inanimate matter and even affective states. Different ontological categories are, in other words, entangled through sound, destabilizing the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, the animate and the inanimate, the natural and the artificial. In this poetic hubbub, taxonomies of language, as well as taxonomies of life, are also rendered more than usually unstable. The sheer wealth of sounds—and specifically of onomatopoeia—infects even words that might not normally be considered onomatopoeic. For example, the word ‘rousing’ (‘Rousing the dust along the narrow lane’ in line 76) is sandwiched between the repeated onomatopoeia and ‘-ing’ endings of ‘rumbling’ and ‘cracking’ and, therefore, draws unusual attention to its ‘-ou’ sound. The hard ‘k’-sounds in ‘skulking’ lend a predatory sonic edge to the cats and dogs stealthily stalking their prey. The rhyming couplets and the repeated ampersands at the beginning of many of the lines also participate in the ‘din’. Human labourers, wild and domesticated animals, inanimate objects

(natural and man-made), and the poem’s language—everything on this ‘Rural Morning’ is in what Clare describes as ‘mingling consert’ (line 68). Nevertheless, the effect is not quite as harmonious as that phrase suggests. Instead, the sheer quantity of sound is closer to a cacophony. A passive background is not created from this pastoral soundscape. Rather, sound is active—even uncannily independent of its sources—in ‘Rural Morning’. As the poem continues, the agency of sound becomes even clearer. The main listener in this poem, Hodge the horse boy, is depicted listening to, conversing with and even challenging the echo of his own voice as it resounds around him. Hodge in his waggon marks the wonderous tongue & talks with echoe as he drives along Still cracks his whip bawls every horses name & echo still as ready bawls the same The puzzling mysterey he would vainly cheat & fein would utter what it cant repeat Till speedless trials proves the doubted elf As skilld in noise and sounds as hodge himself & quite convincd with the proofs it gives The boy drives on and fancys eccho lives As some wood fiend that fright benighted men The troubling spirit of a robbers den (Clare 1989, II: 615, lines 79–90) The echo, in this passage, is made strange to the speaker. It is alienated from its source, which means that Hodge attributes it to supernatural causes: a ‘doubted elf ’, a ‘wood fiend’ and a ‘troubling spirit’. In the process,

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both the act of voicing and the act of listening are highlighted. Hodge produces a sound that becomes strangely disembodied. He then overhears that sound and mistakes it for something else. In other words, he struggles to retranslate his own utterance so that he can understand it. Once it has been uttered and has joined the ‘grunt of hogs’ and ‘constant cacklings of new laying hens’, his voice takes on a life of its own. It becomes curiously independent of its human utterer. It is no coincidence, therefore, that this passage on echo immediately follows all the animal onomatopoeia in ‘Rural Morning’ which I have already discussed. Onomatopoeia is itself a form of echo. It is a translation of nonhuman sound into human language. But, like echo, it also troubles the very status of that language as human. In listening to the echo of his voice in ‘Rural Morning’, Hodge dramatizes the separation between utterer and what is uttered. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, ‘to utter’ is ‘to send forth as a sound; to give out in an audible voice’. ‘To utter’ is to let one’s voice loose, to lose control of it. Furthermore, as a particular form of utterance, onomatopoeia is exemplary in highlighting this centrifugal effect. It requires multiple acts of translation, as sound is translated into language and then retranslated into sound, whether it is performed aloud or voiced through silent reading in one’s head. Such translations require those who voice onomatopoeia to take it through numerous stages of utterance, challenging their ownership of the sound. In her celebrated work on lyric possession, Susan Stewart has drawn attention to how poets might be possessed by poetry as much as they possess it (Stewart 1995: 34–63). In onomatopoeia’s possession of another’s voice, there is a similar hesitation. Are speakers of onomatopoeia taking on the voice of the other? Or are they being taken over by something

else altogether? In any reading of the animal utterances in ‘Rural Morning’, onomatopoeia not only leads to the entangling of human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, in the natural world. It also leads to a sense of strangeness or uncanniness or otherness in the reader’s voice. As a result, onomatopoeia should be seen not only as an act of human appropriation of nonhuman sound. Onomatopoeia also marks a moment of insufficiency in human utterance. As onomatopoeia is performed, there is a simultaneous displacement of many of the things that we associate with the human voice. Like all lyric language, it makes the supposedly human voice an anthropomorphic construct of a language that is revealed to be disquietingly nonhuman. In line with other recent critical work, we should therefore see Clare’s poetry as capable of more daring sonic experimentation than has previously been allowed (Weiner 2014; Kövesi 2017). We should also see this experimentation as opening up a space that allows for profound—even philosophical—thinking about what happens when humans attempt to utter animal voices in poetry. Although onomatopoeia is a comparatively neglected trope for literary theory, it plays a significant role both in Clare’s poetics and more generally in encounters between humans and nonhumans, which suggests its richness as a domain for future thinking about animal utterance. The most extreme and arguably the most celebrated example of onomatopoeia in Clare’s oeuvre is his representation of nightingale song in manuscript drafting, and a related deployment of nightingale song in a later poem, ‘The Progress of Ryhme’. These are not entirely overlooked corners of Clare’s writing but, in what follows, I want to push a little further than previous commentators on the consequences of Clare’s


experimentation in these examples. In doing so, I want to focus once more on how onomatopoeia is not just a way of listening to the natural world or a way of voicing it, but how onomatopoeia also involves losing a singular or stable sense of one’s own utterance. I want to suggest that Clare’s onomatopoeia not only mimics the sound of animals, but also reveals a significant extra- or nonhuman dimension at the heart of poetic approaches to the natural world. In one of five entries in Peterborough MS A58, Clare writes the following: Chew chew chee chew chee chew—cheer cheer cheer chew chew chew chee —up cheer up cheer up tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug wew wew wew—chur chur woo it woo it tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug tee rew tee rew tee rew—gur gur—chew rit chew rit—chur-chur chur tweet em jug jug jug jug grig grig grig chew chew wevy wit wevy wit wevy wit—chee-chit chee-chit chee chit weewit weewit wee

wit cheer cheer cheer—pelew pelew pelew— bring a jug bring a jug bring a jug (Clare 1983: 312) Many of the components of this drafting have a purely sonic, nonsignifying effect: for example, innovative creations like ‘tee rew’, ‘gur’, ‘pelew’, ‘chur-chur’, ‘weewit’ and ‘wevy wit’. These might be seen as what Derek Attridge has termed ‘nonlexical onomatopoeia’ or ‘the use of the phonetic characteristics of the language to imitate a sound without any attempt to produce recognizable verbal structures, even those of traditional “onomatopoeic” words’, like ‘bang’ or ‘tweet’ (Attridge 1984: 1120). But Clare is various in his approach to onomatopoeia in this drafting. He also uses standard English morphology in his attempt to ‘syllable the sounds’ of the nightingale. The opening five lines are surprising for their use of no fewer than five recognizable words: ‘chew’, ‘cheer’, ‘up’, ‘twitter’, ‘jug’. Although it is not part of anything like a conventional sentence, it is uncertain, however, that this lexical onomatopoeia is being used non-semantically. Even ‘chew’, which seems the most dubiously semantic, has an association with the mouth that might relate to the voicing that is so important to verse in general and to this onomatopoeic drafting in particular. ‘Cheer up’, ‘twitter’ and ‘jug’ all have more evident—if not necessarily straightforward—meanings that work in conjunction with their sound and/or broader literary tradition. ‘Twitter’ is, of course, probably the most conventional of standard

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onomatopoeic words in English for representing bird song. Furthermore, thanks to Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem’, ‘jug’ is a classic Romantic trope for representing nightingale song (Coleridge 2001, vol I: 516–20). The ‘bring a jug’ at the end of the composition might almost be said to satirize this onomatopoeic tradition by placing a meaningful—if contextually nonsensical—extended phrase into the passage. ‘Cheer up’ is also situatable in a broader Romantic tradition of anthropomorphizing nightingale song. Coleridge famously denied that nightingale song was ‘melancholy’ and George Dyer, Leigh Hunt and, more recently, James McKusick have also discussed the nightingale’s role in the poetics of the period (McKusick 2007: 34–40). Clare may well be playing with this tradition in his decision to avoid the spelling ‘chirrup’ (which, as the OED records, was available from the eighteenth century onwards) and to separate ‘cheer’ and ‘up’ into two words, a decision which entangles sound and sense in an exemplary way. The development of ‘chirrup’ as a word is enlightening in this regard. The OED notes that the trilling of the ‘r’ sound in an earlier word ‘chirp’ led to the addition of a syllable and a phonetic correspondence with ‘cheer up’ that has ‘acted powerfully upon its sense-development, so that chirrup now conveys a more sprightly or cheery notion’. Onomatopoeia is not only slavish in its mimesis of natural sound. It also alters language and retranslates itself over time through associations with other words and sounds. The etymology of the word ‘onomatopoeia’ captures this role in the transformation of language over time. As the OED has it, onomatopoeia ‘is the formation of a word from a sound associated with the thing or action being named’. In this sense, it is mimetic. But its etymological origins in Greek combine onomato- (pertaining to names and naming) Figure 2. Common nightingale, photo: Kev Chapman, Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0


with -poeia (making). It is, in other words, the making of a language which displaces the very referent that it is trying to imitate. This etymological curiosity is one reason why onomatopoeic imitation was so central to enlightenment theories of primitive linguistic development, for example in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Giambattista Vico (Herder and Rousseau 1986; Vico 1948). Onomatopoeia allows for the idea of a noble savage or a protohuman giant to produce utterances that respond to external forces and that eventually develop into more complex languages. In those modes of thinking, onomatopoeia reveals the early history of language, a past connection to the sounds of noble savages and other animals. However, I have been arguing that, when reading Clare’s poetic onomatopoeia, the nonhuman is even closer to hand. A nonhuman prehistory is not just recorded by language, but language is revealed to be something curiously nonhuman itself. In the case of ‘chirrup’, onomatopoeia has literally altered language, as an echo makes Hodge’s own voice strange to himself in ‘Rural Morning’ or as the variety and daring of Clare’s onomatopoeia in the nightingale drafting creates a literary space that is ultimately both alien to the nightingale’s song and strangely alienating to human attempts to voice it. Eric Robinson and Richard Fitter have described Clare’s nightingale onomatopoeia as having ‘a passion for exactitude’ (Robinson and Fitter 1982: xiii). David Rothenberg suggests that it is ‘the most accurate transcription of a singing bird from the whole of the nineteenth century’ (Rothenberg 2005: 14). Matthew Rowney argues that it ‘represents an attempt to be as empirically accurate as possible, to capture as nearly as language and context would allow, the actual sound’ (Rowney 2016: 30). Such comments reflect a more general critical consensus that Clare’s

poetry is characterized by remarkable zoological truthfulness. Margaret Grainger, for example, notes his naturalist’s eye (Grainger 1983: 78) and Onno Oerlemans describes how, among the Romantic poets, Clare’s poetry ‘displays the most consistent interest in translating the careful observation of individual animals in their habitats into the substance of poetry’ (Oerlemans 2002: 71). I do not want to challenge this critical view of the relative accuracy of Clare’s transcription, which is certainly correct. But I do think that we potentially limit Clare’s artistic range—indeed his capacity for extraordinarily innovative verse practice—if we only point out the faithfulness of his representations to the world around him, as if that were his only aesthetic or zoological or philosophical interest. This seems especially true to me in the case of Clare’s nightingale onomatopoeia, because a sense of accuracy or exactitude is not my only impression when reading MS A58. Instead, it is clear that Clare is undertaking an act of translation that he knows from the outset will fail. Clare himself wrote how he ‘attempted to take down’ the nightingale’s ‘notes’ but they are so varied that every time [del. s] she starts again after the pauses seems to be somthing different to what she uttered before & many of her notes are sounds that cannot be written the alphabet having no letters that can syllable the sounds. (Clare 1983: 311–312) The subtle equivalence and nonequivalence between ‘notes’, ‘sounds’, ‘letters’ and ‘syllables’ here is important in its combination of noisy phonology and silent graphology. Clare is well aware that the spaces of his onomatopoeia are plural and take place in the physical environment,

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on the silent black and white of the page, and in the articulated space of reading (whether silent or voiced aloud). The use of ‘syllable’ as a transitive verb—which Alan Vardy has called ‘extraordinary’ (Vardy 2003: 20)— was more common in the nineteenth century than it is now, but further implies a distinctness in articulation which distances Clare’s transcription from its avian original. The OED records one definition of ‘syllable’ as to ‘utter or express in (or as in) syllables or articulate speech; to pronounce syllable by syllable; to utter articulately or distinctly; to articulate’. Like this definition, by far the majority of Clare’s transcription (especially in its early stages) is monosyllabic in contrast to the complex trills and polyrhythms of actual nightingale song. This suggests not only a disjunction between nightingale song and poetic music, but also deliberate compositional effort. The poet is trying to ‘pronounce’ the song ‘syllable by syllable’ and to sing himself into the sounds of the nightingale. The fact that the alphabet is too impoverished to do so suggests that Clare knew how much of an approximation his representation was and that—even before he had finished writing it down—his transcription was a failure. Nevertheless, it is clearly a magnificent and striking failure. Stephanie Kuduk Weiner’s book Clare’s Lyric and an earlier article ‘Listening with John Clare’ are wonderfully sensitive to how Clare’s onomatopoeic brilliance ‘transforms the bird’s song into his own lyric’ (Weiner 2009: 371–390; Weiner 2014: 43). She notes Clare’s virtuosity in using words with a recognizable literary history, his mixing of lexical and nonlexical onomatopoeia, his embracing of the resonances of dialect words, and his blending of the nightingale’s song with the rhythms of his own versification. I will not rehearse or repeat Weiner’s beautiful analyses here, but I do want to ask a further question. Do these acts of literary

translation that Weiner so sensitively charts end with Clare’s act of writing? Or do they return with every new utterance of lyric poetry? Does this return give us any further insight into the relationship between lyric utterance and the nonhuman? It is important to acknowledge that any voiced performance of Clare’s nightingale drafting retranslates not only nonhuman sound into a human voice but also Clare’s writing into the speech of the utterer. It is, while guided by learned responses to poetic cues, an imperfect interpretation controlled by the speaker’s knowledge of the English language (and indeed of certain conventions for onomatopoeia within that language), as well as whether they have heard the rhythms of nightingale song before. Such a reading would be very different without this knowledge: it is worth trying to imagine, for example, a non-English speaker reading the manuscript who did not know that it was supposed to be a representation of birdsong. Any modern voicing of Clare’s verse is likely to be very different from Clare’s aspirations for what versified nightingale might sound like. Indeed, whenever I have voiced this passage aloud at conferences and even job talks, I confess that it often turns out very differently from my own aspirations. Reading Clare’s onomatopoeia—like all lyric language—highlights how it is curiously independent of its utterer, altering itself over time through retranslation and association with other sonic and verbal contexts. Clare’s nightingale song teaches us something about the mediations and disruptions of utterance, therefore. Nightingales in Clare’s poetry are frequently read as demonstrating embeddedness in an environment. Hugh Haughton, for example, has described how ‘the nightingale is a figure for poetry’ in Clare’s writing but ‘it is also territorial, a figure for habitation, the architect of its own place’ (Haughton 1994: 64). For


Haughton, nightingales and their nests represent ‘the alliance between song—poetic utterance—and habitation, the almost Heideggerian dream of poetic dwelling in a particular place and the place of the poem’ (p 72). But I would suggest that, far from a comforting ontological homeliness, Clare’s onomatopoeic nightingale drafting has a very different effect. Onomatopoeia is a rhetorical trope of considerable dislocation. From the animal side—as Giorgio Agamben points out in an article on Giovanni Pascoli—onomatopoeic acts of translation kill the nonhuman voice. When the ‘confused animal voice’ becomes ‘engrammatos and comprehended by letters’, he says, it is separated from nature, which is inarticulate and cannot be written’. As a result, ‘in Pascoli’s poetry, as in every human language, there is no—and there could never be—presence of the animal voice. There is, rather, only a trace of the animal voice’s absence, of its “death […]”’ (Agamben 1999: 69). I would like to add to this perspective, however, a sense that onomatopoeia also does the same to the human voice. For the poet or reader, the act of ventriloquism requires one to efface one’s voice, to take on—however imperfectly—the voice of a nonhuman other in what is only the dubiously human medium of language. Derek Attridge states that ‘onomatopoeia can be seen as a paradigm for all language’ since ‘its effectiveness lies in the fact that it necessarily displaces that to which it refers’ (Attridge 1984: 1136). I want to suggest that Clare’s onomatopoeia goes even further. It displaces not just the signified but also a stable sense of what creature exactly is doing the signifying. It makes strange not just the utterance but also the utterer. Is this a nightingale or a human speaking? Is it language itself? Or the phonemes that make it up? As many critics notice, Clare has an unparalleled poetic ability to represent natural sound. But his verse also reveals the strange independence of lyric

language from its utterer. It denaturalizes the utterances of both humans and nonhumans. As far as Clare’s poetry is concerned, this independence of our utterances from ourselves is something that we share with nightingales. This is made beautifully evident in the first-person narrative of ‘The Progress of Ryhme’, a poem about Clare’s own poetic development which incorporates his earlier nightingale drafting. Hearing a nightingale, the speaker of the poem describes how The more I listend & the more Each note seemed sweeter than before & aye so different was the strain She’d scarce repeat the note again —‘Chew-chew chew-chew’ & higher still ‘Cheer-cheer cheer-cheer’ more loud & shrill ‘Cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up’—& dropt Low ‘Tweet tweet jug jug jug’ & stopt One moment just to drink the sound Her music made & then a round Of stranger witching notes was heard As if it was a stranger bird (Clare 1996, III: 492–503, lines 239–250) Like Hodge listening to the echo of his voice and any human reader of Clare’s onomatopoeia, even the nightingale has a fractured voice here. As it sings, the nightingale’s song is also strangely alienated from its utterance so that, after one round of music, another ‘round of stranger witching notes was heard / As if it was a stranger bird’. The nightingale’s

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utterance is also translated into sounds that reverberate around outside of it. The voices of nightingales—like the voices of humans and poems— are possessed by echoes of their own production. The utterance of even this wild animal is wild to itself. Footnote 1. Clare’s unconventional spelling and punctuation may need some explanation for non-specialists in Romantic literature. For a good introduction to the challenges of reading and editing Clare’s texts, see Bate, 2004, pp 563–575. The main text of ‘Rural Morning’ in Clare, 1989, II, pp 614–615 reproduces the final line ‘From wood land echoes surgeing sharp replys’. It is clear, however, that the offered alternative reading ‘urgeing’ is the correct one. Bibliography

James C McKusick, 2007, ‘The Return of the Nightingale’, The Wordsworth Circle 38, pp 34–40 Onno Oerlemans, 2002, Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature, University of Toronto Press, Toronto Eric Robinson and Richard Fitter, ed, 1982, John Clare’s Birds, Oxford University Press, Oxford David Rothenberg, 2005, Why Birds Sing: One Man’s Quest to Solve an Everyday Mystery, Allen Lane, London Matthew Rowney, 2016, ‘Music in the Noise: The Acoustic Ecology of John Clare’, Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies 1, pp 23–40 Susan Stewart, 1995, ‘Lyric Possession’, Critical Inquiry 22, pp 34–63 Giambattista Vico, 1948, The New Science, Cornell University Press, Ithaca Stephanie Kuduk Weiner, 2009, ‘Listening with John Clare’, Studies in Romanticism 48, pp 371–390 Stephanie Kuduk Weiner, 2014, Clare’s Lyric: John Clare and Three Modern Poets, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Giorgio Agamben, 1999, ‘Pascoli and the Thought of the Voice’ in The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, Daniel Heller-Roazen, trans, Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp 62–75 Derek Attridge, 1984, ‘Language as Imitation: Jakobson, Joyce, and the Art of Onomatopoeia’ in Modern Language Notes 99, pp 1116–1140 Jonathan Bate, 2004, John Clare: A Biography, Picador, London John Clare, 1983, The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, Margaret Grainger, ed, Clarendon Press, Oxford John Clare, 1989, The Early Poems of John Clare, 1804–1822, Margaret Grainger, David Powell and Eric Robinson, ed, Clarendon Press, Oxford John Clare, 1996, John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period, 1822–1837, Eric Robinson, David Powell and P M S Dawson, ed, Clarendon Press, Oxford Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 2001, Poetical Works: Poems (Reading Text), J C C Mays, ed, Princeton University Press, Princeton Mina Gorji, 2008, John Clare and the Place of Poetry, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips and Geoffrey Summerfield, ed, 1994, John Clare in Context, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Johann Gottfried Herder and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1986, On the Origin of Language, John H Moran and Alexander Gode, trans, University of Chicago Press, Chicago Simon Kövesi, 2017, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History, Palgrave Macmillan, New York Figure 3. Nightingale singing, photo: Andrey Gulivanov, Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0



airs (robin, blackbird, herring gull, goldfinch, dove, thrush) we are walking on emptiness & light comes from below turning the day tic tic-tictsip tsissip tseee tswee borrowing song & sound travels on the back of light & tic


their voices sung

tsit tongues their voices

tswee a carrying air

a still air

a stilling air

a carried air

bru-dhearg we tongue their song broidileag broinnileag

we word their tongues

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to give their talking back to the birds


bru-dhearg bruin-dearg


deargan nigidh oral


enters the house

tchink tchink tchink


lasair choille




through air

a clear air



expelled air

a stilled air



faoileag mhor

syringeal tracheal


a carrying air



calaman calaman-coille

lรณn-dubh lon

londubh lonan


coo-cooo coo

our ears her note lon lonag lonan

lasair srach

what song is not speech

she is our woods window dubhan eun-dubh

of heart & beat

first heard with the eyes

we have heard she lives in our ears druid-dhubh

kha-ha-ha kha-ha-ha

switt-witt witt-witt

spoken sung &

sometimes a bird



sip sip

cearsach cullionag smaolach smeol a light air

a carrying air

a stilling air

a stilled air

filip filip filip codidio codidio quitquiquit tittit tittit tereret tereret tereret


Strange Love The Captive City Chorus of Victorian London


here was once a special kind of chorusing of birds in London, one that could ring out all day long and all the year round. The birds that sang in this way did so removed from nature, confined in a cage in a human home. For in Victorian London, many kept a wild singing bird indoors and felt better for it, even though some wondered what such confinement might do to their little pet. Few Londoners were up early enough to hear the dawn chorus itself and those who were could find that it did not sound quite right in the atmosphere of the morning metropolis. Ford Madox Ford, in his essay The Soul of London, wrote of an air of mystery at dawn when all sounds seemed thin and ghostly ‘without the immense and kindly ground-bass of London awake’. For him, the sound of the dawn chorus did not seem to make sense in this city: ‘even the immensely loud awakening of the London birds seems small and circumscribed’. If birdsong lost its potency in the streets and terraces, bringing it closer to the ear was a way to restore the magic. The possession of a small bird in the home provided an immediate and intimate encounter with wild song, a song all the more vital in the confines and hubbub of urban conditions. To have a common bird like a chaffinch or a lark in the home fulfilled an urge to be close to nature’s vivacity and sensuousness. Dogs and cats might do this, but their domesticated manners could not bring wildness into urban lives. Many Londoners were new to the city and brought experiences and memories of the rural from elsewhere. Of the five million souls living in the greater metropolitan area at the end of the nineteenth century, a third were migrants from provincial Britain and Ireland. Rural lives were hard and yet what better representative of the spirit of the countryside idyll than a singing bird? Birdsong brought the best of rural Britain and its imagery indoors and it was accompanied too with a living reserve of

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folklore and symbolism. The affluent London drawing room might feature a parrot or other imported exotic species for showy display, but much more widespread was the keeping of a common-or-garden wild bird for its song. Beeton’s Book of Birds, published in 1864 by Samuel Beeton, the husband of Mrs Beeton, the rising star of domestic management instruction for middle-class housewives, announced that ‘almost everyone has, in his home or homestead, a feathered favourite’. Birds along with many other creatures were being reconfigured by all social classes as domestic pets during this period. Mr Harry Jones from Cricklewood wrote to The Times about the longevity of his pet linnet, which had been his companion at the breakfast table for more than fifteen years, only recently losing his appetite for singing. You could buy a bird from pet shops or weekend street markets on Club Row in Bethnal Green or the Seven Dials area near Covent Garden. The confined and luckless of these areas were avid catchers, traders and owners of little birds, but all classes of society liked to have a songbird at home. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert kept a beloved German bullfinch in Buckingham Palace, which would have been carefully trained to sing a set of tunes. The artist and Pre-Raphaelite supermodel Lizzie Siddal also had a trophy bullfinch. Books like Robert Wallace’s British Cage Birds, Caroline Pridham’s Domestic Pets and Samuel Beeton’s Book of Home Pets laid out for middle-class families detailed instructions of how to catch, purchase, house, feed and care for all kinds of British and foreign birds. The start of the British National Cage Bird Show at the Crystal Palace in the 1850s is indicative of a formalizing interest in breeding, keeping, showing and trading domesticated canaries and wild birds. Victorian London, then, was alive with birds, kept for the pleasure

of hearing their song. This is not to say that London was bereft of bird life in its gardens, parks and streets. Nesting colonies of pigeons were well established in the mid-1800s around the Bank of England, the Guildhall and London Bridge station. There was a fondness for pigeons: ‘children play with them, the hard-worked clerk in the City splits up his dinner hour and gives part of his time to the birds’, The Strand Magazine reported. Gulls first started to visit during the winters of the early 1890s. Drawn to the warmth of the city they soon attracted the attention of Londoners, who fed them from the bridges with small fish that traders sold along the Thames. The gulls returned every winter and were soon seen as old friends. Sparrows nested all over London, often in unusual places like drain pipes, lamp posts and stone statues, and they would chatter from windowsills, ledges and roof tops. Everyone liked to see and hear even a ‘common gutter sparrow’, the naturalist and novelist W H Hudson wrote in 1898, their ‘chirping and chirruping from dawn to dusk’ one of the main avian sounds to be heard in the city. In Hyde Park he spotted a ‘paralytic-looking white-haired old man’ and two ‘labourers’ feeding the sparrows and other birds with bread and scraps from their lunch. In public parks, blackbirds, thrushes and chaffinches were common too. Laurence Housman’s poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’ suggests there were other birds to be heard occasionally: a cuckoo at Lincoln’s Inn and nightingales at Battersea. There was joy in these encounters, but it was not enough for many Londoners, who sought out the closer company of a bird at home. y


Dotted around the city were caged birds, hung by an open window or outside a shop. The instinct to sing at dawn was not extinguished in these captives. In the Reverie of Poor Susan, William Wordsworth in 1797 wrote of a thrush that had sung for years at daybreak on the corner of Wood Street near St Paul’s. In the poem, the sound transported a girl away to the loved scenes of her rural origins. Charles Dickens in The Old Curiosity Shop wrote of a well-known thrush ‘hung outside a garret window all night long’ and ‘half mad with joy’ at the sight of a new day in the spring and summertime. These literary sketches are complemented by accounts from social explorers, who travelled east across town to survey the intriguing lives of the masses. Here, in the parish of St Giles—a place depicted in Hogarth’s Gin Lane and then marked black and dark blue in Charles Booth’s poverty map 120 years later—James Greenwood was astonished to find that ‘a lark will sing as well in a fried-fish shop as when sailing in the sun over a clover meadow’. There was magic in the air when a wild bird piped up amid the commotion of the city. The sound cut through and drew eyes upward. On Fleet Street there was another skylark that hung above a shell-fishmonger ‘whose song triumphs above the everlasting roar of the traffic below’. Not only did these caged birds on public display appear to sing up in response to city noise, they were landmarks in their own right that had established their presence and personality by their vocal exuberance. However, most caged birds were not part of the public arena. They were kept at home where they were considered to be members of the family. Mrs C E Humphry’s multi-volume The Book of the Home described for the well-to-do woman with aspirations an array of domesticated canaries and wild imported and British birds that could adorn a cage or garden aviary

(figure 1). A bird would help to make a home and many Victorian and Edwardian domestic manuals like this one included substantial sections about birds and other pets. There appeared to be no limit to the birds that were suitable for a home cage, and one book for the enthusiast carefully described how to care for seventy wild species. For long the ultimate singer for the house had been the nightingale. The ornithologist Francis Willughby in his 1676 account of the bird gave eight times as much space to its treatment in captivity as to its habits in a state of nature. They were not hard to catch. A single Victorian bird-catcher could trap two hundred cock nightingales during their arrival in May. But the birds when caged suffered badly, needing very careful feeding, and most were dead within a year of captivity. Many condemned the incarceration of this prince of songsters while they sold detailed advice on how to manage a nightingale. One William Kidd of Hammersmith recommended the use of a goodsized mahogany cage with a green silk curtain for the privacy of the ‘unhappy victim’. A good singing nightingale might cost thirty shillings from a specialist dealer in the 1850s and then needed a diet of ants’ eggs, spiders, meal worms, flies and raw beef pounded with cooked egg yolk. In working- and middle-class homes, where a nightingale could not be replaced every year, cheap and resilient singers were chosen: the linnet, chaffinch or goldfinch. These were all excellent singers (and the linnet had been scored as second only to the nightingale by the discerning ears of Daines Barrington, a correspondent of naturalist Gilbert White, who in the eighteenth century had devised a scheme to assess the quality of vocalizations of seventeen commonly kept British songbirds). You could catch one yourself in Wormwood Scrubs, Hampstead Heath, Highgate Woods or on Hackney Marshes or buy a scruffy one at the market for a few

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pence.1 Almost anyone could afford to buy one of these songbirds and they would survive on dried grass seed and a bit of grit and water. The Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields had been keen bird keepers for generations and were still in evidence, though no longer thriving, when Augustus Hare took a stroll in this part of East London in the 1870s and wrote: ‘no one will fail to be struck with the number of singing-birds kept in the houses, and for these there is often a large cage near the roof’ (figure 2). y

Figure 1. An illustration from Mrs Humphry’s The Book of the Home (1912), showing a variety of caged birds suitable for the fashionable homemaker. Canaries, wild British and imported birds are recommended (alongside dogs, cats and monkeys) in Humphry’s compendium, which covered everything from ballroom dancing to the engagement and treatment of servants. Humphry was a journalist who, in addition to domestic management, wrote about etiquette, manners and fashion.

The song of a bird in the home could act as an antidote to the harshness of modern urban life. Henry Mayhew, the foremost documentarian of the life of London’s poor, believed that the bird catchers and sellers gave ‘to city-pent men of humble means one of the peculiar pleasures of the country—the song of the birds’. The Scottish painter and naturalist Patrick Syme was concerned with the needs of the sedentary city professional: ‘Men do not naturally prefer crowded streets, confined alleys, or dusty rooms, to woodland walks, grassy paths, or green arbours … So strong is the desire in man to participate in country pleasures, that he tries to bring them even into his room.’ If you could not escape from the city to the countryside, you could at least bring the countryside into the city. A singing bird brought a speck of nature’s pleasing energy into the home. Many believed that when a bird sang it was happy and able to spread that happiness around. J M Bechstein, a leading authority on caged birds, argued that a singer’s ‘tones of happiness and joy’ were ‘universally intelligible’ to all avian species and probably to humans. The apparent happiness of birds in song was contagious, Bechstein was saying; they


could pass on their good moods, caged or not. Charles Darwin may have been working with this idea when he wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: When male animals utter sounds in order to please the females, they would naturally employ those which are sweet to the ears of the species; and it appears that the same sounds are often pleasing to widely different animals, owing to the similarity of their nervous systems, as we ourselves perceive in the singing of birds and even in the chirping of certain tree-frogs giving us pleasure.

Figure 2. A photograph of a Spitalfields weaver at work, with two stuffed birds above the door (1895), from Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, London. It was not uncommon to stuff and keep beloved family birds. The once flourishing silk weaving industry in Spitalfields was in decline by the 1820s, so this photograph shows a weaver working in hard times. It is said that birds and flowers were favourites of the Huguenot weavers and Dan Cruikshank has argued in his history of Spitalfields that caring for these things ‘engendered a relationship with, or memory of, the countryside that was, in popular memory, the repository of human dignity’.

The evolution of common nervous sensation meant that many creatures shared an understanding of what a sweet sound sounded like, Darwin seemed to suggest. However, in British culture, some birds sounded more pleasing than others and were judged to be better at communicating their happiness. Finches, the most popular of caged birds, had a reputation for cheerfulness. The cook in The Canterbury Tales was described by Geoffrey Chaucer as being as ‘merry as the goldfinch in the woods’. Beeton’s Book of Birds recommended that parents with ‘a morose and sulky boy’ should ‘buy him a chaffinch’.2 It was hard to imagine a bird that sang in captivity could be unhappy. But experts like Bechstein, together with most enthusiasts, knew well what inspired a male bird to sing at springtime and that if denied the chance to attract a mate and repel challengers a bird would simply keep on singing. As Bechstein put it: ‘the males are the most ardent and … where they are unable to satisfy their sexual desires, and so extinguish at the same time the love of song, will sing throughout the greater part of the year’. What comes to light here is

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the possibility of having at home one’s own extended personal chorus, one that could continue far beyond the natural boundaries of the seasons. But a captive bird called out in futile frustration, unfulfilled, out of place and isolated. Anyone with a knowledge of birds understood this. The pleasure of hearing a captive bird came with this cost, not to mention the denial of free flight. Nevertheless, many Londoners reassured themselves that caged birds did not really suffer. Samuel Beeton was at pains to sooth his middle-class readership with these words: ‘It is a pleasant reflection and a comfort to our consciences, that the skylark seems in no way to suffer either in health or spirits through being made captive.’ His judgement was informed by his belief that men were motivated by the ‘love of possession and dominion’ over birds. To ‘call them ours’ was a privilege, which he acknowledged brought the responsibility of ensuring birds were cared for properly. Many Victorians subscribed to the idea of a hierarchy of sentience and feeling, with cultivated European men at the top and slaves and animals at the bottom. This formula meant that animals were believed to suffer less than civilized humans, but it also had to accommodate moral reasoning that demanded of those at the top of the hierarchy the care of all creatures. When Patrick Syme argued that there was no ‘more innocent or more agreeable recreation than the rearing and training of these little feathered musicians’, he meant that such caring actions were part of a genteel sensibility which contributed to moral improvement as well as knowledge of the natural world. Careful and attentive bird-keeping was seen by the Reverend Francis Smith to be ‘a vast step in the way of civilisation’ and a huge advance away from the cock-fighting and bull-baiting of former days. Cruelty and love could be found across all ranks of society, and all

bird traders and owners were of course implicated in the suffering and losses caused by catching. Catchers were despised as blackguards if they were of the poorer class, though most guides for boys and adult bird enthusiasts provided detailed instructions about the art of netting, snaring and trapping. It is true that some bird-catchers would kill the females they caught or treat them terribly if they were kept—there was almost no market for them. Hudson of all people understood the complex relationship that men had with birds and found himself empathizing with the poorest, who had least access to the natural world. There is ‘love of a kind, no doubt’ he ruminated, on meeting a man who was grieving for his cherished chaffinch, perhaps judging that a bird was one of the few private pleasures granted to a man down on his luck. Hudson was clear that metropolitan life brought with it a ‘perpetual hunger of the heart and craving of those who are compelled to live apart from Nature’. That he writes this at the same time as becoming deeply involved in setting up the Society for the Protection of Birds in the 1890s shows the contradictory feelings in circulation about the keeping of songbirds. Many Londoners declared their love for the small creatures in their care. Mayhew describes a confectioner working away at his peppermint rock surrounded by the song of thrushes, linnets and gold finches, ‘all kept, not for profit, but because he “loved” to have them about him’. Alf Curtis, a bird-catcher of many years, was able to vouch for how many of his kind had ‘cherished their birds and loved them deeply. I have known rough men, brutal men, who thought more of their singing bird than they did of wife and child’. Mayhew also tells of a conversation with a seller of groundsel and chickweed (bird food). Unusually, Mayhew sets foot inside the home of the seller, who points out his favourite linnet and then a taxidermied


one. ‘I was very sorry when the poor thing died’ the seller told Mayhew. The death of a cherished family bird was painful. This is made obvious in a letter printed in a bird-keeping magazine which announced the passing of a very long-lived blind goldfinch mule, owned by Mrs Wynn, identified as the wife of the respected landlord of the Railway Tavern in Barnes. Reared in the spring of 1878, the letter said the bird had died at twenty-four years of age in Mrs Wynn’s hands.3 The love felt for a singing bird helped to make a harmonious home and family life. The Illustrated London News, reporting on the Sunday bird fair at Club Row near Brick Lane (figure 3), noted that birds were sold to gentle-minded persons, often to newly-married couples, who fancy that such an arrangement will add new grace to their home, and help them to be innocently happy. Often, indeed, they are bought at the request of a kind mother, wishing to please her children.

Figure 3. The Sunday Morning Bird-Fair in Club-Row, Shoreditch, an engraving by David H Friston published in the Illustrated Times (1868). This renowned bird market was a fascination to journalists, though they often wrote about it in tones of condescension. From Charles Booth’s notebooks there is this sober record of the walk his research assistant George Duckworth took with Sergeant French along Sclater Street on Tuesday 22 March 1898: ‘Dark Blue in map and still Dark Blue. Known in the locality as Club Row. 3- and 4-st houses, shops underneath, centre for bird fanciers, larks, thrushes, canaries, parrots, rabbits, etc, in cages. Small square cages wrapped up in pocket handkerchief, outside windows “for new birds to pick up the right note from their fellows”. Long weavers windows in top storeys; no weavers now, nor prostitutes, simply rough class.’

The presence of a canary or other bird in the window would also signal the status of the household, providing ‘evidence of refinement of character and kindliness of heart’, Mrs Humphry declared in her domestic manual for the well-heeled woman. Henry Mayhew judged that working people who kept birds were not like those who kept dogs. ‘The bird-lover’, he wrote, ‘is generally a more domestic and perhaps consequently a more prosperous and contented man.’ Mayhew had ‘seen and heard birds in the rooms of tailors, shoemakers, coopers, cabinet-makers, hatters, dressmakers, curriers and street-sellers—all people of the best class’. Even a lowly street seller gained in social status when they kept a bird at home.

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y Some songbird enthusiasts devised a way to recreate a kind of private indoor dawn chorus in miniature: if two male birds of the same species were brought together they would sing against one another just as they might during a misty morning encounter in Essex. In the East End of London a tradition of getting chaffinches or linnets to ‘battle’ for money in the smoky upstairs room over a pub emerged as a weekly event for working men with a sporting sense. The two competitors’ cages were hung on the wall next to each other and at the assigned moment their covers removed to stimulate them into song. Because the birds could not see or approach one another, sometimes nothing would happen for a while. This was a closely refereed contest in which owners and the others in the room had to keep silent and not egg on their bird. Once a bird piped up, each would exchange bursts of song in challenge to each other. A match was timed to last between five and fifteen minutes but it was an intense confrontation that would sometimes see a bird drop exhausted from its perch. The two birds were judged for the quantity of ‘jerks’ uttered or sometimes, in a different contest, the quality and sweetness of the singing. Either way, vocal training was needed by exposure to other birds and this meant that judges and owners became highly attuned to the precise sounds and sequences of different species. A linnet, for example, could produce at least forty jerks that journalists would occasionally attempt to capture in words. The first few linnet jerks documented by Beeton were recorded as follows: ‘Tuck-tuck-fear; Tuck-tuck-fear-ic-quake-a-weet; Tuck-tuck-fearic-ic-ic; Tuck-tuck-joey; Tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck-joey; Tollic-cha-ic-quake-aweet’. The judges were listening out for a clear and complete delivery of

these different phrases and scored the birds accordingly. These occasions were exclusively masculine gatherings where drinking and betting underpinned an event which brought together contestants with heroic names like The Kingsland Roarer and Shoreditch Bobby. The owner of the winning bird could take home a good few shillings or a prize, such as a copper kettle, put up by the publican. A good bird became valuable and added swagger to the status of its owner. It was a strange kind of chorus, contrived by a strange kind of human love, where owners would fuss over their birds to keep them fit and in good voice. The passion for catching and keeping songbirds in Victorian London must have had a marked effect upon the dawn chorus itself. As species became depleted, so the intensity and balance of wild singing voices would have altered, though we can only imagine what this might have sounded like. Even in the early part of the century bird-catchers were noticing the scarcity of species, some complaining that they had to travel further out to Finchley instead of their old stalking grounds in Holloway or Chalk Farm. The ubiquitous sparrow remained in good fettle, but W H Hudson reflected on ‘the gradual decrease in numbers and final dying out of many of the old-fashioned species, chiefly singing birds…’. He was referring to chaffinches, goldfinches, bullfinches and linnets, along with the blackbird, robin, wren, wagtail, warblers and thrushes, all of which had their place in the dawn chorus. The goldfinch was perhaps the most reduced. Richard Bowdler Sharpe, esteemed Victorian ornithologist and head of the Bird Room at the British Museum, knew of an old bird-catcher who once caught twelve dozen goldfinches in a single morning behind a hedge on the site of Paddington Station before it was completed in 1854. Half a century later, Hudson wrote that London’s devotion to the caged


goldfinch had ‘nearly caused its extermination in Britain, and now we import large numbers from Spain to supply the demand’. Germany was also a major supplier, one dealer in Old Street in East London importing 8,000 goldfinches a year in the early Edwardian years. The appetite for songbirds seems stunning now. Henry Mayhew’s informants estimated that some 70,000 goldfinches, 70,000 linnets and 35,000 thrushes were caught for the London market alone, with only a small proportion of these birds surviving to be sold by street traders. Leadenhall and Newgate markets sold 313,000 larks for the dinner plate (more than the number of grouse, partridge and pheasant combined). From all this it seems clear that the cage bird craze brought to owners the private performance of an indoor soloist at the expense of the texture and richness of birdsong in the gardens, parks and open ground all over London. It is quite possible that for many Londoners captive birds reached the ears more frequently than free birds. Public attitudes to bird-keeping gradually changed as part of a widening interest in animal rights and welfare in the 1800s. Reform was closely aligned to political and social change pushed forward by feminists, radicals and socialists, in relation for example to women’s rights, child labour and the abolition of slavery. The RSPCA (and the RSPB, a lateVictorian invention led by women) successfully lobbied for new legislation including the 1872 Wild Birds’ Protection Act, which banned the killing, catching and selling of wild birds from March to August. Not until the turn of the century did the domestic canary become noticeably more popular in homes than wild birds. The many varieties of canary could be bred in captivity and they appealed to owners for their temperament and bright coloured plumage as well as their voices. Wild birds were often plain-

looking things and rarely thrived in captivity, but the sound they made could not be equalled by the hardy canary. Finches in particular were part of Victorian London’s social life and part of the private harmony of family life. In a city like London, where the dawn chorus was perceived differently by ears tuning in to a modernizing soundscape, a wild singer in the home brought new meanings to this sound in human lives. The commoditized captive voices of birds made sense of the changing metropolis: bringing up close a vibrant fragment of the cherished English countryside; providing a sonic pick-me-up amid the pressures of city living; and refreshing the air of cramped interiors and noisy streets. The captive city chorus was put to work to help Londoners live better. Acknowledgements Thanks to Philip Howell and Tim Birkhead for their comments on an early draft of this chapter.

Footnotes 1. Birds sold on the street might cost between three and six pence, a crippled bird-seller told Henry Mayhew in the 1850s. In the 1870s, good singing wild birds were advertised by traders in Exchange and Mart for five to ten shillings each, although a highly trained one could command much more. 2. Birds were invited into the sickroom for their good spirits: Dorothy Wordsworth had a companion robin for several years; Darwin bought his consumptive daughter Annie a canary; and canaries and budgerigars made appearances in civilian and military hospitals at least until the Second World War. 3. A goldfinch mule was usually a cross between a wild bird and a canary. This goldfinch may have been blind from old age, but owners of finches used in competitive singing challenges sometimes blinded them with a hot pin or by injecting ink to liberate a sweeter and louder song. Many bird keepers loathed the practice, although the bird’s disability had the effect of cementing its dependence upon the owner, who normally reciprocated with deep emotional attachment.

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Bibliography Samuel Beeton, 1861, Book of Home Pets, S O Beeton, London Samuel Beeton, 1864, Beeton’s Book of Birds, S O Beeton, London Tim Birkhead, 2008, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology, Bloomsbury, New York Tim Birkhead, 2014, The Red Canary: The Story of the First Genetically Engineered Animal, Bloomsbury, London R S R Fitter, 1949, London’s Birds, Collins, London James Greenwood, 1867, Unsentimental Journeys or Byways of the Modern Babylon, Ward, Lock & Tyler, London James Greenwood, 1874, The Wilds of London, Chatto and Windus, London W H Hudson, 1898, Birds in London, Longmans, London W H Hudson, 2012 (1913), Adventures Among Birds, Collins, London Hilda Kean, 1998, Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800, Reaktion, London Henry Mayhew, 1851, London Labour and the London Poor, vols 1–3, George Woodfall, London

Opposite: Urban Blackbird just before dawn

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& an oystercatcher’s call takes up the whole bandwidth right along the river & goes (robin & wren each pick up their quarters)


Mawddach Estuary, West Wales

Figure 1. Curlew


lone curlew dips its beak in the wet sands of the estuary, its lithe silhouette arresting the eye in this scene of winter beauty: damp, muted colours of tidal flats, where hardy marsh grasses protrude from muddy waters and motley shades of green progress from banks to fields to hills. Yet something feels wrong, almost as if a ghostly presence lay over everything before us. As we focus the binoculars on the curlew, my companion and I turn to each other to ask, ‘but where are all the other birds?’ We slowly realize that the haunting sensation is in fact silence, a silence that had earlier seemed beneficent, arriving from the relentless noises of the city, but one which now unsettles us. Curlews, who once flocked to the estuaries and moorlands of Britain in their thousands, are on the brink of endangerment in this country, reduced to tiny numbers of breeding pairs scattered far apart. Like many other bird species, they have been assailed by human action on a variety of fronts. In his 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, naturalist E O Wilson coined the term ‘Age of Loneliness’ to describe the loss of biodiversity and mass extinctions on the horizon of climate change. I have, for the first time, a foreshadowing of what the ‘Age of Loneliness’ might sound like. It is the absence of birdsong, the dearth of plashing wings, a drought of tweets and trills, a famine of piping and warbling. Poet Christina Rossetti, writing in the maw of Victorian London, amidst the dirt and pollution of waves of industrial expansion, speaks of such an absence and the spiritual deprivation it signifies. In her bleak and crisisridden landscapes, ‘living flocks and herds are nowhere found’; there is ‘no beat of wings to stir the stagnant space’ and ‘nothing stirred; / not even a solitary bird’.1 Although these poems have been read more as dream visions and divine disclosures than ecological observations, lines like ‘dead

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in the cold, a song-singing thrush’2 confront the reader with the force of death. Her lines are a parable for ecological precarity and the ensuing devastation when natural balance is disrupted. The nineteenth century was as contradictory as our own in its simultaneous appreciation for and destruction of the natural world. It saw a dramatic assault on flora and fauna across the globe, feeding the insatiable appetite of imperial expansion and desire for new scientific knowledge. From the oysters of pristine Scottish lakes, to the gleaming mahogany forests of Cuba, and the herons, snowy egrets and other birds slaughtered on an industrial scale for the millinery vogue of the 1880s and 90s, the fashion crazes of the middle-classes drove wholesale consumption of plants and animals, with little regard for their sustainability. The mania for taxidermy and collections of eggs and birds cut swathes through bird populations. At the same time, however, these scientific developments laid the basis for the ornithology and conservation science which enable us to understand and help bird species. The Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) was formed in 1889 as a counterattack to the use of songbirds as fashionable hat decorations. Many of those in the RSPB were also involved in anti-vivisection protests and campaigns for female suffrage. A new consciousness around the rights of animals and marginalized people emerged as a result. In our own cultural moment, birds remain deeply loved, yet many bird species are under threat from habitat loss and hunting. Why do we allow to be destroyed what we care about so much? And what might we learn from nineteenth-century poets, as they grappled with the effects of the Industrial Revolution on their lives and landscapes? Poetry then, as now, offered radically alternative possibilities to the

greed and rapacity of the age. Birds flock the pages of nineteenth-century verse, featuring in poems that depict rural landscapes, but also providing inspiration. They offer imaginative solace, divine grace, beauty, joy, knowledge of mortality; they are harbingers of good and evil, portals to other worlds, shape-shifters who enable transformation of their human observers. I trace a thread from poem to poem, asking what they reveal about birds, about us, about our relation to each other, registering changes as the century and the rapid encroachment of humans on the natural world progresses. Birds are irrevocably associated with Romantic poets, who sought imaginative and spiritual truths from immersion in the sublime beauty of the natural world. In William Wordsworth’s ‘The Green Linnet’, this small bird lives its own ecstatic life, ‘scattering’ its gladness ‘without care’. The poet sits quietly in a ‘sequestered nook’, in a rich and beneficent garden, where fruit trees ‘shed their snow-white blossoms’ on his head and the ‘brightest sunshine’ spreads over him. In this scene conjured by the poet, the linnet is the ‘presiding spirit’ and has ‘dominion’ over the serene and gorgeous surroundings. It is a world in which there is no threat to the birds or fauna, no encroachment on their habitat. The cyclical return of birds is undoubted and the poet waits ‘once more’ to greet his ‘last year’s friends together’. There is no trepidation, no fearful wait to see how few, if any, might return. The visual experience of watching the linnet is defined by its haziness: ‘shadows and sunny glimmerings’ are flung into the air by the fluttering of his wings. This play of light and shadow expands from a mere physical phenomenon into an imaginative state. The poet describes how ‘my dazzled sight he oft deceives’ as the linnet flits between the ‘dancing leaves’. By allowing himself to be dazzled, he eschews the


Figure 2. Skylark

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impulse to categorize or control, to pin or stuff the bird, instead choosing to accept the disorientation of his physical senses. As a reward for the poet’s quietness, his patience, his ability to enter into this liminal state, the linnet’s ‘exulting strain’ ‘gushes forth’, bringing joy and gladness. For Wordsworth, writing in the Lake District, there is room for both humans and birds, and birds enrich and expand the human world. The linnet is ‘a Life, a Presence like the Air’, elevated to its fullest existence and no mere backdrop to be dispensed with when human needs for its habitat arise. John Clare’s ‘The Crow’ takes the perspective of a crow in flight to alert us to human interventions in the bird’s landscape. Clare’s poetry is marked out by a naturalist’s interest in nests, eggs, feathers, colours, wings. Although birds in his poetry still offer spiritual solace, his attention to realistic detail and his knowledge of birdlife is in contrast to, say, Shelley and Keats, for whom skylarks and nightingales take on mythical dimensions distant from the ordinary birds themselves. Clare’s poetry is written in the context of the Enclosures, which allowed landowners to ‘enclose’ the land from common use, displacing large numbers of rural labourers, who moved to urban centres to find work in factories. This may explain the loneliness of the poet when he writes ‘how peaceable it seems for lonely men / To see a crow fly in the thin blue sky’. The sense of peace that the crow provides is in contrast to the brutal realities that creep into the poem through its subtly drawn hints. Although the poem makes no direct mention of the Enclosures, the description of the ‘fields and woods and waters spread below’ the crow’s eye draws our attention to the dividing up of landscape and the agricultural practices that transformed fens, scrubland and woods into profitable farmland. There is a clash between human boundary markers such as fens and fields and the older ‘forest’;

between the forces of nature in the ‘March winds high’ and the activity of the woodman chopping trees. James McKusick writes of Clare’s ‘environmental advocacy’ and his use of the ‘imagined consciousness of a native animal, plant or waterway’ to protest ‘the destruction of the natural environment’.3 In ‘The Crow’, observing the world as the bird views it opens up a different way of seeing: I love to see these chimney sweeps sail by And hear them o’er gnarled forest croak, Then sosh askew from the hid woodman’s stroke That in the woods their daily labours ply. Attuned to the sounds made by the bird (that striking description of ‘sosh askew’), which might well be drowned out by the trees being chopped down, the poet glimpses a vision of another way of being, one in which the bird’s freedom to fly across land boundaries, to sail ‘to and fro’ across fields and woods, contrasts with his own hindered movement in a bordered and enclosed land. His love of the bird creates a mood of longing and desire that quietly signals his own lack. The inversion—portraying an enclosed world through the desire for its opposite—unsettles the reader and the poem demands a shift in our perspective, insisting on an ethical identification with the bird. It ultimately offers a deeper recognition of the way our habitats are shared by human and bird, foregrounding the boundaries between the two, provoking questions about the needs and demands of both, identifying where they conflict or coalesce. Birds and humans have become allies, and the bird’s perspective draws attention to the condition of the working-class rural labourers whose livelihoods have been threatened by the wealthy landowners. Yet, like Wordsworth’s


linnet, the crow leads its own joyous existence, loftily oblivious to human endeavour. The poem teaches us that attending to the bird’s world and shifting our focus potentially transforms our own. It is not only poems about the rural environment which have birds at their heart. ‘A Dead City’ was one of Christina Rossetti’s earliest poems, written during her teenage years in London. Originally titled ‘The City of Statues’, the change to ‘A Dead City’ signals her interest not just in the human characters who have been turned to statues, but in the wider ecosystem of the city, its flora and fauna. In the opening, the poet wanders in a mazed and labyrinthine forest and unknowingly crosses the border from the present world into a mythical and unreal realm. She passes through a ‘desert drear and cold’ (line 83) to reach a strange and mystical city built from ivory, ebony and gold. This city is a contradictory place, where the rich lustre of its jewelled walls and perfumed blossoms are at odds with its stillness and ‘silent emptiness’ (110). Trees are ‘fresh and green’ and vines and corn create ‘an odour-laden air’ (141, 150); ‘vessels of gold’ are laid at a banquet in which ‘unnumbered … fruits of every size and hue’ are furnished (176, 196–197). But the poet’s creeping sense of the uncanny is confirmed when she discovers that the banqueters’ whose ‘flushing cheek and kindling eye / Told of gladness without care’ are ‘turned to stone … statue-cold’ (214–215, 225–226). The poem is linked to The Arabian Nights and its fantastical landscape seems attuned to myths and fairy tales, but I argue that it can also be read as an ecological parable about the dead city of modern-day London, a city where the rhythms of the seasons have been severely disrupted. Birds are the lynchpin of the poem and their presence is key to the transition between different worlds. Initially, in her ramble through the

woods, the poet is surrounded by tame birds: And the birds around me winging With their everlasting singing Made me feel not quite alone. (8–10) The companionship felt with the birds and the faith that their singing will be ‘everlasting’ is overturned by a ‘blight’ that ‘passed upon / All the trees’ which means that ‘the birds no more were seen / Glancing through the living green’ (62–63, 61). The ‘strange lurid sheen’ that makes the sun pale mirrors descriptions of the fogs in Manchester and London, created by domestic coal fires and factory chimneys. The glancing of light on green leaves caused by bird flight evokes the scene in Wordsworth’s ‘The Linnet’, but the dead city has no room for such pleasures. Once she leaves the wood, the world she enters resembles both the splendour and the devastation of the modern city, even though it is couched in mythical terms. It is built from ivory, ebony and diamonds, all of which were highly profitable commodities in the global trade of the British Empire. The luxurious feast of luscious fruits on offer are also a feature of global modernity. In her biography Jan Marsh relates that Rossetti’s father would often bring home overseas fruits from the markets of London, to the delight of Christina and her siblings.4 The profusion of fruits and flowers is made possible by the trade which means that London’s inhabitants are no longer dependent on seasons or locality for their food. That the city is both ‘radiant’ and ‘desolate’ expresses the contradictions inherent in urban life. The city’s inhabitants are required only to feast, not to perform the labour of picking the harvest, or to wait for fruit to come

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into season. This luxury creates their death-like state, with ‘human hand stony and cold / And no life breath struggling up’ (244–245). Living an urban existence divorced from the ‘imperishable life’ of the forest, humans become frozen, trapped and unheeding. By contrast, without the presence of people, the forest is ‘ever vernal’ and ‘eternal’ because it is endlessly renewed (38–39). There, the birds ‘had never / Seen a man’ and thus live in a ‘happy solitude’ ‘without strife’, with ‘nothing marred, and all things good’ (33–34, 35, 43, 45). In Rossetti’s poems, a world in which there are only plants and animals is sufficient unto itself and morally good. It is humans who mar the world with their greed, as she writes in ‘To what purpose is this waste?’, challenging the notion that the earth exists primarily for human consumption: Why should we grudge a hidden water stream To birds and squirrels while we have enough? Pearls and precious stones and golden sands, Wondrous weeds and blossoms rare, Kept back from human hands, But good and fair, (90–91, 105–108) It is striking how Rossetti’s sentiments resonate with contemporary movements to leave metals and fossils fuels in the ground and to return land to animals through re-wilding. Her understanding of what we might lose if we fail to value plants and animals in their own right has a firm ethical underpinning in the significance of plant and animal consciousness. At the end of ‘The Dead City’, the poet wakes from her vision to find she is

Figure 3. Illustration by Arthur Hughes for Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, 1915, published by MacMillan, London


alone once more in ‘happy sunlight’. The ‘little birds were flying, / And the dreariness was gone’. Relieved by the return of the birds, she asks ‘What was I that I should see / So much hidden mystery?’ But to see into the hidden mystery of things is precisely the role of the poet. By transforming the conditions underpinning the modern urban city into a fantastical myth, she reveals a truth that is as much spiritual as material. Poets defamiliarize in this way to bring us to our senses, bringing a renewed understanding of the strangeness of our everyday world, confronting us with the symbolic or spiritual truth of our daily life. In ‘The Dead City’, birds reveal the tension between a material world of luxury and the imaginative reality of a cold and stony existence which pays no regard to the rhythms of plants and animals. Poems written towards the end of the nineteenth century reflect an even deeper sense of gloom about the transformation of human experience in an industrialized country. In Romantic poetry, mountains, rivers, forests and flowers offer spiritual truth and renewal, and act as a powerful force for inspiration, even in moods of melancholy or despondency. In poems written in the 1890s, landscapes and plants are more often found in their stony, winter state, withholding beauty and fertility. In Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, a poem that became famous for reflecting the pessimism of the turn of the nineteenth century, ‘the ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry’. Hardy finds an equivalence between the natural landscape and the human time-frame of the dead century, where ‘the land’s sharp features seemed to be / The century’s corpse outleant’. Frost is ‘spectre-grey’ and ‘winter’s dregs’ are ‘desolate’. The thrush’s cry and its ‘joy illimited’ is a riposte to the poet, who looks out at the world and sees only death, imposing the constructions

of human time on the winter scene. By believing that ‘every spirit upon earth / seemed fervourless as I’, the poet assumes that nature corresponds to human experience. The thrush, ‘aged, gaunt, and small’ defies this expectation and sounds a note of hope. The ‘ecstatic sound’ whose cause the poet cannot fathom means That I could think there trembled through His happy good-night air Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew And I was unaware. The word ‘trembled’ takes us back to the fluttering and dazzling of Wordsworth’s linnet, the motion that birds bring, unsettling the boundaries of light and shadow, of silence and song. It is a motion that gently shifts human certainties, if we are able to perceive it. However, there remains a note of melancholy in ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and the poet does not seem able to partake in the bird’s joy as Wordsworth does. The bird and the human seem instead to operate on parallel lines, and the poet is unable to access the knowledge that the bird may hold. There were a number of coalescing fears underlying the cynicism and pessimism of the 1890s: the growing threat of war and collapse of empire, scientific theories about reverse evolution and the ultimate degeneration of humanity, the social disorder caused by poverty. Yet these feelings of fear and loss are marked by a natural world which seems lost to humans, a cold, stark, silent, haunted place which withdraws into itself and offers little solace. In ‘The Forest Pool’ (1900) by Mathilde Blind, an autumnal scene of ‘gloom and solitude’ mirrors the intense melancholy of the poet’s lost love. ‘Blue-eyed forget-me-nots’ ‘float in the water drowned and dead’ and act

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as a metaphor for ‘the love of unforgotten years’ which now ‘floats corpselike in a pool of tears’. The trees are ‘bare as a beggar’s board’ and ‘the birds are mute’. Like Hardy, Blind ends on a note of wintry silence without hope of a renewal. The forget-me-not is ‘dead and drowned ‘mid leaves that rot’. The turning of the years does not result in spring’s new birth but remains mired in the rotten mulch of a lost pool ‘hidden in the wood’. The stagnant pool, cut off in the woods, suggests that the channel between human and nature has been stopped up, recalling Hardy’s ambivalent ending. The despondent mood that pervades poems at the end of the century resonates with our own predicament, and the knowledge that our gardens and woods might too fall silent. But, taken together, these poems teach us that there are alternatives to our human-centred societies. Perception of birds requires the silencing of human noise and, in those silences, the bird’s entry into our world comes as an unlooked-for moment of grace, precipitating revelation and transformation. In ‘The First Spring Day’ Christina Rossetti calls upon the robin to kindle the Spring into life: ‘sing, robin, sing … till I too blossom and rejoice and sing’ (4, 18). The clear, ringing simplicity of her lines remind us that human flourishing has always been interwoven with the glorious life of birds.

Footnotes 1. ‘A Coast-Nightmare’, line 13, ‘Cobwebs’, line 10, ‘Repining’, lines 63 64, in Christina Rossetti: Poems and Prose, Simon Humphries, ed, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008. All Christina Rossetti quotations cited here come from this edition. 2. From Christina Rossetti, 1915, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, MacMillan, London, p 199. 3. James C McKusick, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2000, p 78. 4. Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Life, Jonathan Cape, London, 1994.

Figure 4. Curlew


thou never wert

I never liked the skylark, at least not the poet’s bird—the one that a whole lot of poets rhapsodise about, that one flying, singing, hymning, to the sun, that creature of fancy, above the cot of long-dead peasant,—or frozen in a spot of time—no, not that one, not the showoff that leads the chorus of dawn, as heroically inverted poets put it, that one, as self-obsessed as any cat, or any poet. That one that sings, just for the fun of it. It’s the poet’s lust for song that gives the lark’s emptiness voice; they lie safely in their nest—that’s their choice.

John Strachan

Opposite: Skylark

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A Dawn Chorus in a Welsh Sessile Oak Wood in the Upper Tywi Valley

Figure 1. Welsh Sessile Oak Wood


’m in a Welsh sessile oak wood in the upper Tywi valley in the early hours on a dark and cold, yet inviting, early May morning. I’ve been parked up in my van overnight and my alarm has just gone off. It’s 3 am and I get up with expectation as company. After a short walk I arrive at the centre of this old established wood. It’s a place I’ve been continually pulled back to since first finding it over thirty years ago. It’s somewhere, for me, that hasn’t changed in all that time; a constant in a world of turmoil and flux. Somewhere to reconnect with and recharge my batteries, at all seasons of the year. In spring though, as the wood comes to life again, it begins to take on special significance as it plays host to the Welsh Holy Trinity of birds; the Pied Flycatcher, Redstart and Wood Warbler, all holding on but sadly declining. But this ‘constant valley’ has seen vast changes over the years. It has not always been as tranquil a place and is once again witness to further reshaping. Before I got to know its healing qualities, its heart had been ripped out in the 1960s by a major water catchment scheme in an attempt to satisfy the demands of an increasing population in the Neath and Swansea

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valleys. In spite of much public opposition, the scheme was sanctioned and the construction of a major dam (still the tallest in the UK), and with it the creation of Llyn Brianne, began. This necessitated the flooding of the upper Tywi valley and reshaped the ‘natural’ environment in unrecognizable ways. The valley that had been the last stronghold of the pure-bred Welsh Kite would never be the same again. Twenty-five years on from the completion of the dam and reservoir, a hydroelectric generating station was added at the foot of the embankment that rises steeply to the head of the llyn; and today, a further hydroelectric scheme is underway, creating much initial scarring as a huge pipeline is laid adjacent to the wood. It’s now 3.30 am and there’s a slight rustle in the fresh new leaves of the year, their verdant greens, so many nuances, emphasized by my head torch, which picks them out against a dark and disappearing backdrop of yet deeper greens and blacks. Overnight rain has given them a vitality and a curious shimmer. The head torch is strong and catches the eyes of a sheep, perhaps the one that’s been punctuating the near silence with a slight, almost human cough. I stop and stand as still and quietly as I can, so that I’m aware of my heartbeat. An early farm vehicle’s headlights arc across the outer edges of the wood like a searchlight from an early war film. How odd to be reminded of war in such a place and time. A Robin has been vocal since before I left the van and is now getting into full song, firmly establishing its territory. The sunrise is at two minutes past five today, but the hills surrounding the wood won’t allow its rays to warm me for a while yet. There are three categories that define the twilight period before the sun breaks the horizon. I’m wondering which one I’m in just now and whether I’ll be aware of the changes. Figure 2. Redstart


Figure 3. Llyn Brianne. Created after damming the upper reaches of the Tywi

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It’s all about indirect sunlight and how many degrees below the horizon the sun is at any one time. Eighteen degrees below and it’s astronomical twilight, a time when the stars that have punctuated the sky during the night begin to fade. Twelve degrees below, when it’s possible to discern a definite edge between the sea and sky (not much use in the heart of a Welsh wood!), but still hard for our eyes to pick out any detail, and we have nautical twilight. Civil dawn, definitely inappropriate here, occurs when the sun reaches six degrees below the horizon. At civil dawn, life can go on without any recourse to artificial light. These categories may be applicable to a morning on the Norfolk Broads but here, in this Welsh wood, they can only be rough guides. They do, nonetheless, give definition to the subtle and gradual shifts that occur as the morning opens up. 4 am and I’m beginning to discern forms without my head torch and an undercurrent of birdsong seeps out from all around. A Redstart announces itself, although I have no chance yet of seeing it. The bluebells that carpet the floor at this time of year are beginning to register their colour and I’m reminded of those Pantone charts used in high fidelity graphic design, as slight shifts in hue occur over a continuum of time. Pantone charts are everywhere here in the wood: blues, purples, greens and browns. The changes appear so slight, yet before long I’m aware that large shifts have occurred since I left my van an hour ago. How does that happen? I film the hour to replay at a later date in real time. I know how I’ll present it. The screen will sit in the middle of two large prints. The one on the left will be a still taken at 3.30 am and the one on the right taken an hour later. The colour prints either side of the film, which will be running in real time, show just how extensive the colour shift is.

4.15 am; there’s still a chill in the air and I watch carefully, so carefully. I want to experience that change here in this Welsh wood; I want to understand it, hold it somehow. Ten minutes ago, what was it like? I decide to write down what I see, describe the colour, the brightness, the opening up of the theatre in front of me. I know that once the sun rises and breaks from the hills that surround the wood, the change will be suddenly very discernible; shadows will open up as the sun moves across branches like a living thing, life-giving, warming both myself and this extraordinary sessile oak wood. Sessile oak woodlands are mainly found in the uplands of northern and western Britain and are different from the English pendunculate oak woods. With pendunculate oaks the leaves have virtually no stalks, but the acorns do. It’s the opposite with the sessile oaks that have no stalks on the acorns, but do on the leaves. The sessile oak is also a hardier species, tolerating poorer soils and is found in generally harsher environments. But that’s the science. A sessile oak wood is magical and mystical; trees of Dryads and Oreads, nymphs of the woodland; a place where Puck might imitate the voices of lovers to lead them astray as the woods are magically plunged into darkness. It’s now 4.30 am and a Wren joins in from somewhere to the left of me. I can’t pinpoint it: low or high? Without the acute vision of the night dwellers, sound has no place to sit. Nothing has flown yet, or so it seems to me, but as the light unfolds movement becomes apparent. My eyes can’t follow it, but it’s there, like the black dots that opticians use in a visual field test to plot your peripheral vision. Gradually, yet very definitely, I


become aware of a filling of birdsong, everywhere yet curiously nowhere. Individual birds at first, perhaps intent on securing a mate or holding a territory. It builds as if in sympathy with the light; a Pantone scale now of sound. I pick out a Blackbird and Song Thrush and then the Warblers begin. Willow, Garden—or was that one a Blackcap? Chiffchaff and, yes, now a Garden Warbler. A slow broadening of sound and I’m beginning to struggle a little to separate them. I’m no expert. It feels now like an orchestra that is welling up, and the flute and oboe are getting harder to pick out—something that seemed easy a few bars ago. 5 am and sunrise, although the wood sees no shafts of sunlight yet. I strive hard to take it all in, to be part of it. My limbs warm as the temperature rises and my vision widens. Yet, paradoxically, as the viewing becomes gradually easier, the acuteness of staying within the moment lessens. Familiarity is a dangerous companion and I need to hold it at bay and heighten my senses even more. The light is encouraging me to relax and I must fight it. Today is about acute observation. Other dawn choruses will come and I’ll let them wash over me, close my eyes as the light improves, and let the bird song transcend the moment. For now, though, I listen for the Holy Trinity. The Redstart has been actively singing for a good while now on the fringes of the wood and my first clear view of it is on the top of a fence post not more than thirty yards away. A beautiful male bird, striking in its black, red-orange and grey livery. They are not as common as when I first visited this wood all those years ago. Like all three of the Holy Trinity, it is in decline. My heart beats quicker. The light is soft and fresh and as I catch sight of it I’m back to acute observation again. Now sound has placement and for the first time in two hours my binoculars become useful to me. The Pied Flycatcher is easier to locate

here than anywhere else I know and I’m aware of more than one bird singing. It’s a more complex sound than that of the Redstart, which always to me seems to end with a dip of sadness. A male Pied Flycatcher lands no more than a couple of yards away, on a branch that doesn’t appear strong enough to take its weight, and begins to sing. I’m acutely aware of my own presence in the wood now and, despite my subdued clothing, I no longer feel part of it. I slipped out of my van at 3 am and melded into the oaks. I felt then that standing up was the position to be in, almost mirroring one of those sessile magicians, but now, with the light beginning to describe the wood in all its complex structure, I feel I must become recumbent, huddled down. I need to lose stature to stay part of the morning. The only bird from the Trinity that I’ve yet to pick out is the Wood Warbler. I listen hard for its ‘spinning coin’ but it eludes me. The wood is alive now with song—deep, rich and rounded. I’ve had couple of hours of solitude, alone in an expanding soundscape and now, as the light grows, I sense my mind drifting into thoughts of loss. The dawn chorus is in full swing and I lie back and listen. An early timber lorry roars down the valley to be followed by more as the day begins, carrying commercial timber from the forests that seem to be slowly throttling the ancient oaks. Its growl cuts across the stillness and speaks of the stark reality we are facing. Wales holds over fifty per cent of the British population of Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts and forty per cent of Wood Warblers. These Welsh woods are crucial to their survival but are under increasing threat from development projects. The Woodland Trust have identified over 1,000 ancient woods that are at risk in the UK. The Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher were recently moved onto the Red list, meaning that urgent action is needed to halt their

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Figures 4, 5 & 6. The Holy Trinity of Welsh woodland birds. From left to right: Wood Warbler, Redstart and Pied Flycatcher


decline. The Redstart has been moved to the Amber list from the Green— the traffic light system clearly identifying relative concerns. These threats are real and over the years I’ve been coming to this Welsh sessile oak wood it’s easy to see to this decline and harder to enjoy moments of quiet solitude; to free your mind from habitat destruction and declining biodiversity.

Figure 7, above: Garden Warbler; figure 8, below: Pied Flycatcher

6.30 am and I move a little further into the wood, to a spot where I’ve seen Wood Warblers before. The sun is kissing the tops of the trees and the temperature rises. I find a position on a downward slope above the Tywi so that my eye line is level with the tree tops. Wood Warblers are birds of the high canopy, so I’ve a chance here. The dawn chorus has peaked and the wood is reverting to a normal spring day soundscape; the light is good and I can feel the excitement of anticipation growing within me. I’ve all the time in the world now, and I open my flask of hot chocolate. A Redstart flashes past, lands close, and is coloured with a green wash as the light filters through the canopy. I still have the wood to myself and wonder when I’ll see my first person of the day. Then the ‘spinning coin’, a little way away and to the right of me, but unmistakable! Its clarity cuts through the wood as it draws ever closer, and then I become aware of a quivering movement and a second bird further down towards the river. Perhaps a territorial dispute, or two males competing for a female. The first bird drops in just above me, making binoculars unnecessary, and pours out its trilling notes. I notice how it sings to the higher leaves; head turned upwards with a quivering of its wings. It stays with me for a few minutes before flitting off on the downslope, maybe to confront the second bird. It’s gone 7 am now and four hours in the wood has felt like half an hour. I move onto a lower track past a few old station wagons and catch sight

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of a pair of Spotted Flycatchers. I sit quietly and watch as they disclose their nesting crevice, bringing moss and lichen as lining. This is a bird whose song I know I won’t pick up. It’s as inconspicuous as any of the woodland birds with its high-pitched, scratchy warble. Along with the Goldcrest it’s one of the first songs to elude the failing ear of the elderly. Again though, watching these charismatic birds, my mind slips from the moment as I think about the drastic decline that has befallen them; nearly a ninety per cent decline since the 1970s, and I realize that in a decade or so they may disappear from woods like these. I head back towards my van but decide to go via the small stone hut to spend some time with the Yellowhammers, which are almost a given here. Still no one has broken my solitude, but construction traffic and site machinery has displaced the natural soundscape as work continues on a new hydroelectric scheme that has been designed to have minimal impact on the local environment. That may be so, but the scarring of the land by the new pipeline is intrusive and disturbing. I decide to spend some time around the stone hut and enjoy fine views of Marsh Tit, Lesser Redpoll and, as I thought, the fast-declining Yellowhammer, another bird on the Red list. Sixty-seven birds are on the UK red list as of 2020 and woodland habitat is where the majority of the Red listed species occur. The list has been compiled from records taken by thousands of volunteers around the country who carry out regular survey work for the British Trust for Ornithology, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. It has three categories, Red, Amber and Green, and to be on the Red list the bird must be in real trouble and declining fast; in fact by more than fifty per cent in the last twenty-five years. Those on the Amber

Figure 9, above: Redstart; figure 10, below: Wood Warbler


Figure 11, above: Spotted Flycatcher with nesting material; figure 12, below: Pied Flycatcher

Figure 13, above: Marsh Tit; figure 14, below: Yellowhammer

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list show a decline of between twenty-five and fifty per cent, but may also represent those birds that are recovering from historical decline. The Green listed birds are not considered to be of concern just now. The problem is, though, that the movement from Green to Amber to Red can be all too quick, and without funded research the reasons are often complex and difficult to understand. Obvious factors include habitat loss, unfavourable conditions and persecution on migratory routes, the use of insecticides and global warming, but there are curious things happening, and hard science is needed to drill down and reveal how we can reverse this disturbing trend. 8.30 am now, and the first car draws into the carpark by the hut, I make my way back to the van and put my head down for a couple of hours. I feel refreshed and, although a little tired, privileged to have been part of something very special. I know I’ll be out early a few times more over the coming weeks, but here in this secluded Welsh sessile wood this morning I feel I’ve have glimpsed what it means to be part of a greater whole. Without this total immersion it’s hard to see how we can really understand our own true position within an ecosystem that has become so anthropocentric. The wood is quieter now, and returning to it I have a chance to watch Dippers and Kites. The Welsh Holy Trinity are still active but the dawn orchestra has abated and individual songsters are easier to pick out against a more muted backdrop. The wood, though never busy, is now a shared experience, as day visitors begin to arrive; I decide to leave it to others.

Figure 15. Lesser Redpoll


RSPB Dinas

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April 2020 or what is near

April 2020 or what is near Now welcome somer, with thy sonne soft that hast this wintres weders over-shake And driven away the longe nights blake —Geoffrey Chaucer bat loops grey-pink dawn as day birds begin not one choral voice but singlings merge unmerge nearly too much, many tones flung up, across, answering following catching into static electric sky sheering skeeting churring a thousand raspy wires around still windmill whirl out separate pigeon echo depths we hear as mourning, cockerel’s wailing lessons pheasant’s bursting barks through blue-streak clouds : purple rising, voices settling fading to chime with whinnying horse tearing grass wind stirring dead daffodil heads, single plane just one, tears sound through but dark-lit blackbird by the window trebles on in lilac & briar, catch in throat, page now visible

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gate opens to mist-edged Choppards stopped cars pulled in aslant, leaves on windscreens, wild ducks quark-quarking soar set the field off : hens cluck-calling in waiting run, goose shudders awake, young pheasants foolheartedly follow parents : one heads up cork-cork-cork into smooth streak flight all overlaid with thin lit notes of robin pulling worms in violets chink-chink-chink alarmed off to wood stack to sycamore corridor bowing down outer branches, now lost into bushes every crossing a possible bird body : wren chirr-rr chirr-r quick brown creep, tail up & gone in time it takes to look, to listen for notes : on ear and ear detects a different air not field recordings but spottings in time, at still intervals, to Caddel’s next listening point, alert to each other to our steps to their twig quiver look up to high hawthorn pale bellies of Bunting’s spuggies darkening into figures of themselves as great tit flutter wings whirr vibrate in her flight away from here

through weighted rusted gate to climb field magpies picking over muckspread scatter up through early smoke of unexpected weekday at home : on Cartworth Bank frost in spreading forget-me-not corners, purple honesty still far from sun across the valley : Clare’s bumbarrels 5—no—7, 8—flit the lane to hawthorn tree see see tsee see see see tsee tails balancing catch-fall catch-fall enscribed as tiny vowels & consonants, Olson’s elements & minims of language in the unseen skylark’s continuous new-skeinèd score: and we tell our stories of disappearances (nature officials grant licences to kill 40 species if in conflict with human activity) of returns to skies bluer since, where spirits dwell in air, fall breathless have you anything to say to me? slip up steep-stepped wood-pigeon-land remnant of birch & sycamore, squirrels leapdip, fan tails crack branched air, land low & loud on burnished birches : dizzy against trunks leaning to catch birds sing concealed in Thomson’s vocal woods in Spring, his


blackbird, bullfinch, jay, rook, daw here still, but Bronte’s linnet trilling its song on the old granite stone rare now : leaning to catch that splintering song of sprung spurge, tight fiddleheads, bluebell twists waiting budburst by sorrel whites, nettle yellows variegating under leaves serrating day on day to canopy over : 3 bluetits bob-singing in orison, unison from birch to sycamore to rowan heights flickering out into tops & tips triplet flight-calls without song of guns robin flits silver-edge-crinkled holly either side of fence protects nests crosses territories whose woods these are I think I know up Arrunden (sorry-we-are-closed at kennels) disturbing steps into merge song mist 2 coal tits flit from oak up Waltin Farm track sparrows flock from witches’ knots, skip-crossing lane to bramble brake, gulls scatter up from pasture to layered grey skies, pigeon wings clatter against lamb calls lack, lack, lack of sunlight makes plaintive : ch-ch-si-si-si goes

Benson’s titmouse jagged through bright beeches yellow-green-yellow-green ch-ch-si-si-si yellowgreen-yellow & gone : sapling stills leaves float flat lateral along blind branches growing minute by minute as pheasant moves his copper gold through last season’s leaves and nuts have you seen a valley green with spring? into dark forestry, deep breath of conifer along low branches blue-grey flash – nuthatch? running into flight : pushing into pines’ resistances glimpse nests block black branches sources of voices through wind within tree echo shifting flight-rest-flight-rest spaces, weaves of homely stuff, rims from not to fall I don’t know if you can find these things : craw-craw-crawing silhouettes sound out of monochrome into warm colours of humming bees over bilberry flowers by reservoir blue tits stripping buds : peuu peuu peuu bullfinch follows his mate up to telegraph & back to farmyard it attacks buds of fruit trees – growers permitted to destroy birds by shooting or trapping their rose pink bodies rising, their quiet creaking

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warble low under jay’s white-blue-pink-blue-black startled crying flight hearts spinning back over water to woods my heart is riding on your wings on Green Lane fast furtive car scares pigeon pair hovering about their straggling home built when roads were stilled, frights up a pair of ducks to loud scrim-scudding flashing flight onto Giant’s Foot, mine pit once now meadow pond : red-gold fast-flirting finches flit about greening birches, brown blackbird’s jumpsinging wall’s length along the Ribble, her lad below gives out his best notes we call liquidity whistle-pause-whistle-pause as heron wings to water only birds cross over : Ear-Loads I Sing! to my lover our breath together everywhere pairings passings, parsings have you anything to say to me? jackdaws swerve down to Washpit Mill part raised to rubble, stone heights towers of flight still stand, the opposite of abandoned developments delay & they settle, caw louder

mourn the loss of people no wild bird does that isn’t what they say of course, scorn letters that can be written, only perhaps by Messiaen played by Loriod listening, scoring, fingering a Reveil des Oiseaux, us imitating them like wearing feathers, uncanny reversal of our litanies, all those poems & field guides, even Benson’s HAUNT/NEST/EGGS/FOOD/NOTES her Bird-Lovers’ League. Ah, what shall language do? said Thomson in 1728 and still a poem’s as absurd as a chorus, as a parlement, as the first cuckoo of spring I never heard—the one that’s prized because she seems to say a word coming home a siskin sits on elder at the bend of road ruffling her feathers singing a clear song With acknowledgement and thanks to the following writers and texts: Geoffrey Chaucer, Parlement of Foules (1381–1382); James Thomson, The Seasons (1728); John Clare’s early nineteenth-century bird and nest poems; Emily Brontë, ‘Stanzas’ (1838) and ‘Song’ (1844); Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Sea and the Skylark’ (1877); Robert Frost, North of Boston (1914) and New Hampshire (1923); S Vere Benson, The Observer’s Book of British Birds (1937); Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, Skylark (1942); Olivier Messiaen, Le Réveil des Oiseaux played by Yvonne Loriod (1953); much of Lorine Niedecker; Basil Bunting, Briggflatts (1966); Ronald Johnson, The Book of the Green Man (1967); The Reader’s Digest Field Guide to the Birds of Britain (1981); Richard Caddel’s Ground (1994); Colin Simms’ bird poems; Maggie O’Sullivan, especially ‘Starlings’ and ‘Lessons from the Cockerel’; Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, The Grassling (2019), and both MO’S and E-JB in performance.


A man standing in a forest listening intently, noting down what he hears


e is there in the forest to revitalize, to connect with a world that exists beyond his construction, beyond his imagining. In my hours of gloom, when I am suddenly aware of my own futility, when every musical idiom—classical, oriental, ancient, modern and ultramodern—appears to me as no more than admirable, painstaking experimentation, without any ultimate justification, what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music somewhere off in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seashore, among the birds. (Messiaen in Johnson [1975] 2008: 117)

The ‘lost face of music’ is the song of birds. It is difficult for the human ear to hear birdsong. Its registers are high and tempi faster than human music and therefore beyond the capacity and skill of most human performers, particularly in the West. Our composer in the forest transposes the patterns that he perceives into new patterns that are lower and slower than birdsong. He respects the intervals that uniquely characterize each song, building on melodic lines through harmonies that aim to capture the specificity of each species of bird and their unique calls. These vary with times of day so that one bird might sing differently at night, dawn, morning or evening, and different species of bird sing alongside each other at different times of day. The songs of birds express the affirmation of their own territory, their amorous or courting impulse, and most beautiful of all, their salutes to the dawning or dying light. (Messiaen in Bell 1984: 119)

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To define a territory a song needs to be distinct, recognizable and precise. To attract a mate requires the additional quality of an aesthetic, the desire to reach out, to communicate. Saluting the dawn or dusk springs from a sense of joy, the joy of being alive, of having survived the night and of having survived the day. These complex forms of energy are all present in Messiaen’s Le Réveil des Oiseaux (The Awakening of the Birds, 1953). Le Réveil begins at midnight and follows an arc through 4 am, dawn, morning to midday. It is made up of birdsong and only birdsong ‘Il n’y a dans cette partition que des chants d’oiseaux’ (‘There is nothing but the song of birds in this score’, Messiaen [1953] 1999: up).1 The piece is minutely observed through the composer’s presence in the forest and field. The resulting form is unsentimental. It strives to be authentic. Authenticity is different from accuracy. It is a process of becoming immersed and perhaps transgressing a threshold that separates the human from the non-human, melding with the world, then re-emerging to communicate onwards through the composition. If I were to stand in the forest at dawn with my lack of experience of birdsong, I would hear a cacophony of sounds that would be barely distinguishable in terms of different species. Messiaen’s Le Réveil has the possibility of opening the dawn chorus up to me through its careful sequencing of discrete patterns of sound over a period of transition from night to day, from dark to light. It becomes a point of entry, something to work with that takes me beyond my own sense of futility, born of not knowing this other world better and of not knowing how to draw better. How can I explore this work more deeply? Perhaps through the visual, a medium closer to me than music? Perhaps through words? How might such an exploration take me closer to the world of the birds? Is it indeed

even possible to enter imaginatively into that world? A drawing by the artist and musician, Paul Klee (1879–1940) strikes me as coming close to imagining the world from the perspective of birds. Entitled Zusammenhang und Früchte (1927, translated as Connection and Fruits),2 the drawing depicts what appear to be birds eyeing three fruits from a distance. Perhaps these fruits are their source of life, of energy and continuity. Is this the connection alluded to in the title? There are other possible connections: the tension between the different pairs of eyes evokes a profound awareness of the presence of the other and competition perhaps for the same source of food. A thin line divides life from death, which is suggested by a skull form, more human than bird, the sockets of which are clearly blind, unable to see in the way that the birds see, no longer alert in the way the birds are alert. The direction of the multiple stares takes form as a series of deliberate and carefully placed dots or circles, across the picture plane, including dots at the centre of the fruits.

Figure 1. Author’s copy of Paul Klee’s original Zusammenhang und Früchte, 1927, pencil on paper, undertaken as part of a research project at Zentrum Paul Klee, March 2018


They create a mystery that is strange, uncanny even. Drawing shares with music a formal language: the notion of tone as a transition, from light to dark and dark to light, or alternatively from loud to soft and soft to loud. We speak of line in both domains, and of colour. We refer to points in space that resemble the smallest component in music, a note that has a value, a full tone, half tone, quarter tone or smaller. These small components, a dot or a note, create the capacity we have for infinite variability, the capacity to change direction, to break a block of space/sound into smaller parts, to diverge. We experience weight in colour and weight in a sound. The tone of a painting may be heavy or light, the mood of a piece of music or performance likewise. Both music and drawing are time-based, rhythmic, but in different senses. The form of a piece of music unfolds through time while a drawing may be grasped in a single moment, its temporal passage revealed to the eye all at once. The play of both media in perception and experience is even more complex in the sense that we navigate the surface of a drawing through time, creating pathways or following ones that are given to us by the artist. This is similar to following a line in music. At the same time we can grasp the experience or mood of music in a second. Some people associate numbers with colours (synaesthesia). We can also hear sound through words (onomatopoeia). The word Huam indicates the moan of an owl in the warm days of summer in the Scots language (Thomson 2018: backcover). Indeed Messiaen uses onomatopoeia throughout his score to give some idea of the quality of sound and rhythm he is seeking. How might these notions aid my exploration of Messiaen’s Le Réveil and by extension the dawn chorus? The visual, verbal and musical are quite different forms of communication despite the commonality we

attribute to them. They offer distinctive possibilities for experience. They engage quite specific kinds of constraints in relation to the body and the instruments and tools we use. I am beginning to feel that it is possibly a pointless, pretentious idea, too challenging to embark on. But if I put these reservations to one side, where might I begin? And why? Klee once said that an artist undertakes an analysis of the work of another artist in order to ‘set ourselves in motion’, to follow the energy of creativity, to avoid seeing an existing work of art as something rigid, fixed and unchanging (Klee in Spiller [1961] 1969: 99). Klee explored the difference between an artist’s and a chemist’s approach to analysis. The chemist, in contrast to the artist’s exploratory, open-ended approach, is motivated to break down a particular compound in order to be able to copy it for its excellent effects or to disclose its harmful effects. The artist instead works with existing material to embark on a new journey, an improvisation of sorts. Constraints are necessary and important within any improvisation. An existing work of art that is copied is a constraint of sorts, as is the knowledge that the artist who copies brings to their analysis, their skill and focus of interest. While forming some firm ground, it is perhaps important not to be trapped by prior knowledge, to be open to indeterminacy, to the possibility of a new world or at least a new direction, imagining the constraint as a pathway to improvisation. What might it mean to analyse Messiaen’s Le Réveil in this way, to explore this work as alive? Might this take me nearer to an experience of dawn, the dawn chorus even? The point of doing so would not be to make art out of art, but rather to create an encounter between Messiaen’s extraordinary celebration of the awakening of the day and myself as

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audience, an encounter that might become an experience of deep listening in Pauline Oliveros’ sense of walking ‘so silently that the bottoms of our feet become ears’ (Oliveros in Bloom et al 2017: 16–17). Oliveros carefully distinguished between listening and hearing. Where the latter, hearing, can be measured, listening engages us with a lifetime of accumulated experience. Listening varies from human to human and presumably from creature to creature. It is dependent upon the languages we share and on the subjectivity we bring to the experience. What seems to matter is quality of attention and quality of imagination. Deep Listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one’s own thoughts. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all there is. (Oliveros in Bloom et al 2017: back cover) And so I begin, analysing the score. It is midnight.3 A nightingale pierces an otherwise soundless dark, the first to herald the night through a repeated ‘tikotikotiko’, beginning quite loudly then softly. The light of dawn is gradual in the northern hemisphere. The sound of the nightingale is of a different tempo, altogether more urgent. He/she is joined by another nightingale, then a third: ‘tio, tio, tiolaborix’, to which the first nightingale responds with his opening call. Then sudden silence. An owl breaks this quiet with a screech and is quickly joined by a snuffling wryneck (‘tuin, tuin’). The owl returns and is joined by a warbler,

Figure 2. Olivier Messiaen, solo of the first nightingale at midnight from the handwritten score of Le Réveil des Oiseaux, 1953, RES VMA MS 1527, page 1, digital image © and permission Fonds Messiaen and Bibliothèque nationale de France


a lark, then a blackbird and night jar, a chiffchaff (‘zip zap, zip zap’), a robin, the lark and the owl, then a song thrush (é-didi, é-didi, tioto, tioto, touhitte). The blackbird reappears followed by a pair of chaffinches and a whitethroat. Each song is clearly distinct and identifiable, at times discrete and at other times synchronous. They appear to conjure the dawn out of the darkness. Some songs are lines of single notes. Others are extraordinarily complex chords of one or more instruments. I read that Messiaen took the time to hone and perfect the colour or timbre of each call. Already I am overwhelmed with the complexity. Where to start with drawing? And yet there are clues. Drawing also involves a kind of immersion in the context, whether that is a forest or a studio. It involves transposing what we perceive in experience, giving form to this experience in ways that are slower, more painstaking than the immediacy of perception through the senses. Drawing plays between action and reflection. As in music, the act of drawing demands that we respect the intervals that uniquely characterize what we happen to be looking at, building on visual clues that aim to capture the character of what we encounter in its time of day as distinct, recognizable and precise. A need for clarity is driven by the desire to reach out, to communicate. It springs from a sense of joy and also of struggle. I move into the next phase of the awakening, the dawn itself. It’s 4 am … The dawn chorus begins with the trumpeting call of a melodius warbler (hypolais polyglotte). It is emphatic, talkative (bavardé), unpleasant even (désagréable). It is soon joined by the cry of a hoopoe, then briefly a green woodpecker, quickly followed by a robin, a song thrush. At first the calls

Figure 3. Olivier Messiaen, build-up of the dawn chorus from the handwritten score of Le Réveil des Oiseaux, 1953, RES VMA MS 1527, page 30, digital image © and permission Fonds Messiaen and Bibliothèque nationale de France

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are distinct, recognizable and then gradually build up into a counterpoint of nearly two dozen simultaneous songs, different calls over-layered in a thickly textured soundscape, high-pitched, rhythmic like a brass band, percussive, occasionally melodic. All stop abruptly at sunrise. The call of the morning is led by the blackcap, authoritatively, on piano. He/She is joined by numerous other species—a turtle dove (flute), white throat (celeste), finches (clarinet), a songthrush, an oriole, two blackbirds and two robins. Each call is distinct, some thirteen different calls. Another long silence. Finally at midday this complex sound world gives way to a very short thirty-second ending—two chaffinches on violin, followed by a woodpecker (wooden blocks) and a very distant cuckoo (chinese block). This makes me wonder: how do we as human beings celebrate the dawn? The monotone of vehicles over tarmacked roads, the crush of human bodies into carriages, the ‘rush hour’ is a constrained palette, repetitive and consistent rather than rhythmic, occasionally broken by the sound of a siren declaring an emergency; a warning rather than the call for a mate or affirmation of a territory. It is a unidirectional flow of sound to and from work, accompanied by a sense of urgency to reach a destination. We consume the space between and the dawning or dying of light goes unnoticed. The sound of wheels on tarmac or train track is relentless in its continuity. We fill the space in between, blocking out the silences that would allow us to breathe and take note. In the score of Le Réveil des Oiseaux Messiaen makes three dedications, firstly to Jacques Delamain, the ornithologist and mentor to Messiaen’s bird studies; secondly to Yvonne Loriod, the pianist and Messiaen’s muse,

Figure 4. Olivier Messiaen, final bars with woodpecker and cuckoo of the handwritten score of Le Réveil des Oiseaux, 1953, RES VMA MS 1527, page 77, digital image © and permission Fonds Messiaen and Bibliothèque nationale de France


later his wife, who played and edited the piano part and, thirdly, to ‘the blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales, orioles, robins, warblers and all birds of the forests’ (Messiaen [1953] 1999: up). The birds are arguably the finest musicians to inhabit the planet. To bridge the space between the human and the birds, the composer needs to open up to a new kind of music eschewing tradition, engaging his skill and imagination. The piece hovers, like dawn on the edge of vision, at the edge of composition and on the edge of how we know the world. I start with the question: What is the form that would allow me transpose one experience (the Messiaen) into another (a drawing)? Then I realize that this is a false objective. What I look for in the activity of drawing seems to be quite different from Messiaen’s turning to birdsong to escape the tedium of experimentation in modernism. I know that I generally only draw what I can experience. Often the object of drawing is simple, banal even. It is a medium in its own right. I draw to be present, to be quiet and pay attention. Each drawing is a reaching out, reaching beyond what I know how to do. The challenge to draw anything at all becomes overwhelming to the point of having to remind myself to keep going, to become still in order to become acquainted, acknowledging the threat of failure, of meaninglessness. Faced with the Messiaen, I feel the limitations of such an approach, of being tied to a subject in front of me for long periods. How to break this impasse? In the 1970s Brian Eno, a composer and visual artist, in collaboration with Peter Schmidt, another composer, created a set of notes as instructions. Entitled Oblique Strategies, the project consisted of a set of 115 white cards with simple black text in a deck subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile

Dilemmas (Eno & Schmidt [1974] 2014).4 The cards were essentially a practical tool for generating ideas, a means to break through a creative block and break free of stale thought patterns. The strategies are presented as a conceptual artwork. I feel they might help me to create a particular kind of alertness, focusing on the formal properties of the Messiaen but nonetheless opening up an opportunity for experience. Four particular cards resonate. Take away elements in order of apparent non-importance/ Take away elements in order of apparent importance (Eno & Schmidt, 1974, cards 19 & 20) Perhaps this means removing any reference to birds, ie the obvious and important in order to focus on the arc of change from midnight to dawn. What does a bird see within this arc of midnight, 4 am and dawn, daybreak, mid-morning and midday? Does he or she see what I see? If a thing can be said it can be said simply (Eno & Schmidt, 1974, card 11) Simplicity for me is line and of course more than this, simplicity of content expressed directly. Are there sections? Consider transitions (Eno & Schmidt, 1974, card 8) At this point I check the score again. The paragraph structure that Messiaen gives us in his introduction to the score suggests five sections, but these are not of equal length as I had first believed, nor do the silences

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correspond to section breaks. Between midnight and dawn, the first silence occurs at 2 minutes, 40 seconds, ie closer to midnight than to dawn, separating the nightingales, which are the first to sing, from other night birds like the owl, the warbler and the lark, among others. This whole section is approximately 6½ minutes long and moves straight into the next section, the dawn chorus, without a further break, building in intensity over five minutes duration. It is as if the first part opens up the possibility of the second and then breaks suddenly into silence with dawn (approximately two seconds). The large breaks or great silences in the score are authentic to the pattern of silences in nature and Messiaen calls upon the musicians, particularly the pianist, to respect them for this reason, to take themselves into the forest and experience the form that birdsong takes within the arc from midnight through dawn to midday. Like respecting the proportions of the intervals within each song, this element of accuracy suggests something more than the compulsion to copy nature, mimetically. It is about making a connection, spilling over in a sensory way into a life that is beyond human construction. Messiaen’s birdsong is quite different from other composers in this respect, from Beethoven, Couperin, Stravinsky. It goes beyond a form that is firmly recognizable in the human world of harmony and melody. It is a transcription from nature that risks strangeness. In these first drawings I have focused on the light, the dramatic transitions of midnight to dawn at 4 am, daybreak, morning and midday. It is perhaps at this point that any connection between drawing and the Messiaen becomes tenuous. I walk and find myself creating an imaginary conversation, wondering what the world of a bird can possibly be like. Human beings alternate

their feet from left to right. Some birds, chickens and pigeons, also do so, birds that are close to the ground, to gravity. Other birds, that are capable of flying to great heights, hop on two feet. Their relationship with gravity near the ground is very constrained, but once in the air it is freer. Such a bird can swoop, dive, glide, encircle, free in the way a drawing might be. Walking creates pathways that are made by walking, by the action of feet folding vegetation and, through repetition, creating a degree of unintended permanence. Others can follow the same path, however temporary, as long as it is already marked out. In so doing we trace a movement in experience. We become the movement and bring along with us its past, present and future. Pathways exist elsewhere in nature. The dawn creates paths of light as the sun breaks the horizon, a full moon likewise, neither becoming engrained into the earth’s surface. A bird, like moon or sunlight, has no prescribed routes other than the momentary forces of currents of air created by a particular convergence of elements in a moment in time. I see a tree in the distance. It is a thing of beauty, of energy, revealed through light, neither a threat nor something that is of use to me, or perhaps ‘of use’ only as an object of contemplation, to draw. It is this quality of encounter, of chance, that brings me pleasure. Are such moments of pleasure possible in the world of a bird, in its struggle for survival? Its landscape is different from that of a human but is its seeing merely instrumental, dictated purely by the need for food or a mate? This is how we tend to explain their activities, but is it possible that the birds celebrate the dawn, as Messiaen suggests, by sensing a larger movement of which they are a part? The thought of such a possibility gifts the composition of the Le Réveil with a sense of joy, of connectedness to this larger domain


through the senses and through the imagination. I come across another, quite different sense of the dawn. ‘Aubade’ (1977), a poem to the dawn by Philip Larkin (1922–1985) evokes the dark at 4 am as ‘soundless’, dense, in some sense relentless. In time ‘the curtain edges will grow light’. For Larkin the dawning of a new day brings him one day nearer to death. And death is the loss of the capacity to feel, to sense, to be here or anywhere. No rational being Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anaesthetic from which none come round. (Larkin 1977) What is the experience of death for a bird? Do they mourn? It would appear that some species do so: the jar, the crow and raven. How do birds experience life? The dramatic transformation in light across the two works, the Messiaen and Larkin, opens up to scale and a raft of emotions as the light strengthens and the world takes shape, becoming intelligible. Is it this enormity in the face of nature that the birds also sense and celebrate? In exploring the dawn chorus through drawing and writing, through existing works of art and through direct experiences of walking, I start to wonder at the complexity of our human relationship with nature. As living organisms we are inextricably part of nature, bound to its rhythms and cycles, much like the birds. We also hover over nature and are capable of distancing ourselves in our imagination. We reflect, question and

analyse, breaking up what we sense and see into fragments in order to understand and to share understanding. We apply method to our analyses and communicate what we discover through language. ‘Hovering over’ can imply separation, a sense of alienation from nature, predisposing us to think of nature as something we need to overpower before it overpowers us, as it does in death. This quality of relationship is combative. It also undermines the considerable influence (and responsibility) that human beings have in the way life itself unfolds and develops. Is there another possible imaginary? On the one hand the dawn offers reassurance, the security of a pattern, a rhythm that occurs again and again. Each repetition is also a variation, experienced uniquely. The patterns of sound within the dawn chorus, the birdcalls, are known, recognizable, within and across species. They are sounded each day (though mainly associated with spring and early summer). This repetition is not mechanical but performative, coming into being as if for the first time. Drawing and writing (like music) are then an affirmation of a territory, not in a combative, competitive sense but as a way to encircle the chaos that surrounds us. They create a moment, a focus, to open up a quality of time ‘experienced’, rather than time ‘spent’. As forms of communication they are simultaneously open-ended and subject to constraints. They require a particular kind of attentiveness and energy in relation to the senses, learning to observe carefully, to question what appears to be given, to enable us to feel what may not be immediately disclosed. This need for skill, knowledge and practice appears at first to contradict spontaneity but all four are necessary conditions for creativity.

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Figure 5, above: Robin; figure 6, below: Blackcap

Figure 7, above: Chiffchaff; figure 8, below: Wryneck


Perhaps what Messiaen and Klee have taught me is the importance of being awake, of breaking free of the codes we have set ourselves. By trusting intuition and training the body to be the finest instrument of perception, the man standing in the field opens birdsong up to us, crossing into a world that is very real and yet mysterious. He touches that part of nature that is within me. In this way the dawn chorus becomes a specific experience that connects me to a place and a moment in time. I am touched, moved by what I experience and the chaos that is life becomes momentarily ordered. We do not understand speech, because speech does not understand itself, nor wish to; the true Sanskrit would speak in order to speak, because speech is its delight and essence. (Novalis 2005: 5)

Bibliography Carla Huston Bell, 1984, Olivier Messiaen, Twayne Publishers, Boston, Massachusetts Brett Bloom et al, 2017, Sonic Meditations: By 10 Deep Listeners, Half Letter Press, Chicago Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, 1974, Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, available at, accessed January 2020 Robert Sherlaw Johnson, (1975) 2008, Messiaen, Omnibus Press, London Phillip Larkin, 1977, ‘Aubade’, available at, accessed January 2020 Olivier Messiaen, (1953) 1999, Le Réveil des Oiseaux, pour piano solo et orchestra, version revised by the composer in 1988, Durand Editions Musicales, Paris Olivier Messiaen, (1953), Le Réveil des Oiseaux, pour piano solo et orchestra, handwritten manuscript, MS-23043, Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris Novalis, 2005, The Novices of Sais, with illustrations by Paul Klee, Ralph Mannheim, trans, Archipelago Books, Brooklyn, New York Pauline Oliveros, 2017, in Breakdown Break Down Workbook, 3:1, November, Half Letter Press & Breakdown Press, Chicago


Jürg Spiller, (1961) 1969, Paul Klee Notebooks Vol 1: The Thinking Eye, translated by Ralph Mannheim from the German edition Das bildnerische Denken, Lund Humphries, London and Bradford

1. Author’s translation.

Amanda Thomson, 2018, A Scots Dictionary of Nature, Saraband, Glasgow and Salford

2. During a research visit to Zentrum Paul Klee (ZPK), I undertook to copy a number of original works by Paul Klee as an experimental research method (March 2018). The original work is part of the collection of ZPK. My research was funded by the EU Advanced Grant Knowing from Inside (2013–2018), led by Professor Tim Ingold, Aberdeen University, Scotland. 3. I have occasionally emboldened the text when aspects of the score or my own walking activity suggest content for a drawing. 4. I am grateful to Chris Fremantle, artist researcher, for pointing me in this direction.

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Figure 9, above: Sedge Warbler; figure 10, below: Wood Warbler

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& bioacoustic boundaries of dawn overlapping & migrating the edges flattening as the season wears


Choral Twitter

Welcome, with your lovely greenwood choir, summery month of May for which I long!—Dafydd ap Gwilym, c 1325–c 1380


his essay meanders a little through various perspectives on the idea of a bird chorus and specifically the dawn chorus. Maybe because my youth involved the study of ancient Greek literature, I have a tendency to follow word trails. And chorus is a word that comes to us through Greek. So I’ve framed the piece with a hint to the ritual structure of Old Attic Comedy, in a spirit of celebration, as a fitting way to approach a phenomenon as enthralling as the dawn chorus of birds in the northern temperate latitudes.

Parodos In Which the Chorus Enters… It’s such a simple phrase, quietly embedded in our subconscious grasp of the outer world, the liminal animalia between ourselves and the amoeba. Every day has a dawn: maybe we all have a personal soundtrack to cinematize the returning light. The smiling babble of a radio DJ, the building rumble of passing traffic, the harmonic drift of new age synths, distant waves from a seashore, or the snoring of a partner. They could all be someone’s personal dawn chorus; but the dawn chorus belongs to birds.

Figure 1. Marcus Woodward, May, illustration from An Arcadian Calendar, 1926, Geoffrey Bles, London, collection of

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Old Attic Comedy Let’s go back to 414 years before the dawn of Christ in a middle eastern stable. At the riotous pagan festival of the city Dionysia in Athens, the patron divinity Dionysus, a rural god of wine and ecstatic ritual, is ascendant and a truly exotic chorus of birds is about to enter the stage. Irreverent and shockingly inspiring. Aristophanes is the classic writer of Old Attic Comedy, the first manifestation of ancient Greek comedic dramas, and his play The Birds (from which we’ve received the term ‘cloudcuckooland’) featured a full chorus of twenty-four people spectacularly outfitted as birds, all different species, as well as a hoopoe for a central character and a flute-player for nightingale (Barrett 1978). Not only is this probably the first recorded human portrayal of what we might now loosely call the dawn chorus, as well as a great source for information on ancient ornithology and the symbolism of birds, it was also conceived and produced in a place and time as close as we can get to the origins of the word chorus. The reason I’ve started here, Athens 414 BCE, will gradually become apparent, but centres on what is meant by chorus. A chorus is the group as one, a collective: to move and sing together is truly to be together—all together now—we are family. The first recorded use of the word comes to us in this body of ancient Greek literature and, according to the Greek lexicon, refers to a group of people dancing together, often in a circle. In Greek drama of classical times, both tragedy and comedy, the chorus not only binds the narrative with lyrical commentary, but embodies the necessary ritual in honour of the divinities presiding over the festival, of which the dramatic performances were a focal part.

In contemporary music the chorus is the singalong section, built around the hook-line, the ear-worm: the typical structure of a pop song being verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, (verse), chorus, where each verse is individual but each chorus more or less identical. So what of a bird chorus? The Birds was just one of several plays that Aristophanes wrote and produced featuring animals for the chorus, and bear in mind that the chorus held a central and important role in this genre of Greek drama: his others were The Frogs and The Wasps. The Birds was awarded second prize at the festival; it puzzles me a little that such a spectacular piece did not win. Maybe the audience had seen it all before—or something similar. There are so few surviving examples of this rich tradition of comedic and ritualistic performances and we know so little of its origins. The American classicist Kenneth Rothwell suggests that the form of Old Attic Comedy emerged from ancient ritual centred on group mimesis of social animals: ie the chorus, as such, was the original core and is still central to the later dramas (Rothwell 2010). He goes on to say: The animal choruses of the late fifth century may have been conscious revivals of an earlier tradition. Moreover, the animals of comedy were not the predators found in other literary genres; they were, instead, social animals who showed that nature and culture could co-exist. If Rothwell is right, it appears that in its original sense the notion of a chorus encompassed a kind of animal behaviour that could be applied to both human and non-human group performances, and the idea may have arisen from observation and imitation of the latter. Though to


what extent we project our own reflection and sense of organization on what we observe is a difficult question and crucial to how we see ourselves as animals. In the Soundfield My interests as a field recordist had originally centred on what I referred to as bird communities and acoustic landscapes: I was thinking in terms of ecological communities, though scientific ecologists tend to use the term community for a group of organisms across a wider trophic scale than simply birds. But in my native arena of northern Britain, birds are the predominant element in what has come to be known as the biophony (Krause 2008), the soundscape of living things—particularly within our general human experience and range of hearing; so birds were largely my subject matter by default, as much as by any predilection. In those early years the dawn chorus wasn’t a dominant motif: dawn and the early morning, with its tendency for the cool and calm conditions that facilitate sound transmission (considered one of the reasons for this chorus being at dawn) and, most importantly for me, the low level of human traffic, was simply the best time of day for recording nature. Additionally, the early morning environment and its emerging light had a personal hold on me long before my interests developed into field recording; childhood fishing expeditions at dawn had a magic about them, and almost certainly much of that magic was generated by the aural experience of time and place. The idea of a chorus was in itself important, but in a rather basic way, in terms of my wildlife recording, related to the notion of a community of individuals: I was drawn to scenes with a multiplicity of voices as much as

recording individuals. So, choral in the way a human choral piece of music may describe a smaller group of singers as well as a full choir. I’d rather quickly formed the impression, when I began making recordings of birdsong, that the dawn chorus itself was something of a cacophonous wall of sound, a free-for-all mess, at least in those denselypopulated suburban-rural habitats where humans and birds tend to overlap and which provide the core dawn chorus experience for its transspecies audience. While the opening voices and slow build that mark the transition from night to day have a haunting charm, the full chorus, or the ‘Great Chorus’ of a May morning as Edward Grey (1927) has it, was something to experience as a phenomenon in the flesh and best avoided with microphones. Maybe it’s when our listening is separated from the synaesthetic sensuality of experiencing the event in the flesh. Or maybe it’s down to my personal taste. But listening to a recording of the peak dawn chorus period from a populous bird community is too much: the density of sound with many different strands becomes tiring to listen to. Nevertheless, through the side of my work that involved engaging the public in conversation about birdsong, selling CDs of my sound work, talks and collaborations in creative projects, I became aware that the dawn chorus is very much a popular idea. Maybe even ‘the thing’ with birdsong. This public perception may also have a sense that the dawn chorus is a kind of epitome of the beauty of birdsong. I realized I needed to do some work on full dawn choruses, and maybe even produce a CD of a classic dawn chorus. But what is a classic dawn chorus?

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Callaly: An Anglo-Saxon Farmstead On 9th May 1998, I was on site and ready to record at 4.15 am British Summer Time (BST) in the old oaks of the mixed woodland near Callaly Castle in Northumberland. There wasn’t much light to find my way through the wood, but already there were robins, a song thrush and blackbird, several redstarts and woodpigeons all doing their stuff as a roding woodcock came past close over my head. Too bad. I’d missed the beguiling start; but I continued recording around the woods until about 9 am. The main part of the dawn chorus didn’t work for me as a recording: it was too much of an assault on the ears in the spot I’d tried. Four days later I was back in the same place, almost, at 3.45 am, but now out in the clearing facing back towards the oaks. And this time the trees were dripping from the heavy overnight mists drifted in off the North Sea in the typical easterly airflow of this time of year. Otherwise just the woodcock doing his rounds and some tawny owl activity further off, but nothing more for a good ten minutes until somewhere in the mid-distance a robin started up, which set off a redstart nearby, then the softest hint of blackbird song. A slow, slow build, until ten minutes later there was a weft of robins, song thrushes and blackbirds as far as the ear could hear, and always the occasional woodpigeon, but nothing close for another five minutes. Soon the wrens kicked in with their staccato sibilance, after a while at least one treecreeper, a great tit and chaffinch. At some point I could just about make out a garden warbler. It was a rather lovely chorus, but, as a recording, somewhat compromised by the pops and clicks of the dewfall. So, another four days later I was back again, on a Sunday, usually the quietest morning of the week in terms of human activity, and I was set up

on site for 3.55 am. A redstart, close relative of the nightingale, is singing alone. Distant cuckoo and some tawny conversations a way off. A roe deer barks at my scent or sound. A song thrush begins mid-distance as a woodcock approaches. A second redstart voices up, then a distant robin. Oh. This is it. Something like heaven. The quiet blossoming of an ancestral dawn chorus in deep acoustic space. That first period, as a few scattered birds begin to sing out of the night’s silence, I still feel is as close as the real world gets to magical. This was me trying to record a seminal, roots, classic dawn chorus. I’d begun the Callaly work as a personal project focusing literally on this theme, with a series of sessions in the Wyre Forest, in the West Midlands, at the end of March that year. But I was surprised at how widely spread individual birds were in Wyre and the traffic levels from mid-distance roads were intrusive even at 5 am. Multiple sessions at Callaly over the next six weeks made for richer subject matter for this purpose. But my experiences at both sites contributed to the impressions I was forming of a generic structure to the chorus, as well as fundamental questions about the basic idea of such a thing, a generic dawn chorus, and the ecological subtleties of suburban gardens as a continuum of the intergrading of woodland and farm fields. The main crossover habitat of birds and people, I thought. What you experience as a dawn chorus or the dawn chorus is very much determined by place and time, habitat and season, and where you position yourself in the soundscape, whether you keep still or move through it. And what time did you get there on that May morning? Was it by 4 am BST (3 am UTC or Coordinated Universal Time) for the beginning and


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Figure 3, above: Callaly dawn chorus sonogram, recorded by Geoff Sample Figure 2, opposite: Geoff Sample recording in the field


peak hour of the singing, or was it simply early, 5 am or 5.30, when the density of voices has thinned a little? The dawn chorus piece I eventually produced was an edited composition of several scenes, where the main peak period was condensed and taken from an eminence overlooking the woodland canopy, with a sea of birdsong at mid-distance. The Dynamic Envelope Out of the recording sessions through that spring the main general characteristic I’d come to recognize was the dynamic envelope of what we might call the dawn chorus in broad terms—that period of birdsong running from before dawn through the early morning to the residual birdsong that continues until the human world wakes. These repeat sessions crystallized the impressions gained through much early morning recording in widespread sites through spring and summer over the previous ten years. The opening and gradual build-up evolves into what I called the turdine chorus—mainly blackbird, song thrush and robin. A very lovely period with a particular sonance (tonal character and resonance) and related voices of more or less resident bird species. At the time all the thrushes and chats were lumped together taxonomically in the thrush family, Turdidae. Subsequent genetic research has created upheavals in this traditional taxonomy; and while still considered closely related to the thrushes, the chats (including robin, redstart and nightingale) are now classified in the flycatcher family Muscicapidae. It’s still the ‘turdine chorus’ for me, though, in the absence of any better term. Following on from the turdine phase of the dawn chorus, the mix thickens with a density of twittering from the higher-pitched voices of

the likes of great tit and more sibilant wren, blue tit, treecreeper, maybe goldcrest, as it approaches a period of peak saturation around sunrise. Gradually there is a lessening as some individuals of various species go quiet for periods, the twittery sibilance thins out and there is space to hear the meandering songs of the warblers. Then song tends to pass through different species communities in waves. On a calm sunny morning in May this can be a lovely period for listening to birdsong, offering more space to follow individuals while still including a range of singers. The Term ‘Dawn Chorus’ The Dawn Chorus CD (2004) I eventually produced has been the clear bestseller of the nine Wildsong CDs I released between 1993 and 2004. Not because the recordings are any more interesting, beautiful or technically outstanding than any of the others but because it is called dawn chorus. And it is a dawn chorus. So how did this fascination with the dawn chorus of birds arise? Chorus, as already outlined, is an old word. An old Greek word; and chorusing as a behaviour, as we have seen, could have emerged in us humans through mimesis of other animals. I suppose I assumed that this idea of the dawn chorus of birds had the same kind of historic roots and had been passed down over generations. However, at some point I realized that I’d never come across it in any of the older literature I’d amassed on birdsong; so I began looking into the history of the term’s usage more closely. Beach Thomas and Collett (1917), writing during the First World War, talk about the ‘full chorus’ of May; then Sir Edward Grey of Fallodon in his Charm of Birds (1927) mentions ‘the Great Chorus at dawn in May’. But

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the earliest use of the phrase ‘dawn chorus’ that I’ve found so far appears later on in Grey’s book. And the context is such that it may well have been his wife, Pamela Wyndham, a woman of artistic leanings, who instigated its usage; in his chapter on May, ‘the month of full song’, he quotes a piece by his wife describing the dawn chorus. ‘The Dawn Chorus is like a tapestry translated into sound’. The capitals are hers. Ludwig Koch picks up on it (but possibly not Max Nicholson) in their 1937 work More Songs of Wild Birds (‘the dawn chorus was already so strong that the skylark song no longer stood out’). However, Stanley Morris (1925) while speaking of the ‘chorus’ doesn’t use the full term dawn chorus (‘this phantom music is none other than the swelling chorus of bird-song heralding the break of another day’). Turnbull (1943) mentions neither chorus nor dawn chorus, despite his inclination for using musical terminology to describe birdsong, though his interest does tend to focus on individual performance, as do most studies of birdsong through this period. While in the 1950s both Len Howard (1952) (‘When the stars are fading the dawn-chorus begins’) and Seton Gordon (1955) (‘At 3-30 the dawn chorus was over’) are happy to use the term, Edward Armstrong in his milestone work of 1963, A Study of Bird Song, is uncomfortable (‘There is no coordination during the so-called “dawn chorus”’). Nor is there any mention in Thorpe (1961). Both these works represent the midcentury mind-set of objective scientific biology and an outright fear of anthropomorphism; I’ll come back to Edward Armstrong’s claim later. Yet by the end of the twentieth century dawn chorus is a term and idea in common usage, even in some of the scientific literature (eg Catchpole & Slater 1995), but certainly not all, as neither chorus nor dawn chorus are in the index of Marler and Slabbekoorn (2004), though dawn chorus

appears in the glossary. So, it’s pretty much ‘a thing’ by now. Enough of a thing to have its own ceremonies and rituals—dawn chorus walks and ‘International Dawn Chorus Day’. In the mind of the general public it appears to have become the essence of birdsong, hence the popularity of my dawn chorus CD. It surprised me to find that the dawn chorus is a such a modern idea and I wondered whether there was any significance in its recent conception. The general idea of the chorus, as a phenomenon that extends across animal life, human and non-human, has been around for a long time, as applied to field-crickets, frogs and toads, wolves and gibbons, and birds; as has the idea that birds form a woodland choir, or the greenwood choir. Is it mimetic, metaphorical, or part of some deep shared psychology, or even a psychological need in us to hear it as togetherness? But the idea of this particular daily event (mainly through spring in Britain), the dawn chorus of birds, is interesting in the awkwardness it appears to have generated, the split between those who adopted the term and those who were uncomfortable with it. It’s rather revealing of the dilemmas and self-doubt that have marked our attitude to non-human life, and who we think we are, through the course of the twentieth century. And it’s also possibly a sign of our growing predilection for big events, the network humming, large numbers and ideas in their moment.

Agon Contest Birds may indeed sing; but a chorus is something different. To expand

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Edward Armstrong’s point already cited: If the term ‘chorus’ be regarded, as is usual, as connoting a form of coordinated common utterance, it is only by a kind of picturesque licence that we can use it of birds. ... There is no coordination during the so-called ‘dawn chorus’. Marler and Slabbekoorn (2004) in their review of recent scientific research on birdsong, define dawn chorus in their glossary as ‘a period of high singing activity by many bird species, typically starting an hour before sunrise’. There is no sense of coordination in this definition—the multiplicity of voices is merely contingent. So this is the issue: it is not properly a chorus because it lacks the sense of a group of individuals interacting collaboratively to contribute different set parts of a prearranged score. This conception of a chorus all seems predicated on the practices within western traditions of classical music, whose emphasis was very much on a piece of written music: the musical ‘work’ exists disembodied from any performance and each performance is essentially the same piece of music, though maybe not in an absolute sense. Each individual contributes a specific part to the compound piece, which has its own conceived structure and arrangement. If we think of our ‘classic’ dawn chorus from the British Isles, from the woodland edge or woodland clearing ecotone, then mostly the component individuals singing are territorial male songbirds; and the current understanding emphasizes the dual function of song in this context—a male defending a territory and seeking to attract or maintain the interest of a mate. Birdsong in this context is a signal from males in

Figure 4, opposite: Song Thrush

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competition with each other and, within the Darwinian framework of natural selection, it’s difficult to see how cooperation or coordination— as implied by Armstrong’s definition of chorus—between unrelated competing individuals could arise. Not only is there intraspecific competition between males of the same species, different species are also in competition with each other, for acoustic space (network bandwidth) as well as general survival. And sometimes you actually see a bird displace a singer of another species, when it appears they are too close together. But there are many other modes of musical expression throughout the world that encompass improvisation and oral traditions which would be considered as ‘chorus’; and there are certainly many cases where two or more individual birds sing in togetherness and sometimes even collaborate more closely in their singing. Paired birds of many non-passerine species perform loose duets in a mutual display: the drawn-out tittering of little grebes, the sharming of water rails, the cackling of fulmars. In some grouse and wader species, males gather for mutual display with song at a lek. However, there’s little evidence of coordination between individuals in the sounds they make in these instances—it’s more a case of mutual stimulation, and there is a kind of duetting or choral togetherness in their synchronized behaviour. There are also well-documented performance and compositional collaborations between individuals of the same species, where the individual utterances are finely coordinated. Armstrong (1963) cites species of African bush-shrikes of the Laniarius genus, in which a paired male and female coordinate sounds so precisely it sounds like a single vocalization; this special form of duetting is sometimes referred to as

antiphonal singing, since the different parts do not overlap. Catchpole and Slater (1995) give the call-and-response performance of pairs of Eastern whipbird as an example. Mann et al (2009) have found evidence of song collaboration between duetting pairs of neotropical wrens of the Thryothorus genus who perform a kind of choral quartet, of the true kind that would satisfy Armstrong. Birkhead (2012) points to communal singing or ‘carolling’ in Australian magpies, with typically six to eight members of a group contributing their individual melodies to a communal song. However, all these examples are from tropical regions, often in species with cooperative breeding or year-round territories, and there is nothing quite so coordinated to be found in European habitats. So, where do we stand with our European woodland edge chorus?

Parabasis Let the Chorus Speak While accepting the Darwinian line that it is not a chorus of intentional collaboration, I don’t find this provides an adequate explanation for what I hear and what I understand of the relationships in the singing of different individuals, both within and between species. I’ve already outlined something of the overall shape of a dawn chorus, which I’ve called its dynamic envelope, in describing my experiences recording at Callaly. But there is also an intricate web of correlation in the flow of a dawn chorus, both between individuals of the same species and between species, in timing and in choice of song-types or motifs.


We can think of our model dawn chorus in May (the Callaly-suburban garden-woodland edge community) in terms of layers of different species. The layers build up usually from redstart (if present) or robin, through song thrush and blackbird over a fifteen to twenty-minute period, before wren, great and blue tit and others begin singing. That first wave, which I’ve called the turdine chorus, has a particular melodious, tonal sound to it, before the higher-pitched singers add a swathe of upper frequency sibilance to the mix; and it may be that blackbird song is an essential component that generates much of the characteristic turdine sound. Edward Grey (1927) has this to say: One last word about the song [of blackbirds]. Let anyone who wishes to measure its value listen to the great dawn chorus in May; that half-hour before sunrise, when like the morning stars all the birds sing together. Listen attentively and consider how the song of the blackbird gives tone and spirit to the whole. A dozen or more different species of birds are taking part, but it is the notes of the blackbird that the chorus could least spare. Each species layer in the overall chorus builds on top of another, as individuals of the species’ local population begin singing, until there is a period from maybe half an hour to an hour after the first robin, leading up to sunrise, when the majority of individual males of all species are singing. After sunrise the species layers come and go in waves, with some individuals within any species maybe singing more persistently than others, depending on whether they are mated or not, and their stage in the breeding cycle.

Within these species layers is a spatio-temporal spread of similar sounding voices and similarly structured utterances (the species song); but since neighbouring individuals of any species usually share at least some of their repertoire of sounds or motifs, there is a sense of patterns echoing into the distance, cascading like a fractal into finer detail. Each species has its own true chorus, interactive and connected, and adds its layer to the ensemble. Each layer has its own particular mesh of sound-flow and, as the layers build up, no chink of transparency is left. The acoustic space approaches saturation. Now, consider a number of species layers blended together, in the light of interspecies mimicry: then the echoing patterns that we sense within a species layer has vocal elements that resonate even further, between species and between layers. Not all species are equally prone to interspecific mimicry—true. It’s quite rare among the tits, but more prevalent than is generally realized among all the thrushes and chats. And it’s well-documented that some of the warblers are particularly prone to such imitations in their songs. Further, as well as the more obvious mimicry, there are elements of more subdued form. Much of mimicry is copied not from the other species model, but from individuals of the same species, since most learning goes on within species. So imagine, at some point a song thrush copies the call of a nuthatch and develops it in its repertoire into a motif of three to four iterations. Other song thrushes, maybe young males the following spring, copy that ‘nuthatch’ motif, and so on for several generations. It becomes song thrush-naturalized. A L Turnbull (1943), founder of the London Boys’ Bird Club and passionate respondent to the musicality in individual bird song, put it

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like this: ... when a Song Thrush deftly introduces a Nuthatch or Coal Tit motif into its song, as it frequently seems to do when neither of these birds is about, we would not call this apparent trick mimicry, reminiscent or otherwise. The SongThrush uses these particular notes so often that we get the impression that they are congenital to the bird’s song, Thrush copyright so to speak, inherited interpolations acquired by Thrushes long ago. I became aware of this characteristic before I read Turnbull and it warmed my heart to think that someone had heard the same connection over half a century earlier. Birdsong has that kind of impact, connecting through the ages. There is a certain amount of ‘temporal partitioning’ in the timing of songs, to avoid being masked or drowned out, both within species and between species; though sometimes individuals will intentionally attempt to mask another’s song. Several studies mentioned in Marler and Slabbekoorn (2004) found that both between species and within species there can be a pecking order, with one leading and another fitting around the lead’s timing. And there is also a certain amount of frequency partitioning between species: some species’ songs (and usually their voices) are higher-pitched than others. So, straightaway it appears there are nonrandom patterns across the time-frequency spectrum—coordinated, if not cooperative. The point is that there is a lot of interaction between individuals engaged in singing during the dawn chorus, mainly within species, but also

across species, in terms of timing, physical spacing and choice of element or motif to sing next in context, through temporal partitioning, countersinging and song-matching—or in some cases, it seems, deliberately singing over another individual. And there are different evolutionary scales which have shaped the individual songs in any place. Long term evolution has produced some convergence in species’ voices to match the acoustics of habitat and species’ behavioural ecologies. Medium scale has led to distinct song design between even closely related species. And short scale, year-onyear evolution through cultural tradition, as young birds shape their songs in imitation of older neighbours, leads to species repertoires (dialects) distinct to place. Overall there is a sense in which this is the performance of an evolutionary chorus, constantly unfolding, performed to a set of improvisatory rules—though rules may be too strong a word, the interactions being based on in-the-moment negotiation of musical contingencies of significance in the birds’ social organization. The importance of song in birds, in its contribution to breeding success and the avoidance of potentially damaging confrontations, means that these ‘rules’ are not treated lightly. It’s an evolutionary chorus that is a kind of continuum, ever rolling according to season, daily rhythms and the drift of weather conditions. From a listener’s perspective it is specific in place and time; you could, in theory, have exactly the same species in the same numbers in two different places, but the males of any species in the two locations will almost certainly have different song-types or motifs in their repertoires, many of them shared or similar between those males of the same locality. So a


place has its own sound (beyond trivial differences). Song repertoires change from year to year; slowly maybe, in some species, but quite quickly in others, like blackbirds, where individual males keep working their repertoire and phrasing year on year, and particular motifs can become fashionable quite suddenly. And subsequent mornings at the same spot, although generally very similar, do vary: it’s not always a robin or a redstart that is the first songbird voice in my study woods. So, there is a very real sense in which each dawn chorus, though a very similar performance overall, is particular to time as well as place in its iteration.

Exodos In Celebration With such extensive and finely-detailed structure to the composite flow of individual sounds in the dawn singing of birds, is it really any wonder we hear it as a chorus? The dawn chorus. How else do we express our perceptual sense of emergent order in the big data, complex patterns in a slowly-unfolding, improvisatory structure, and unknown psychology, that is the dawn chorus of birds? In many ways it doesn’t matter, other than to get a better understanding of what lies behind our response to this otherwise apparently random assemblage of vocal signalling. But a review of the history of the idea through the twentieth century reveals quite a bit about us, and our rather meandering perceptions of and relationship with non-human life. The romantic and lyrical. The objective and scientific. The fear of anthropomorphism. With maybe some kind of synthesis emerging. For

how do we gain understanding and empathy with other animal behaviour except by comparing it with our own, while respecting that their subjective experience might be ultimately unknowable? How else do we connect with whatever deep homology might exist between ourselves and other vertebrate life through our common ancestry? To finish then, let me introduce a few recent lines of thought that may prove to have a bearing on our understanding of all kinds of group behaviour and the role of imitation in learning, human and non-human. I’m thinking mainly of vocalization, but also of starling murmurations, fish shoaling movements, the dance of swarming gnats over a stream, that sort of thing. Firstly Richard Dawkins’ (1989) idea of the meme, a unit of cultural evolution (shortened from mimeme, in relation to mimesis), and a quote from the updated version of The Selfish Gene: I want to claim almost limitless power for slightly inaccurate self-replicating entities, once they arise anywhere in the universe. This is because they tend to become the basis for Darwinian selection which, given enough generations, cumulatively builds systems of great complexity. The evolution of vocal elements in birdsong through imitative learning and their mutations, over different time-scales but extending to the geological, has indeed given rise to the performance of a complex system of vocal patterns. Secondly Merker (2005) proposes a hypothetical ‘conformal motive’ as an ‘aspect of the neural mechanisms required for vocal learning’. In considering the role of vocal learning in birdsong as an enabling device

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for ritual culture, he proposes that this may shed light on ‘the biological background of human song and music’, and elucidate ‘the nature of the cultural traditions within which these arts are practiced and elaborated’. And thirdly is the idea of deep homology, which is now being considered in neurological studies in the area of birdsong, speech and language. Fitch and Mietchen in Bolhuis and Everaert (2013) define it thus: ‘The term deep homology designates a situation in which traits in two widely separated species are generated by one or more genes or genetic networks that are homologous.’ What do birds and humans share? To return now to our original chorus, Aristophanes’ birds end up doing a deal with the two main human characters and building a paradise city in the sky: Cloudcuckooland will be a place, alongside the birds, for refugee humans who can no longer bear the laws and hassles of Athens (or should that be, the strictures of the modern world?). What’s more, this land situated in the clouds, between earth and heaven, controls all communication and trade between people and gods—the gods are no longer omnipotent. The protagonist of the play, Peisthetaerus, becomes a kind of bird-human-god and the play ends with him and his bride ‘Sovereignty’ (or kingship) leading a festive wedding march to the hymns of the bird chorus. I rather like the idea of that. Get away from it all somewhere and just listen to the birds. A nice way to go!

Glossary Parodos—agon—parabasis is the traditional core structure of the chorus’ performance in Old Attic Comedy. Roding (p 209) The display flight of male Woodcock Scolopax rusticola is known as ‘roding’. It’s been suggested that the term originated in a Swedish word for ‘play’. At dusk and dawn during the breeding season the bird flies steadily at around tree-top height with accentuated wingbeats, sometimes fluttering, sometimes slow, and utters a signature phrase at short intervals, of three to four croaks followed by an explosive whistle. It used to be thought that they were patrolling the boundaries of their territories, but recent research suggests the behaviour is aimed at seeking out females. Ecotone (p 214) Ecotones are the transitional areas where two more distinct habitats and their ecological communities merge, in our context woodland edge, to which a classic garden with shrubs and borders approximates. It’s often said that ecotones between two habitats tend to be richer in species. Sharming (p 215) This is a term for the weird display vocalizations of the secretive Water Rail, Rallus aquaticus, that erupt in pig-like squeals before merging into a decrescendo series of grunts. While sometimes heard from a solitary bird, the calling is often heard as an overlapping sequence from two birds in proximity, presumed to be a pair. Lek (p 215) A lek is a gathering of male birds at which they display in competition (and occasionally combat) for the attention of females, who visit for mating. The behaviour is best known in various grouse species and some wader species (eg Great Snipe, Gallinago media). It usually takes place in early morning or evening at regular, traditional sites where the birds are said to be lekking. Bibliography Aristophanes, 414 BCE, The Birds E Armstrong, 1963, A Study of Bird Song, Oxford University Press, Oxford David Barrett and Alan H Sommerstein, 1978, Aristophanes: The Birds and other Plays, Penguin Classics, London William Beach Thomas and A K Collett , 1917, Birds through the Year, T C & E C Jack Ltd, London Tim Birkhead, 2012, Bird Sense, Bloomsbury, London Johan J Bolhuis and Martin Everaert, ed, 2013, Birdsong, Speech and Language: Exploring the Evolution of Mind and Brain, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts


Clive K Catchpole and Peter J B Slater, 1995, Birdsong, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Richard Dawkins, (1976) 1989, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford Seton Gordon, 1955, The Golden Eagle, Collins, London Grey of Fallodon, 1927, The Charm of Birds, Hodder and Stoughton, London Charles Hartshorne, 1973, Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana Len Howard, 1952, Birds as Individuals, Collins, London Ludwig Koch and Max Nicholson, 1937, More Songs of Wild Birds, H F & G Witherby, London Bernie Krause, 2008, ‘Anatomy of the Soundscape: Evolving Perspectives’, Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, 56:1/2 Nigel I Mann, K A Dingess, K F Barker, J A Graves and P J B Slater, 2009, ‘A Comparative Study of Song Form and Duetting in Neotropical Thryothorus Wrens’, Behaviour 146, pp 1–43 Peter Marler and Hans Slabbekoorn, ed, 2004, Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong, Elsevier, San Diego, California and London Bjorn Merker, 2005, ‘The Conformal Motive in Birdsong, Music, and Language: An Introduction’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1060, pp 17–28 Stanley Morris, 1925, Bird-Song: A Manual for Field Naturalists on the Songs and Notes of some British Song Birds, Witherby, London Kenneth Rothwell, 2010, Nature, Culture, and the Origins of Greek Comedy: A Study of Animal Choruses, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge William H Thorpe, 1961, Bird-song, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge A L Turnbull, (1943) 1946, Bird Music, Faber and Faber, London

Opposite: Blackbird

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Mike Collier, Blackbird, 2017, digital print, produced in collaboration with Geoff Sample and EYELEVEL Creative


Late Blackbird and the Origins of Language

Figure 1. Katrina Porteous, notebook for Late Blackbird, 2006, photo: Katrina Porteous

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am lying in my pram in the garden and a voice is speaking. The voice is beautiful: liquid, measured phrases, joyous, playful and inventive; long, listening silences. I am completely absorbed in it. Slowly, I am becoming aware that the voice is not human. It is different from human voices, from my mother’s, father’s, or the voices from the house. I am wanting to speak like it, to join in the conversation. I am longing to speak. But I cannot, and the feeling is so strong, I do not know what to do with it. This is one of my earliest memories. That garden was in Aberdeen, almost sixty years ago, and I was less than a year old as I listened to that bird. I know that, because I could not speak, and my mother tells me that I was already using many words by the age of twelve months. Thinking of it now, I suspect that the memory is from spring, when I would have been seven or eight months old, and that the bird that so transfixed me was a blackbird. That phrasing, the pattern of sound and long silences, the sheer beauty I remember, all suggest it. The experience was so important to me that I remember fixing it in my memory—re-remembering it—when I was still a small child, as the vivid, colourful and random visual images I originally associated with particular words began to dissolve. They slipped away from me well before my third birthday, leaving a peculiar sense of loss. I have been entranced by blackbird song as long as I have been able to distinguish it. I love its intensity, its purity, its texture, structure, variations, inventiveness, those distinctive phrases and the deep listening that follows. I love getting to know the song of an individual bird: how it changes between morning and evening, and develops as the year progresses. How a young male may begin with one simple upward-inflected structure, which he will repeat and repeat in spring. By the end of summer, he will have developed a wide range of phrases. If he lives, his song increases in


complexity and richness year by year. He might sing the same notes loudly from his song-posts, and very quietly in the hidden places, close to his mate or as he rummages among the leaves. It is fascinating to unpick that song, to trace within it imitations, both of other birds and of human sounds. There is a blackbird in my Northumberland garden which sings the ‘gone away’ signal of a huntsman’s horn. Where did he learn that distinctive tune? It is only heard in winter, and more inland than here on the coast. A few years ago I heard a blackbird imitate the kind of old fashioned two-tone ambulance siren I had not heard since the 1970s. Where did that come from? From another bird, presumably, who learnt it from another—a sound handed down many generations. That must happen with other sounds, too; some perhaps lost to human memory. I love comparing blackbird song in different places, hearing the geographical variations and sameness. For several years I divided my time between Northumberland and Cambridge, and was surprised by how much more loudly and insistently the city blackbirds sang. When I heard a young bird in Cambridge repeatedly utter exactly the same combination of notes as a young bird at home, or when I recognized particular phrases from a more complex song, I could not help thinking that this might not be entirely accidental. Imitation must surely cross geographical as well as temporal distance. The contemporary scientific consensus is that birds do not have ‘language’ in the sense that our species does. Passerines sing primarily to signal to others their vigour and virility for sexual selection, and also to mark their territory. It is generally agreed that birds lack the complex syntactical structures by which humans combine discrete speech sounds

to form abstract representational units of meaning such as sentences. By this account, most scientists maintain that ‘language’ is uniquely human. But most would agree that there are certain aspects of language which other species might share. My association of the blackbird with my own acquisition of speech coincides with my poet’s interest in language. I do not pretend to have any expertise in linguistics or the natural sciences, but as a poet I am fascinated by the borders of language, music, meaning and expression. I find it useful to think of language in a poem as having two distinct functions—broadly, that of ‘signposting’, ‘denoting’, pointing to; and, at a more musical level, that of ‘expressing’, giving sound-utterance to an emotional or physical response. Many words contain both elements. Infants make different noises to express different physical sensations, and this quasi-musical level of language remains with us for life. For example, often (although not always) short, sharp vowel sounds indicate excitement. Long, drawn-out vowels like ‘Oh’ and ‘Ah’ are often expressive of pain or of deep emotion. Particular groups of consonants are similarly associated with hard or soft shapes or feelings. A famous and oft-repeated experiment from 1929 by German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler shows that humans across many language groups associate the nonsense word ‘Baluba’ with a soft, rounded shape, and ‘Takete’ with a sharply pointed one.1 It suggests that some sense mapping of particular sounds to shapes occurs in the human brain. This purely expressive level of sound in language is important in poetry. It is mimetic: language which represents rather than describes, which brings its subject before the listener, rather than merely pointing to it from afar. Beyond the sound-sense associations of particular words lie the ever

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greater musical complexities of language: sound patterning and rhythmic structure. It has long been understood that emotionally expressive sound is socially contagious. Archaeologist Steven Mithen and others have argued that both music and language derive from shared emotionally expressive vocal ritual. Ululation, chant, hand clapping, drumming and dance, and their close relatives, song and poetry, are all social utterances which arguably lie close to the origins of human speech. There is also a strong element of repetition and imitation when an infant learns language. How different is this from a parrot’s imitation of a human as it learns to ‘talk’? Many scientists argue that parrots are able to do no more than imitate, but some have shown convincingly that they are able to use concepts considered by many to be uniquely human, such as colour, shape and quantity. Certain passerines are known to ‘sign’ particular predators with a certain call. They are able to share information this way with other birds. If the blackbird sings to signal to others its health and vitality, am I completely mistaken to associate its marvellously uplifting upwardly inflected morning phrases with exuberance, its pure physical pleasure in being alive in that moment? Is there any sense in which we can interpret a particular phrase of its song as having expressive ‘meaning’? As a blackbird’s phrases often seem to be grouped in a recognizable order or combination, could elements of its song structure itself possibly be meaningful? Is there anything we can learn about our definitions of ‘meaning’ and ‘language’ from analysing the complexities of blackbird song? Some years ago I made a five-minute piece called Late Blackbird for a late night arts series on BBC Radio 4.2 It was based on a short recording of blackbird song from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, and was produced by

Adam Fowler of Overtone Productions. The piece is a duet for human and bird, and the exercise was one of mimesis: to try to imitate and transcribe the bird’s song as faithfully as possible using nonsense phonemes. Out of those phonemes I then constructed words, and phrases—still nonsense, but with associated ‘meaning’—then allowed those words and phrases to suggest lines for a poem, a speech construct containing both meaning and expressive sound. I recorded each stage of this construction, and built up the composition in layers, with the original blackbird song repeating itself throughout. Having read the poem, layered in the radio version with these phrases, words and phonemes, I then allowed it to decay back into the phrases, words and phonemes that had suggested it, ending finally with the bird’s pure song. The poem itself was about memory and the acquisition and loss of speech—the beginning and end of life. The idea was more difficult to realize than it sounds. Adam is a brilliant, adventurous and painstaking producer, the best I could have asked for, and together we tried to translate the piece from the page. But in spite of our best efforts, the finished version did not correspond to what I heard in my head. The main problem was my own inability to sound anything like a blackbird. The bird’s song was beautiful, playful, wistful. I simply sounded idiotic. It was possible to replicate the blackbird’s sound in certain basic ways, in rhythm, pitch and timbre. Indeed, the sonogram of my nonsense phoneme imitation on the computer screen was almost indistinguishable from that of the recorded bird. Beyond that, however, nothing in my vocalization was birdlike. Why not? The ‘signing’, ‘denoting’ elements of language were a massive problem. The bird was making music, I was making ‘sense’—or nonsense. Another, more simply technical, problem was that the bird could sing more than one note simultaneously from its syrinx, sometimes in harmony with


itself. I sounded harsh and crude by comparison. I hoped to replicate the bird’s subtlety in the edit, but technical and time constraints prevented this. In spite of these reservations, I’m very grateful to have had the chance to experiment with making Late Blackbird. One day I should like to remake the piece. Next time I would use a recording of a local, Northumbrian blackbird. I should like to experiment with different vocal qualities; to give the bird more space to establish itself and its own natural rhythm of silences; to allow more time for the development from bird to phoneme to poem; to keep the volume of my phonetic imitations much lower in the mix; to work on more elision, more fluid transitions, more subtlety, layering and complexity than was possible in the original version. Reflecting on these questions will open up for me new avenues of thought about vocalization, and its relation to language, and to meaning. This, and the question of the relation of poetry to music and to speech, have been central themes of my work for several decades. In the meantime, for those who are curious to hear it, Late Blackbird is available privately on SoundCloud. If you would like the link, please contact me at:

Footnotes 1. Wolfgang Köhler, Gestalt Psychology, Liveright, New York, 1929. See also V S Ramachandran and E M Hubbard, 2001, ‘Synaesthesia: A Window into Perception, Thought and Language’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8:12, pp 3–34. 2. White Nights, BBC Radio 4, broadcast at 11.30 pm on Friday 4 August 2006, introduced by David Blunkett, series producer Simon Elmes.

Figure 2. Katrina Porteous, pages from notebook for Late Blackbird, 2006, photos: Katrina Porteous

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Late Blackbird Blackbird song foreground, in garden. Gradually, the voice enters in imitation of each phrase, carefully listening and imitating, as one blackbird might echo another. This is a duet. Blackbird. One phrase. a ee oo err

Blackbird continues uninterrupted in the background, its phrases now familiar, voice rises to foreground: Where does speech begin? From the sing-song of the mother-tongue, From the lullaby. Your borders porous, You were feeling before reason, Before words, you were song, You were singing yourself, you were one

Blackbird repeats phrase, embellishes it, then introduces a second.

With the whole dark garden.

www tt grrra tch-tch

Now over the garden, so late He is early, a blackbird Opens his orange beak, Speaks the world awake.

Blackbird introduces third phrase, which voice begins to imitate before it has finished. (This gives impression of a round).

Blackbird now foregrounded, repeating the familiar phrases, with variations. Perhaps they sound different in the light of the phonemes which have been uttered in imitation.

whaddaweedoo? whaddaweedoo? plee plee brrra gra-ha! Blackbird repeats first simple phrase, with embellishment. Voice speaks phrase with it. a ee oo err

whiggerrydo blee oo-ay witt-it blee-tcht

Each nonsense line is half spoken, half sung over the blackbird’s exact phrase.

So far, the voice has just repeated or accompanied the bird. Now it becomes more inventive, playing with the sounds, inverting them, responding to them. We hear it together with the bird and on its own. A second voice is now added for density, slightly out of sync:


wherhavyenow www issint grraaa tch-tch

wherhavyenow www issint grraaa tch-tch

wherhavyenow www listen word bird open

we agra va www cli-cli ur lr pie-rah

whatterydae whatterydae plee plee dark garden where sleep blue bird bird bird summer kiss summer day

waddaweedoo waddaweedoo peel peel bra gra-ha! uh ee oo urr brr brr suckadee suckadoo

Blackbird phrase on its own—echoes the second-last of these nonsense verses. Blackbird continues in background, voice foreground: You’re sun through the beech leaves, That cut-grass breeze; You’re the kiss summer blows

To the sky, to the high, blue Blossoming cumulus, Everything moving— Streaming from shadows that flicker And dazzle to shadow. You fix A gold-ringed gaze On the present, and pin it Here, now. You open Your bright beak. The garden Floods with your wild, sharp Inflections, the dark At the shimmering heart Of summer. Precise And careless As daylight, you pierce The indistinct moment And, for an instant, The present is lit From within by forever. Listen. A door Opens. Your voice, its clear water Sparkling, its cadences Rising like laughter, speaks us In phrase after phrase after phrase,

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Between silence And silence. Blackbird brought into foreground. The next phrases of speech imitate the blackbird’s phrasing and inflection very closely, first between its phrases, then simultaneously with them: Phrase after phrase. Phrase after phrase.

we agra vah wee wee wee tchi tchi ur lr pie-rah!

where begin where where

Echoed simultaneously by blackbird— with embellishment at end!

Blackbird continues in background:

Where does speech begin? Blackbird continues, its phrases echoing the shape of some of the following: Where does speech begin? Before time, before reason, Before you wake, you are one With the whole dark garden. your earliest memories listen a bird

your earliest memories listen word bird

Now over the garden, so late He is early, a blackbird Opens his orange beak, Speaks the world awake. Blackbird single phrase foreground.

wee ee oo vah wuh wuh wuh ih ih oo-uh pih-ah

Somewhere, a new soul peels Separate from the world, And somewhere, someone falls, For the last time, asleep. Fade out garden.

Katrina Porteous, 2006

Blackbird matches phrase intonation exactly.

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Mike Collier, Blackbird singing at 3.50 am, from Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus: 3.30 am–6.00 am, 2018, a set of sixteen digital prints each 42 x 42 cm, produced in collaboration with Charrington Editions

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Blackbird in early spring


‘Pikin fowru fa yu e singi so moi’— ‘Oh little bird how beautiful is your song’ Rachel Gefferie with Yves Tjon Sack Kie and Sean Dilrosun In conversation with Mike Collier


n compiling this book of poems, essays and visual images, I was aware that most of the material it includes came from colleagues resident in Europe, the USA or Australia, and yet one of the key texts for me when thinking about birdsong in relation to place was Steven Feld’s seminal book Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression (1990). This ethnographic study of the Kaluli people in the rain forests of Papua New Guinea is a sensory and cultural exploration of song. While seeking to expand the geographical and cultural reach of this book, I was fortunate to be put in touch with a PhD student from the University of Kent, Rachel Gefferie, who was living and working in Suriname at the time. Rachel offered to investigate the relevance of birdsong to the indigenous peoples of the Amazonian Rainforest and to introduce me to Ronald Michel Nasja and his son-in-law Mark Langaman. Ronald Michel, also known as Tushi (which means granddad) is one of the most well-known shamans of the Kaliña indigenous peoples in Galibi, an indigenous village located in the Marowijne district of Suriname. She also put me in touch with Jupta Itoewaki, the Chairperson of the Mulokot Foundation, which is a Non-Governmental Organization for the Wayana indigenous tribe; Yves Tjon Sack Kie, who is the Chair of the United Tour Guides Suriname (UTGS); and Sean Dilrosun, one of Suriname’s leading bird guides. The interviews which follow are reconstructed and refashioned from a series of Skype calls and texts between myself and Rachel, Yves, Sean and Jupta in 2020. First, though, some brief background information. Suriname, a former Dutch colony, is located on the northern coast of South America. It is one of the smallest countries on the continent, yet its population is one of the most ethnically diverse in the region. Its culture is more closely

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Figure 1. Shaman Tushi and his family with Rachel Gefferie (third from left)

aligned to the Caribbean than to South America. Many of its people are descended from enslaved Africans and Chinese, Indian and Javanese indentured labourers brought over by the Dutch to work in agriculture. Smaller ethnic groups such as the Lebanese, Dutch and Portuguese are descendants of the former plantation owners. This diversity of ethnicities has led to a large group of people of Surinamese origin possessing a mixed ethnic background. The interior remains the home of indigenous peoples and Maroon peoples (the latter are descendants of Africans who escaped from enslavement), although some of these peoples also occupy the coastal area as their home. The most common indigenous peoples in the Surinamese community are the Wayana, Tareno, Lokono and Kaliña peoples. Ninety-three per cent of Suriname consists of untouched virgin rainforest, much of which is protected by UNESCO. As elsewhere in South America, logging and the destruction of this habitat is a real threat. q Rachel Gefferie’s ethnographic research project ‘Being Creole’ explores the politics of boundaries and labels embodied during celebrations of Afro-Surinamese descendance in Suriname, and it has brought her into contact with Yves Tjon Sack Kie and, through Yves, with Sean Dilrosun and Shaman Ronald. Mike: Rachel—is it your experience that birdsong still plays a role in the lives of the people of Suriname, or is that just a romantic notion of mine?

Figure 2. Sean Dilrosun

Figure 3. Yves Tjon Sack Kie

Photographs courtesy of the authors

Rachel: Yes, it does. For example, every two years, there is a music festival


in Suriname called ‘Suripop’ for which Surinamese composers compose a typical Surinamese song and have it sung by Surinamese singers. Each song composed for this festival reflects elements of Surinamese imagery, customs and myths or beliefs. The imagery is often accompanied by the use of symbols belonging to animals, fruits, nature or natural phenomena. For example, the song ‘Pikin fowru fa yu e singi so moi’ (‘Oh little bird how beautiful is your song’), which is about one woman and the most famous little bird in Suriname, called ‘Gado Tjo’, was voted number one the year it was entered. In the song the woman admires the bird, which despite its small stature can fly very high. She imagines that the bird, from time to time, flies to the house of God and has a conversation with Him about man. So she asks the bird to fly high to the Lord and get all the love the Lord has to offer her. Then she encourages him to return to earth quickly and, in his heavenly song, bestow upon her all the love he has received from the Lord. The words of this song affected me deeply. I have always been inspired by this little bird that had the gift of receiving all the Love of God high in Heaven and then spreading it to us as humans. Myths and folk tales allow us to move in a world where what is not considered possible for humans actually becomes achievable!

me, how does he translate my appearance? Does he know I am human? I relate these questions to the discussion within anthropology about the term ‘world’, or ‘world-view’. The question of whether there is only one world or multiple worlds becomes relevant to me the moment I see the bird close up. Birds have a world of their own, but it is a world that is often close to our world (we often share landscapes) and yet not in any way determined by ours. In our modern world, their very existence, their behaviour, their way of communicating does not depend at all on us as humans. And yet we can see comparisons with our own world. There could not be a more beautiful contradiction between the world of birds and the world of people.

Mike: I think you and I share an interest in the connection between birds and humans. How do you think about these two apparently disparate cultures, what you call their ‘world views’?

Rachel: I was keen to find an answer to this question and was fortunate to be introduced to Ronald Michel Nasja, one of the most well-known shamans from the Kaliña indigenous tribe, and his son-in-law, Mark Langaman, by Yves Tjon Sack Kie. During the Covid-19 pandemic in Suriname, Ronald was stranded in the capital and therefore had to stay with his daughter and his son-in-law, Mark Langaman. As tradition requires, he was in the process of transferring his knowledge of shamanism to Mark, who himself has grown

Rachel: As I looked through my binoculars on a recent birding trip with Sean, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in that beautifully shaped cup-of-a-head of the bird I’m seeing. Does he see me? And if he sees

Mike: I know from my own research that humans once had a much closer and more embodied relationship to the world of the bird and their songs. Not just in indigenous cultures, but also, for example, in the myths and legends in the West about the relationship between birds, their songs and local traditions and cultures—indeed I recently made a piece of work about this relationship myself, which centred on the Nightjar (see page 356). But perhaps this relationship does indeed still exist in contemporary Suriname?

Figure 4, opposite: Suriname rainforest, Bakhuis region, photo: reptiles4all via iStock

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to become a well-known assistant shaman, capable of performing rituals related to the indigenous culture. During my research into stories about birds, birdsong, people and places in Suriname, I developed a relationship with these two very knowledgeable men. They both inherit a great knowledge of birdsongs, spiritual practices and moral stories related to birds. The information that they shared with me provided me with a broad understanding of the continued spiritual value of birds and birdsong in relation to the daily life of the indigenous people in the Amazon. Mike: Can you tell me a little about your first meeting with Shaman Ronald? Rachel: It was a rainy day in June 2020 and was a visit I won’t easily forget. Both Yves and myself went to the small indigenous village at the outskirts of Paramaribo. This is where Shaman Ronald stayed during his time in the capital as Covid-19 gripped the country. We were sitting on his porch, surrounded by other small houses and some huts made of palm leaves; it felt as if I was in the interior of Suriname. We brought gifts of beer and cigars. Yves told me that it is customary to bring a gift when visiting the shaman; it is a way of showing respect. Shaman Ronald told us different stories about the indigenous cultures and, more importantly, how to understand the characteristics of the birds and their song. Mike: I gather that Shaman Ronald explained how important the life of birds was to a shaman in Suriname and how the lives of the bird, their

song and that of the shaman were so closely linked? Rachel: One of the first stories he told Yves and myself was about the ‘godfather’ of the eagles, named ‘Anoewana’, and his importance in the life of a shaman. Each Shaman is led by the spirit, the ‘yakua’ of this bird, as Anoewana possesses great wisdom and serves as the mediator between the human world and the spiritual world. Yves and I hung onto his every word, transfixed by the stories he so colourfully painted for us. He described how this mighty bird transcends into being a human to educate the shaman about the secrets of the spiritual world. It is Anoewana who is being consulted during rituals of healing, rituals of becoming a shaman and also during the rituals surrounding the death of a shaman. According to Shaman Tushi, when a shaman comes to pass, Anoewana would personally come and carry the spirit of the shaman to the ‘other’ world. However, this will only happen if the shaman has lived his life according to the rules of the spirits, the yakuas. Then Shaman Tushi recounted mythical stories about the abilities of particular birds to provide guidance for the tribe during their hunting. These stories reminded me of the purpose of doing anthropology—to explore, understand and describe other people’s ways of interpreting life as humans. As unreal and fairy-tale-like as these stories sounded, it was clear that for Shaman Tushi these stories were his reality. He was convinced of the existence of the birds as mediators between the humans and the spiritual world. Their presence in our lives is to teach us lessons about morality, life and death, and to guide us on the path of life. Shaman Tushi told us stories about the way a bird sings, speaks, cries or laughs. The interesting thing was that he attributed human characteristics to the birds. In order to benefit from these characteristics of the bird, the human must perform certain

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rituals, usually combined with a specific plant. Mike: Was there a particular story of Shaman Ronald’s about birds and their song that captured your imagination? One that perhaps demonstrates the link between bird song and human song? Rachel: The story of ‘Papa Gado Sneki’ had similarities with the beliefs of the Surinamese-Creole spiritual world. I am also of Creole descendance and was therefore able to relate to Shaman Tushi’s world of spirits and mythical stories as told here. There was a hunter, explained the Shaman, who went hunting in the jungle. At a certain moment he was taken hostage by the bushmaster snake, which is called ‘Papa Gado Sneki’ in the Surinamese-Creole spiritual language; this snake is also worshipped for its spiritual powers. Papa Gado Sneki knew about the shamanic qualities of this young hunter and was therefore planning to kill him. So Papa Gado Sneki ensnared the young hunter, even though the young hunter was not aware of his shamanic powers. While Papa Gado Sneki kept the hunter trapped in a deep hole in the jungle, the hunter felt helpless. In his despair, he recalled the songs the shaman in the village used to perform during shamanic rituals and he began to sing one of the songs. Anoewana had witnessed all that had happened with the young hunter, yet it was not until the hunter started to sing that Anoewana came to his rescue. The eagle destroyed Papa Gado Sneki, the bushmaster snake, and banned him from that particular part of the jungle. Anoewana knew that this event did not happen randomly. The time had come to reveal himself to the hunter, to inform him that he was his spiritual guardian, and to explain to him his life’s purpose. From that day on, he continued to equip the hunter with spiritual wisdom and guided him into

becoming a shaman. This tale serves as a moral story, underlining that one does not decide for oneself to become a shaman. It is rather Anoewana, the eagle in collaboration with God, who decides whether one is ready to step into his pre-ordained role of becoming a shaman. It also illustrates clearly the importance of song: the song of Anoewana, the song of the shaman and the songs sung in the rituals. Mike: Do you have any more examples Rachel—and did you get to hear some of the Shaman’s songs? Rachel: Shaman Ronald’s son-in-law, Mark Langaman, performed a number of different songs in relation to birds, but the one that struck me forcibly was the song of the Warbling Antbird. In Sranan Tongo, this bird is called ‘Hei-busi-fowru’ and the Indigenous people call it the ‘Pai Paio bird’. Shaman Tushi told us that depending on the behaviour of the bird it can either bring the hunter good or bad luck. There is a specific ritual song for this bird, sung with the aim of luring the bird into teaching the hunter how to sing as beautifully as the Pai Paio bird can. This song is a worshipping song for this miraculous bird and is performed during rituals related to prosperity and good luck. When Shaman Tushi spoke about the Pai Paio bird, it was with such admiration and respect. It was clear that this particular bird was of great importance in the life of the indigenous people and that the bird serves as the guardian, provider and spiritual preceptor of the Indigenous people. Mike: So, the lives and songs of the bird are intertwined within the cultures of the indigenous peoples?


Rachel: Clearly, the lives of the indigenous people in the interior are very much entangled with the characteristics and spiritual properties attributed to the birds and their songs. Each milestone or low point in someone’s life is seen as related to the presence, appearance or performance of a bird. As difficult as it was to imagine having your life being directed by the behaviour of a bird, it was interesting to hear, see and experience the wisdom that goes with these living stories in connection with birds. q


now become one of Suriname’s leading bird guides. Sean: Although I was born and raised in the capital Paramaribo, I now lead groups of tourists on multi-day birdwatching and listening trips through Suriname’s astonishingly rich and ecologically diverse interior. I consider myself highly privileged to have had the opportunity to explore this very different part of my country through the frame of reference of the tribal people living there. I worked for many years with the indigenous Tareno and Wayana people at the village Palumeu, and on the Upper Suriname River where the Saamaka people live, whose ancestors were brave enough to escape slavery.

n this next interview, I talk to Rachel’s personal bird guide, Sean Dilrosun, a native of Suriname, one of its country’s most respected guides and a key member of the United Tour Guides Suriname (UTGS). In my discussion with Sean it is possible to see the way that different interpretations of the relationship between the human and the bird overlap in Suriname. Although this relationship might initially appear anthropomorphic, it is, actually, quite the opposite. In the world of the shaman, the human doesn’t rule the bird— the relationship is mutually symbiotic. The human is aware of the integrated nature of our existence within the forest ecology and is guided in his/her ritual by the song and culture of the bird. Sean is very aware of this cultural view of bird-human relationships and I find it illuminating that his own profound knowledge of birdlife shows a deep awareness of the way a bird interacts with its environment—and indeed the way the different cultures of individual bird species overlap and interact.

Mike: How did you get into birding?

Mike: You began life as a musician and music engineer, Sean, but you have

Mike: Could you give me a few examples?

Sean: When I was thirty years old, I bought birding gear, made my own parabola and started recording birds. I very soon became a soundhunter, listening to every bird and trying to distinguish, to identify, to get acquainted with their songs, and in that process, I discovered a very intense new form of friendship; friends with magical voices. Mike: You have clearly learned about the indigenous people’s relationship to birdsong. Could you say a little about this? Sean: I learnt so much from the various indigenous peoples, and from an anthropological standpoint I found it interesting to discover how my local forest teachers interpret the calls and songs of specific birds.

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Sean: Here are a few: The small Guianan Warbling-Antbird (figure 5) has an onomatopoeic name after its contact call. My Tareno teachers call it ‘Puipuike’. When one goes hunting, this contact call is not considered a very good sign, though. It signifies that you may shoot something, but it will not be big. If the bird is doing the full elaborate warbling song though, it will bring a smile to the hunter’s face, because it tells him that he will need to make a large ‘katari’ (carrying basket) to carry home today’s prey. Or the elusive Pavonine Cuckoo, which has a very distinct song (‘foo, fee, tingeley’) that is mainly heard at night during the dry months in the interior. Both the Saamaka and the indigenous people from Palumeu consider it a very scary song. This bird is said to be a very bad spirit that turns human at night and comes to hunt people. The common and widespread Squirrel Cuckoo (figure 6) has different vocalizations. When it says ‘tyityityityi’, it is laughing, which is a sign that it’s going to be a lovely day (lovely day, lovely day… RIP Bill Withers). When it does the loud ‘PEEK, PHEW’ song, it brings bad news though. One is never sure of course how bad the news will be, but to neutralize some of the bad influence the Saamaka will curse at the bird. The local name is ‘Pikan’, after this loud call. In many cultures, nocturnal birds are considered bad omens. I was very happy to learn that the very beautiful downscale song of the Common Potoo is a good sign to the Wayana people. If you were in doubt about whether to go hunting tomorrow or not, the Potoo’s song will put a smile on your face and have you dreaming of delicious peccaries in the near future. Mike: There are a number of indigenous poples in the Amazon Rainforest.

Figure 5. Warbling Antbird (Hypocnemis cantator, male) at Presidente Figueiredo, Amazonas, Brazil, photo: Hector Bottai, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0

Are the stories relating to birds consistent across these localized cultures? Sean: Different in­digenous peoples often have diverse stories for the same bird; one example is in the interpretation of the display song of the Black Hawk-Eagle (figure 7). This bird will soar high in the sky, do butterfly wing displays and call ‘cootcutooreee’. The Tareno people will tell their children to hide, because the bird is hunting people’s spirits. The Saamaka people, on the other hand, call it ‘Pakia Gabian’, meaning the Collared Peccary


favourite bird? There are so many special birds for so many different reasons, but for somebody who loves bird voices as much as I do, it was never difficult to make that choice. The Musician Wren (figure 8) has an extended area-specific repertoire of wonderfully complex melodious phrases, and there is no bird that can compare to him in vocal abilities, at least not in my forest. I consider it the most beautiful song in the forest, but Saamaka hunters could not disagree more. They say that the bird’s song attracts ‘yookas’, the spirits from the deceased, which scare away the forest animals. When you are hunting and you hear this bird, you might as well return home right away, because you won’t shoot anything significant that day. Mike: That’s really interesting. A friend of mine, a bird guide in the UK, calls our native Wren ‘the opera singer of the bird world’! I imagine that the birdlife and song in the Amazonian Rainforest of Suriname is extraordinarily rich? Figure 6. Squirrel Cuckoo (Piaya cayana), Horto Florestal de São Paulo, Brazil, photo: Dario Sanches, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0

Hawk. For them the bird is a sign that the peccaries are close, which is very good. These are communities living within fifty kilometres of each other on different rivers, yet they get very different messages from the same bird. Mike: Do you have a favourite bird and song? Sean: When you are a birding guide, people always ask you, what is your

Sean: At any good primary forest location in Suriname an experienced birder can hear or observe 250 plus birds over time. Our dawn chorus is very special, with many different birds singing, and I can’t help but wonder how much the different species are aware of each other’s presence. Obviously, it would help one of the smaller species to recognize the birds of prey that would have you on their menu; but to what extent are the many smaller species aware of each other’s existence though—especially through sound? Mike: This is fascinating Sean—and at the heart of much of the research that my colleagues and myself are exploring in our own project. Could you

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Figure 8. Musician Wren (Cyphorhinus arada) at Presidente Figueiredo, Amazonas, Brazil, photo: Hector Bottai, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0

expand on this in relation to Suriname? Sean: One remarkable example of different species of birds going through life together are the mixed species flocks. In our forests, birds from different families will form lifelong associations with up to fifteen different species, each represented with one pair only. Many Antwrens, Antshrikes, Woodcreepers, Tanagers and Foliage-gleaners, for instance, will spend most Figure 7. Black Hawk-Eagle (Spizateus tyrannus), photo: Norton Santos, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0


One interesting observation is that these sentinel birds will use their alarm call to their advantage. When they ‘ring the bell’, other birds need to look out for predators and run. The insects that get flushed by other birds are often chased by the flusher, so the sentinel bird has a race to win. Research by Charles A Munn et al in 1986 has shown that the sentinels will often sound a false alarm to distract the opponent, providing them with the split-second edge they need to win. Birds lie too! I guess this is how one pays a membership fee for added safety. I call this ‘flock lying’! Mike: I believe you have one example of co-evolution between animals, birds—and even your guests on a guided bird watching/listening trip?

Figure 9. White-plumed Antbird (Pithys albifrons), Cordillera del Cóndor, Ecuador, photo: Francisco Enríquez/NBII Image Gallery

their lives together in a flock. All of these birds are insect eaters, and yet they will associate together to go through the forest on a daily basis. Research has shown that they do not get in each other’s way as much as you might think, because each of them has its own way of foraging. In this flock, for example, the Cinereous Antshrike and the Fulvous Shrike-tanager are the ‘crow’s nest’ members of the flock, that is they are always on the lookout and the first to spot the danger. They will then sound the alarm and the flock will scatter momentarily to re-assemble when the coast is clear again. Being around those sharp-eyed flock leaders is one of the big advantages of living in a flock, for it provides added safety.

Sean: One of the greatest examples of co-evolution in the world must be the birds that are obligate Army-ant followers. Birds like the Whiteplumed Antbird (figure 9) and the Rufous-throated Antbird are hardly ever seen away from ant swarms. These ants serve as the perfect beaters, as they raid in groups of around half a million vicious individuals through the forest. Most critters in the soil will start moving, and the ones who manage to survive the ants fall prey to the Antbirds. This phenomenon actually gave this interesting group of birds its name, so antbirds do not eat ants, even though the name might suggest that. The birds will cling on sideways to saplings about one metre off the ground in what I call the typical Antbird position, and they spot insect after insect, crawling for its life. In this case, though, the loud and obvious song of the Rufousthroated Antbird is a sign for me to tell my guests that it is time to tuck their trousers into their socks, adding one mammal species to this insectbird party. Birds are most definitely aware of what other birds and even

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different species are doing! q


n this final interview, with Yves Tjon Sack Kie, the Chair of the United Tour Guides Suriname and Project Coordinator of the Paramaribo Live Museum, I wanted to address some of the broader issues around the climate emergency and the loss of indigenous cultures in the Amazonian Rainforest. We can look at these problems as human-centred because if we don’t address the climate emergency, then many people on our planet will be faced with terrifying uncertainties as rising sea levels threaten large communities across the globe (and disproportionately in the Global South). Or we can consider the rupture and potential destruction of the (not our) world’s fantastically rich and ecologically diverse habitats not in relation to a human-centred world, but within the context of life itself— in the more-than-human world. In her book Animal Musicalities, Rachel Mundy describes this human-centred attitude to the world’s environmental problems as ‘a taste for rupture’ and places the divisions between humans and animals at the centre of her book’s powerful narrative. It seems to me, from my conversations with Yves and his colleague, that what they are doing in Suriname with the UTGS brings together the human and animal. While recognizing cultural difference they also understand that we need to see the bird and the human (indigenous peoples and contemporary Surinamese society) as umbilically linked through a series of stories that still resonate within Suriname and beyond. Rachel Gefferie’s thoughts about world views, expressed in relation to the ‘other’ earlier in these interviews, are relevant here, I think. Furthermore,

I believe that Yves and UTGS can use their influence and financial clout to address these issues head on, changing hearts and minds as well as generating much needed income and jobs. Mike: In 2014, you and seven other tour guides established the United Tour Guides Suriname and currently your organization consists of over one hundred registered tour guides across the country. Can you tell me a little about the important role bird watching and listening tours plays in helping to raise the issue of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest? Yves: The role of the tourism sector is very important in the fight against deforestation in the Amazon. The Rainforest is one of the most important attractions for people travelling to Suriname, who want to experience this pure form of nature with its rich diversity of life. Deforestation disrupts and destroys this fast-disappearing ecosystem and endangers the lives of others—of the animals and birds as well as the indigenous peoples. Of course, we recognize that it is important for people to earn enough money to live comfortably, but we have to realize that although logging and gold mining will bring some money and jobs to the economy in the short term, the environmental damage they leave is enormous. Through tourism, a sustainable contribution can be made to the economy in a positive way, where the forest and we as people remain healthy. It’s worth pointing out that, globally, tourism creates over five times as many jobs as the financial sector, and more than ten times the amount of wealth created by the chemical and processing industries. Mike: There are still a number of indigenous peoples within Suriname.


Can you say a little about your links with them and your role through UTGS in helping to sustain their cultures? And could you say something about their relationship to birds and song in the rainforest? Yves: UTGS has a good relationship with the various indigenous peoples and organizations in Suriname, and is also involved with international indigenous organizations and the fight for their rights and the preservation of their cultures. For example, one of the co-founders of UTGS is the chairman of a local indigenous organization that collaborates with indigenous organizations in the Amazon. Birds and birdsong carry an important spiritual value for this group and are a part of their everyday life, as your interviews with Sean and Rachel have highlighted. As tour guides, we can help to keep these belief systems alive and not turn them into heritage side shows. The voice of the bird and its centrality to myth and legend in the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the rainforest creates a link between the past and the present, between myth and legend, that is tied up with our embodied relationship to the natural world—what Rachel called our ‘non logical’ experience of the world. Mike: As you know, Yves, I have corresponded with, and interviewed, one of your tour guides, Sean Dilrosun, who has given a fascinating account of the relationship between birds and people, birdsong and culture in parts of Suriname. I wonder if you could tell me a little about this from your own experience? Yves: My colleague Sean has been serving the birds for years. Personally, I have taken several bird tours and I enjoy hearing their individual voices

—their fascinating sounds as well as their appearance. Consciously and unconsciously, I listen to their songs from early morning to evening and this affects my feeling and my emotion. Although in my present work with UTGS I am not involved with birdsong and bird tours on daily basis, for me there is a deep-rooted spiritual and emotional bond with birds that cannot be described with words. Afterword Rachel Mundy, whose essay ‘Why Listen to Animals’ opens our book, says in conclusion to her last book, Animal Musicalities (2019), ‘it is worth imagining what it is like to be someone very different from who you (think you) are, in a place very different from where you (think you) live’. It is, I know, dangerous to romanticize the ideal of a pristine wilderness. As Mundy says, we in the West, have lived through ‘a century of commerce and urbanization that has yielded lost landscapes, altered songs and the exoticization of nature in comfortably far-off places’. As I write, in 2020, the Amazon Rainforest is being ravaged by logging on an industrial scale. It is not a pristine landscape—far from it—and fencing it off within a national park may not be the answer. Mundy again: ‘In the midst of these changes, it has become unclear if there is a natural “other”, or if nature is a place one can go to in any meaningful way.’ Let us explore this question specifically within the context of our special subject—birds and birdsong. Does our relationship to wild birds in 2020 still have meaning beyond simply gazing, or listening, as discreet observers and listeners? Rachel Gefferie in this text spoke about how her connection with birds in Suriname allowed her to consider ideas about herself and the other—two alternative ‘world views’—and to question

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whether the difference was as great as we might imagine, and indeed to begin to imagine what it might be like to be a bird. Yves Tjon Sack Kie underlined that for him, a tour guide in twenty-first-century Suriname, ‘there is still a deep-rooted spiritual and emotional bond with birds that cannot be described with words’. Sean Dilrosun learned much of his bird ‘craft’ from the elders of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon Rainforest, and Shaman Ronald, interviewed by Rachel Gefferie, tells how our lives are not only entangled with the life and sound of birds, but often guided by the spirit of the bird. In the presence of Shaman Ronald, Gefferie begins to understand the possibility of a human life being guided this spirit. Illogical though that may sound to a Western ear, it is a reality for the shaman— and Gefferie can begin to imagine herself inhabiting this alternate/other reality herself. This version of reality rejects what Mundy calls ‘the false neutrality of the post-war, postmodern, post-racial human animal in the name of the “Anthropos”’. In such a world, stresses Mundy, ‘one could argue that Western intellectual practitioners have much to learn about imagining alternate selfhood’.

Figure 10: Bird watching tour in Suriname, photo: Yves Tjon Sack Kie




Figure 1. Sooty shearwaters, photo: ‘Mike’ Michael L Baird,,

t took three hours for all the sooty shearwaters to pass by where we stood watching. They flew in a line perhaps twenty birds … high? thick? round? but over three hours long. They skim the water’s surface—not out of aesthetic or daredevil instinct, but because they have gorged themselves on krill and squid, and their bellies are too full to fly higher. They are, although you wouldn’t believe it watching so many of them in file, solitary migrators. When they leave their breeding grounds in the southern Pacific and Atlantic oceans, around New Zealand, the Falklands, Tierra del Fuego, they prefer to fly alone. But here they are, a clinker congregation, a wondrous flock, to feed in the warm waters of California, in Monterey Bay, each summer. When they were gone, those of us who’d stayed to watch were quelled. The reason we had come onto the beach—to watch the humpbacks feed —after a day of craning our necks each time someone went ‘oh, wooow’ until the research institute’s director pressed a button and rolled the window blinds down, to focus us on the workshop‚—felt now somehow less impressive after this immense avian display. But then we’d been watching the humpbacks for three days. Sometimes they surfaced less than fifty feet out into the bay, to breach and slap and launch themselves through the shoals of anchovy and squid with mouths wide open, not right then singing, too busy eating to sing. Had we become desensitized to their show? Of course, their eruptions remained marvellous, especially so close. The sky might have been drizzly, affording no great snap shoot opportunity or photogenic contrast from the humpback’s crenelated torso and the frothy surf of the bay. But still, being so close to humpbacks, not for a forty-five minute whale watching boat trip but for days, had given us another sphere of attention. Here be whales.

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Figure 2. Sooty shearwaters, photo: ‘Mike’ Michael L Baird,,


And now birds. Having passed by, the sooty shearwaters returned. Unhappy with their planned destination further along the coast? Perhaps reconnoitring, and discovering the Bay itself was best, they landed in a roundhouse cavalcade all at once on the water, taking every available square inch of surface so the sea itself, already murky, was all soot and ash. The birds over-spilled onto the beach at our feet. We were now in their territory, and this switch was palpable. New laws had been written in sand the moment of their arrival. You could easily be outnumbered by birds. We were. We retreated. The humpbacks would be here tomorrow, we agreed as we left. And the birds would be on their way. Over 45,000 kilometres they travel, each year of their thirty years, sometimes up to 800 kilometres a day, up and down the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. It is one of the world’s great, never-ending natural loops. e To be a bird is to move. It is the same for whales. The humpback, like all whales, is a mammal, so needs to breathe. Even when they sleep, they move, they breathe, up to the surface and down again, up and down. The sperm whale, to take one example, is not a diving creature but a surfacing creature, spending fifty minutes of each hour heading to a thousand feet below the waterline to feed, and back up again. But their migrations are laps in the pool compared to the sooty shearwaters’. And the noise, the noise. A gull’s caw and bark magnified by three hundred thousand. And the awe, the fear. Shearwaters are not songbirds, of course, and this was no dawn chorus. In fact, the sooty shearwater invasion was the inspiration, along with Daphne du Maurier’s short story, for Alfred Hitchcock’s film

The Birds. It was, specifically, the Sooty Shearwater Incident of 18 August 1961, when thousands of the birds were found floundering and dying in Capitola and Monterey, flying into windows and lampposts and people. They did not discover what killed the birds until 2012, when an algal bloom happened at the same time as the shearwater arrival; a neurotoxin called domoic acid had moved up the food chain from algae to anchovy to sooty shearwater, knocking them out. So many species have lived, are still living, off the fishes of Monterey Bay. John Steinbeck wrote a book about it—Cannery Row­­—and the industry that grew up around what humans saw as a great natural bounty, the fish canning warehouses worked mainly by women; those buildings are now mostly restaurants, bars, tourist shops and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This stripmalled and palmtreed slice of America is not the cloud forest of Costa Rica nor the untouched jungle of Indonesia, and yet it feels as if the place is teeming with life, a biodiversity hotspot. It is one reason the Aquarium established its Research Institute here, and annually invites biology teachers, researchers and writers to come to its workshops and listen to the latest marine research, so they can embed it in their curricula and books. In 2014 I still thought it was okay to work with aquariums; but it was at the Aquarium itself that that confidence changed. A group outing: a biology teacher from Hawaii taking countless selfies with panicky octopuses; a sea turtle pacing the edges of their six-by-three tank, slowly, monotonously, desperately; the overwhelming noise of the school trips, with children enraging everyone but, I saw clearly, learning nothing. I left, and have not stepped foot in a zooprison since. Instead, I went and followed the Steinbeck walking route around the town, guided by small mandalas on the roads and paths and plaques on the places Steinbeck

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stayed, worked, wrote, or wrote about. Deeply uncomfortable with the trauma exhibited by the animals in the tiny glass cages of the aquarium, I found, ironically, refuge in the culture of our species, of a writer whose books I admired, of the stories of how sooty shearwaters and a short story combined to help an auteur make a film—all facets of our techné. It was, however, the last time I ever believed that culture was something unique to humans. e Humans first understood that we were not alone in having culture from the study of birds. Birds are easy to study; ‘good’ for us, bad for them. Because ‘good’ science requires replicable results, birds were taken into laboratories, a prison of different form, and experiments were reproduced. Birdsong was recorded. It is from birdsong that we first knew birds have culture (we must ask: is the knowing worth the experiment?). It is from birdsong that we know birds, and other nonhuman beings, pass down (across, around) learning that is not instinctual, nor genetic. That is: birds learn new skills in the world about how to negotiate life in their environment, and they learn from each other, and they learn from others who don’t even know they are being learnt from. (Such as us: we’re often too busy, or arrogant, to notice them noticing us.) If they don’t learn, as happens when individuals of a species are introduced to environments where no other expert survivor in that place is available to teach them where the food and water and shelter are, they generally die. It was chimps that we studied next, and other apes. These studies were disdained, considered unscientific, as the research was done in

the field, anthropologically, and so was non-replicable. But those who studied chimpanzees and gorillas—women, mostly—were inured to the criticism of scientific white men. So they persisted. And chimpanzees and gorillas, bonobos and apes, were also found to have culture. That is, they learn from each other, and they learn from others who don’t even know they are being learnt from. (Often too busy, or arrogant, blah blah. But luckily for us, these women ethologists weren’t arrogant, and did notice.) It’s important to note it doesn’t matter what they learn: tool use, ritual, hierarchy. Do not judge culture on content (who cares if chimps have art?) but on its transferability. The study of whales did not come until later—until we’d stopped slaughtering them, pushing species to the edges of extinction, mostly for their nose mucus, which powered the lamps of the Enlightenment, but also for their blubber and skin. But whales, and specifically humpbacks, were found to have not only culture, but also song. And complex, changing, learning song. Cultural song. Communal song. A chorus, if you will. So, culture first. Now that it had become acceptable to study animals without ripping them from their habitats, scientists, amateur and professional, with a genuine care for their nonhuman neighbours, began to record data of the movements, reproduction, habitat and habit of local populations. This data was critical in gaining protection for whales whose ancestors had been decimated by whitefella whaling, the industrialized killing of whales by colonial populations for profit. Not by indigenous peoples’ subsistence killing. The Makah of the Pacific Northwest, as one example, stopped hunting grey whales in the 1960s before the moratorium on whale hunting was passed, which forced whitefellas to stop (involuntarily). That isn’t to say the killing of grey whales by the


Makah, which has begun again since whale populations have stabilized, is acceptable; it is morally devastating for the life of each individual whale killed, and, sadly, the fossil record shows that forager-hunter peoples did push many species of mammals to extinction over the course of millennia. Extermination is not only a white European colonial enterprise. But back to culture. It was the thirty-year effort to gather data on the resident orca populations of the Pacific Northwest and the Salish Sea, collected by volunteers and staff connected to the San Juan Islands’ Whale Museum, that led to the recognition of these orca as a protected subspecies. For that to happen, the granting body of the United Nations had to recognize these orca had something special that set them apart: a specific culture. And they do. All orca speak, or sing, in family dialects. And dialect is passed down, learnt, as dialects and accents are in human populations, not genetically, but culturally. Hunting tactics are also cultural. The resident orca eat only one type of salmon. The transient orca who traverse the Pacific coastline from Chile to Alaska and across to Russia, will eat anything. The resident orca live in extended families, or pods. The transients stay nuclear. And the two cultures avoid each other, never breeding—one reason why they speak in different tones. As Hal Whitehead, the world’s expert on sperm whales, explains, these decisions to not interbreed are intelligent and cultural, based on the different populations’ feeding habits. On what the young need to learn. For sperm whales in the Caribbean, it is through a system of clicks that they announce which clan they belong to, which family, and who they are individually. Perhaps the most beautiful examples of culture in orca are their rituals. The Pacific Northwest residents have three distinct pods, extended families who stick together. Each of the pods

travels up to 160 kilometres daily, often in one big loop around a section of the islands, searching for salmon. Occasionally, the pods will bump into one another. And when they do, they all, these twitterbirds of the sea, go silent. Their squeaking and talking stops. Their swimming stops. The pods line up facing each other, like two rugby teams at a test match, and they hang suspended in the water for a minute or more. And when the signal is given, the talking begins, and they inter-swim, rubbing against one another in greeting. A cultural tradition, handed down from matriarch to juvenile. And if any humans are lucky enough to be watching, or recording on their hydrophones, the trained can tell each individual apart from their voice. e But while the orca twitter, and the beluga is known as the ‘sea canary’,1 it is the humpback whale whose melodies are most complex and changing. Males engage in group singing, making sounds that follow and interact with one another in a repeating mingling of rhythms. There are also the long, solo songs that last for around thirty minutes—but which change each time. Their songs vary continuously through the breeding season, and no other animal, not even a songbird, does this in such a committed way. And we have no idea why. Scientists have studied birdsong more than they have whales, and most agree that the song is to do with selection— the females tend to choose certain kinds of songs over others. And while this is true, there is yet no answer to what the birds are singing—and the same is true for whales, nor do we know why the males sing to each other. There is research to show that orca, beluga and dolphins enjoy playing with sound. Perhaps it is the humpback’s own curiosity as to what he can

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make, what sound he can sing. What we’ve learnt about whale song is intricately connected to our knowledge of birdsong. David Rothenburg writes in Thousand Mile Song (2008), if you speed up a humpback whale song it sounds just like a bird. It has the tonal quality of a catbird, perhaps, with the rhythmic precision of a nightingale—beats, quips, melodies put together in a precise, definitive way. … Speed the whale up or slow down the bird, and they begin to show the same senses of organization at work at different levels. The sonograph—invented during the Second World War as an aid to help deaf people learn to speak—played a large part in scientists deciphering bird sounds. And it was because of this birdsong research that marine scientists thought it could be useful in understanding humpback song. It was a birdsong scientist, Mark Konishi, at Princeton aUniversity, who opened up his lab to Scott McVay, one of the pioneers in studying humpback whales, so that McVay could transcribe their songs. It was McVay, and his wife Hella, a maths teacher, who, looking at these scrolls of paper, each one thirty-minutes long, first identified in astonishment that the song of the humpback whale repeated, with regular pattern, form and shape. That, just like birdsong, it has intelligible structure. And then in 1970, Songs of the Humpback Whale came out on vinyl, with a thirty-six-page booklet with texts in English and Japanese (Japan was still hunting humpbacks), imploring people to save the whale. ‘Listen to him singing far below the turmoil and ceaseless motion of the surface … From that profoundly peaceful place a voice calls us to Turn Back.’ On

the edge of the label, Rothenburg documents for us, ‘these words appear over and over again until they loop upon themselves: “turn back turn back turn back turn back …”.’ It remains the best-selling nature recording in human culture and history. e At Monterey Bay beach 6 am the next morning, the sooty shearwaters have gone. As have the humpbacks. With the shearwaters’ arrival, the incessant and gleeful feeding, the bay, it seems, has been emptied of krill and squid and anchovy, and there’s no reason for the humpbacks to stay. We are desperately unhappy, because this morning, after three days inside, is our field trip. We were looking forward to dropping the hydrophone and hearing the humpbacks; the male song can be heard resonating above the water, on a quiet day, although perhaps not over the trawler’s engine. I am standing with the Hawaiian teacher of seventh grade biology, the ceaseless selfie-taker, hoping to see a humpback one last time. Kohola is Hawaiian for humpback, she tells me. But they won’t have left on their migratory route yet. They will forage for a few months more. North Pacific Humpback Whales spend spring to autumn feeding in coastal waters from Japan in the West, into the Bering Sea in the North, and to here, in California. When it comes time for breeding, they head to one of four main regions around: Hawaii; Mexico and Central America, down to Costa Rica; Asia, south of Japan and Taiwan; and the Philippines. As we roll out into the empty bay on the trawler, I can’t help but speculate why yesterday the shearwaters passed us by, only to then come back. I want to believe that the humpbacks called the birds to


return; that, sped up or slowed down, whales and birds could talk to one another, a serenade, if you like, humpback songs telling of better feeding the shearwaters would enjoy in the Bay. A case of inter-species cultural communication, the whales helping the shearwaters learn where the best anchovy and squid could be caught that day: turn back turn back turn back turn back. It used to be an established understanding that birdsong was simply each bird singing for its own kind only; concerned with intra-specific communication. But, as Mike Collier writes in this book, birds singing at dawn gives us the phenomenon of a chorus; they interact. There’s an auditory scene of inter-specific structure as well as intra-specific relationships. It is not random cacophony. For whales, too? We might continue to learn about whale cultures from what we already know about birds. Among themselves, and among different clans and families and, perhaps, across species? We know beluga will sing to humans. We know orca can ‘learn dolphin’. And some humans sing to them, too. I like to think that each year the humpbacks wait for the shearwaters, sing to show they enjoy their company. Having feasted for days, they warble their knowledge of the commons until the feeding is done. Perhaps. Humpbacks sing solo much of the time, but the males sing to each other. A yearly chorus on vast, intertwining loops of migratory and ancient weave. But of what do they sing? We don’t know—and it is perhaps right that we don’t. Right that we have to speculate, not listen in. ‘The more you see and hear whales, the less certain you should be about them,’ says Flip Nicklin, who has been photographing whales for National Geographic for fifty years. ‘Do not trust he who claims a special connection to the kohola. Follow those who admit we know almost nothing about them at all.’

Footnote 1. Belugas are well known for their chatter. They also have midwife whales in their pods, who see others through birth and whose vocalizations change, at the moment the newborn emerges, from anxiety into what researchers have said can only be a song of joy and relief.

Figure 3, opposite: Humpback whale off the coast of California, photo: ‘Mike’ Michael L Baird,,

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Anticipation, Recognition, Loss


he full sonic soul bath of a sparkling dawn chorus is a wondrous experience, but it’s the crescendo of an expansive soundtrack that plays throughout the year, culminating in note-jammed early mornings in spring, rather than a stand-alone piece. The high, sad calls of migrating Redwings in the velvety dark of an autumn night are as evocative as anything spring has to offer. These superb thrushes with lightning-strike eyebrows stream down from Scandinavia to winter with us, and their Viking calls permeate my dreams through open bedroom windows in October and November. Likewise, the first ‘tics’ of a Robin in the garden in late summer as it sets up a feeding territory automatically push images of dank November days into my mind—and the smell of the autumnal rot of a million back gardens going over towards the bleaker months. And living on the west coast, against the backdrop of the Lancashire mosslands, the calls of the first skeins of Pink Footed Geese returning from Icelandic breeding grounds in September are as ingrained in my psyche as any other northern trope. These are all sounds I use to steer through a year, navigating the birth, school, work, death of it all via the vocalizations of bundles of feathers. Treasures with a value beyond rubies.

Figure 1. Grasshopper Warbler

Abstract noises that are all signposts leading to the main event from March

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to May, like dates on an aural advent calendar leading up to Christmas. As March revs up into April, the dawn chorus really explodes with choirs of warblers. It’s easy enough to find the first arrivals singing in relative isolation in northern England during early spring, especially in a climate warped by unseasonal drought and heatwaves, but the music really starts when multiple birds turn up and begin to compete for territories and mate a week or two later. Then the jumble of notes can be an intoxicating relief—like hearing from long-lost friends for the first time in months. Congratulations—you made it back from wintering grounds thousands of miles to the south! The experience is all about sifting through the layers of sound, labelling the singers as welcome additions to the birding year list. Blackcap—our very own northern Nightingale, loud and rich. Willow Warblers—apple fresh, the descending cadence of spring. Lesser Whitethroat—a rattle as dry as the Mediterranean maquis, this migrant passed through a few weeks earlier. Grasshopper Warbler—reeling away from cover like a giant version of its insect namesake. Wood Warbler—a spluttering trill that can make any day magical as these sherbet lemons pass along the coast in everdecreasing numbers each year.

Sedge Warbler—insane disorganized notes that only make sense in their acrocephalus world. Loonball. The weeks go by and the volume diminishes, allowing the tiny Goldcrest to make itself heard—its thin wheedling song as reassuring in our garden for the past twenty years as anything can be in an uncertain world. The chorus is glorious in a leafy ‘English countryside’ context with the sweet notes of Blackcaps and Willow Warblers tumbling over Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, Robins and Wrens, but it’s not all stirring melodies and Ralph Vaughan Williams. These days I hear something else—I hear holes. Standing on the South West Lancashire Mosslands at dawn is still pleasant enough, as Corn Buntings, Skylarks and Grey Partridges tune up at the edges of ripening fields, and I am transported back to a childhood long ago when an uncle patiently taught me songs and calls (Corn Buntings will always be ‘rusty keys’). These farmland stars will even make themselves heard on the shortest of winter days when night hardly seems to leave the fields. But come spring there is a Turtle Dove-sized gaping hole in the chorus, and certainly fewer buntings, larks and partridges compared to earlier years. Changes in farming practices, land use, climate and persecution on migration routes mean I know in my heart of hearts I’ll probably never


hear the warm purring of a Turtle Dove out here again, unless attitudes to farming, landscape and hunting change radically. I still check old breeding sites each May on the off-chance they return, but that hole in the chorus gets bigger each year… Some of the best dawn choruses have a musical splendour hard to equal, but others are joyously raucous, wilfully atonal and just as superb. At the top of a seabird breeding cliff in spring or summer (with falling populations of seabirds, finding one is not as easy as it once was) prepare to be assailed by a chaos of gurgles, growls and yelps, usually at about the same time the pungent aroma of stale guano wafts up the rockface. (Try the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire or South Stack on Anglesey if you’re in the neighbourhoods.) Magnificently cacophonic. I’ve always suspected birds like Guillemots, Fulmars and Puffins decided long ago to opt for the anti-social sound approach and play it harsh for laughs, although evolutionary scientists would properly explain that the grating noise of a seabird colony is more to do with territorial disputes over narrow cliff edge nesting sites in a naturally noisy environment than trying to carry off an impersonation of Tom Waits. Figure 2. Bempton Cliffs, July 2020, photo: John Dempsey

Anyway, I’m not sure I’m ready for a Gannet attempting harmonies just yet.

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Further north the bizarre ‘song’ of a Corncrake scratched out from the lush machair of a North Uist spring almost seems to exist just to bring the boundlessly uplifting Skylarks back down to earth. Yet it thrills the listener as the truly weird sound reverberates against the ribcage, vibrating down the years. Two invisible combs being rubbed together behind a curtain of green. That buzz you’re feeling? That’s anticipation—will you see the bird, hidden as they usually are by the dense vegetation? Will the Corncrake emerge from the iris beds and nettles or just laugh at you from cover? I only have to hear a recording and a part of me is back at Hougharry, while at the same time cursing their disappearance from the rural landscape of most of the rest of Britain and Ireland. So it’s not all about sweet notes and tunefulness. The anticipation prompted by the Corncrake’s call is magnified any time I travel to less familiar landscapes. It’s simply not possible to stay in bed as the darkness fades before dawn and the first squeaks and whistles of the day drift through the blinds. Jet-lag is irrelevant, I have to get up and investigate—there are birds as yet unseen out there and I must have them, whether I am in Ecuador or India.

Figure 3. Corncrake, photo: Phil Collier


The urge to explore is irresistible, perhaps because the sounds are so unfamiliar, the precise opposite of the dawn chorus at home where recognition plays a major part in the pleasure I derive from the complex pattern of songs.

Várzea (seasonally flooded) and terra firme rainforests are no place for the faint-hearted, human or bird—ask any Hoatzin, strange prehistoric critters that chunter in family groups constantly using only the chestiest squawks and coughs.

In unfamiliar terrain the birds don’t entertain me with their songs, they lure and tease me.

It’s the closest these leaf-eaters ever get to harmony.

The eerie dark of a rainforest before first light is largely about smells, menace and excitement. There are no Nightingales here—once you get deep enough into the forests of South America there is little space for the luxury of melody. The god-awful roars of an Oilbird from deep within dark caves are straight out of a primeval memory bank that explains how folk believed demons lurked in the neotropical darkness. Now we happily venture into black caverns and ravines in pursuit of these astonishing creatures, but once this largest of relatives of the Nightjar must have convinced listeners that monsters rather than the marvellous lurked in the gloom. In the headwaters of the Amazon it is all about communication by screams, the daily fight for survival and the search for food—and the harsh dawn chorus there reflects that.

Werner Herzog in his brilliant ‘Conquest of the Useless’ explains it better than I can: … in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing, they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans … The anticipation created by these sounds is no less thrilling than the musical beauty of our European warblers—what’s out there beyond the glare of the lodge lights? What birds may lack in musicality here, they often make up for in colours —the forest is a loud and twisted place where only the loudest and brightest are heard and seen (assuming they want to be). Far-flung wildernesses don’t entirely hold the exclusivity on the bizarre. A pre-dawn drive up onto favoured moorlands in North Wales will still reveal a chorus of lekking Black Grouse—another declining and vulnerable species that has been lost from too many landscapes.

Figure 4, opposite: Black Grouse

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Their strange bubbling calls dominate the grey light as dawn seeps across the heather and they are transformed from inanimate lumps to purple and white strutting visions. As it gets brighter still, fiery red brows make these lyre-tailed birds even more attractive as males bustle about, squaring up to each other in a dance that appears comical to us but is deadly serious to them if their genes are to survive. Their leks still sound like a Soup Dragons convention though. The best dawn ‘songster’ hardly qualifies as a conventional virtuoso, but what the UK’s biggest passerine lacks in tunefulness it more than makes up for in character. There is no sound anywhere quite like the first croaks and cronks of a Raven sailing over a mountain slope or cliff face in the early morning. Through the gruff nature of their far-carrying calls they manage to convey a wildness unmatched in the natural world. Tricksters on a grand scale, their barks have a quality of humour yet are mournful too, they are simultaneously something to do with solid geological time and mysticism. How do they do that?

Figure 5, opposite: Raven

The vocalizations of a Raven have a mysterious subtlety all of their own— or am I investing too much in these supreme aviators? You can’t help but love a bird that flies upside-down because it can, or one that frequently responds to human mimicry of their croaks as it sails above, as acrobatic as we are land-locked. Are they laughing with us or at us? Bucking the trend of decline in so many of bird populations, Ravens at least seem to be on the increase in this corner of the world, and long may that continue. While the more traditional morning chorus contains an undeniable beauty and charts arrivals, territorial claims and population fluctuations, it is fitting that this most expressive of birds eschews musicality and imparts more to me in its deep croaks than a woodland full of sweet Nightingale.


Three Dawn Choruses

Figure 1. Stephen Westerberg in the field at the RSPB Nature Reserve, Geltsdale, Cumbria, photo: Andy Hay


s a birder and bird note-taker from the age of twelve, and when undertaking BTO ( British Trust for Ornithology) bird surveys while still at school, I mainly thought of the dawn chorus pragmatically, as the most efficient way of carrying out a bird survey. Then later, as a qualified bird ringer, getting up and out pre-dawn developed into a regular habit, as I had to race to get the mist-nets up before the dawn chorus started, and hearing the dawn chorus became commonplace. It was only when the nets were up and you had a few minutes before checking them you could relax and listen to the dawn chorus; and that’s when I would really enjoy the ‘spectacle’ and soundscape. When I first started running public events, I would see the reaction of people who were hearing the dawn chorus for the first time. Their enthusiasm and surprise made me stop and think—and appreciate what I had previously taken for granted. Even now, working for the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) at Geltsdale in Cumbria and being lucky enough to carry out bird surveys as part of my job, my main motivation in getting out into the field for dawn is to undertake a survey effectively. When I am surveying, I just want to make sure that I am recording and mapping everything as accurately as possible; it can be a bit fraught, but I now regularly stop and think how amazing it is just to be able to be ‘here’ and to listen at this time of the morning. However, I have a partner (bat ecologist Tina Wiffen), who wants me to do bat work with her late at night and this does make getting up pre-dawn more difficult. The dawn chorus, for me, is always more enjoyable after a good night’s sleep! My first experience of the dawn chorus was an urban one in South Shields, where I grew up, when there was relatively little singing other than Starling, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Greenfinch and Blue

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Tit. However, looking back at that time, and mapping out the few Song Thrushes I can hear from my house fifty years later during the lockdown in rural Northumberland, brings home to me how much more abundant some of our common birds were back then. I remember Song Thrushes singing from the rooftops every couple of houses down our street in South Shields (maybe a dozen birds or more), compared to the six singing in the entire village here in 2020, which is actually a much more favourable habitat for the species. From an early age, I was interested in bird calls and song, but at the time didn’t have access to recordings. I used to look at the somewhat abstract descriptions of songs or calls in bird books, but they never made any sense to me unless I had myself heard the call and seen the bird; and there were just so many ways of notating the individual birdsong. Of course, the easiest way I found to learn was to go birding with someone more experienced. However, when on my own, I used to make a point of waiting to see if a singing or calling bird could be identified by sight, then I would write my own description of the song in my notebook. Working this way, I rarely had to refer back to my notes as this method helped me memorize the song, almost always linked to the location where I had heard it. For example, I can clearly remember hearing my first Willow Warbler song near Barmston, Sunderland, on 18th April 1971 (almost forty-nine years to the day as I write this). During my fifty-year career in conservation, there are three main dawn choruses that stand out for me. These are the lowland northern England woodland in the Derwent Valley, Gateshead; the moorland edge at RSPB Geltsdale in Cumbria; and the tropical rainforest in the Wologisi area of northern Liberia. All very different, but each special in its own way.

Dawn Chorus in a Lowland Northern England Woodland in the Derwent Valley, Gateshead Working as a countryside warden in the Derwent Valley in the 1980s I led some of the regular public events and I always enjoyed running bird events. In these local woodlands, bird walks were difficult for participants during the day, as birds are generally difficult to see and not very active after dawn. However, I soon realized it would be so much easier to see and hear birds if I ran a dawn chorus event—a novelty for most people, who don’t get up before dawn in the spring and summer in their normal life. These events then evolved into getting groups out to listen to the soundscape before the dawn chorus started, which in early May in northern England is about 3 am. The most memorable events occurred on still, clear mornings, with only the occasional Tawny Owl hooting pre-dawn, although, as this was on the urban fringe, there would always be the noise of traffic as well as aircraft taking off from Newcastle airport some seven miles away. Robin was always the first bird heard singing in the semi-dark, followed by Wren, Blackbird and Song Thrush. Within three-quarters of an hour, the deciduous woodland would be alive with over twenty species singing, making it difficult for me to point out individuals of the less common species. Some birds, for example, sound quite similar; the disyllabic Chiffchaff, Great Tit and Coal Tit are superficially the same, but each has its own pitch and pace. That said, Great Tits do have an amazing amount of variation on the same theme. Blackcap and Garden Warbler were also another problematic pair, both with similar, complicated songs and in the early days I remember often being worried about ‘making the call’ as to which bird was singing. The special birds we would be hoping to hear on the events, but


only occasionally did, were the classic deciduous woodland birds, Pied Flycatcher and Redstart. I have found the songs of these two species are often overlooked (heard?) by many birders. Redstart may not be the most spectacular of songs, but it is reminiscent of Black Redstart, which brings back memories of European cities, where they sing from the often pan-tiled rooftops (again using the location of when I first heard a bird singing to remember the song). When I started working at the Thornley Woodlands Centre in the mid-1980s, a range of species were regularly heard, but disappeared later. Two of these had distinctive songs. Most people know the Cuckoo, but Wood Warbler is less familiar, although I think it is one of the most spectacular British bird songs, described by naturalist Gilbert White as a sibilant trill. I enjoy this song particularly as it is heard in good quality deciduous woodland. Twenty years later, these two species were no longer in these Derwent Valley woodlands as their populations had declined dramatically. After standing at our chosen vantage point for an hour and a half, we would walk back to the visitor centre for breakfast, kindly cooked for us by a colleague. Dawn Chorus in the Uplands of the North Pennines at RSPB Geltsdale I worked in the Derwent Valley from 1983 moving to work at RSPB Geltsdale Reserve in 2004. Geltsdale is an upland reserve in the North Pennines; the habitat here was different to the Derwent Valley; much more open, with blanket bog, meadows, stone walls and very few trees. Here there was a very different suite of birds singing and a smaller number of species. The best dawn choruses were those heard when we did the co-ordinated Ring Ouzel counts. Still mornings were always picked, as in this weather birds can be detected at a greater distance. This meant

being out pre-dawn on a morning when the weather was near perfect, a rare event in the uplands. Being in a more remote area does mean that there is no artificial noise to detract from the birdsong. Ring Ouzel, with their song of just three plaintive whistles, are more likely to sing an hour before sunrise. So, to get an accurate population estimate for the reserve, staff and volunteers would be out at various locations around the reserve in the dark. This sometimes involved camping out overnight in a remote valley on the reserve. In the dark at 3 am, as well as the Ring Ouzels we were there for, Snipe would be drumming, and Woodcock croaking as they flew over in their ‘roding’ display flights, with Whinchats and Wheatears starting to sing in the dark. Red Grouse is another common bird calling in this habitat, along with Curlew and Cuckoo, with their very distinctive sounds. Up on the higher ground Golden Plover gave their plaintive call, and sometimes, in good years for the species, there would be the low barking of Short-eared Owls. The number of breeding pairs of Short-eared Owls fluctuates depending on the population of voles which are their prey; in the years with the highest vole population, we have had over thirty pairs of Short-eared Owls on the reserve. Black Grouse are found in the same areas as Ring Ouzel and their display is another very distinctive sound of the dawn chorus at Geltsdale. When these birds lek (the name for the males gathering together and displaying), they make a soft rookooing noise with an explosive pshshshsh sound when they get excited and flutter-jump. Surprisingly, Wren, so common in woodland, is also a bird of the dawn chorus in this open habitat, over 300 metres above sea level.

Figure 2, opposite: RSPB Geltsdale Nature Reserve, Cumbria, photo: Stephen Westerberg

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Dawn Chorus in Wologisi, Northern Liberia In 2018 I was fortunate enough to go to Liberia on sabbatical, as part of a research project with RSPB Conservation Science and the Society for Conservation of Nature in Liberia, to look at the wintering habitat of Pied Flycatchers. I went primarily because Whinchats, a species I have a particular interest in at RSPB Geltsdale, also wintered in the same area, and after studying this species for several years I was fascinated to see where Whinchats spent the winter. This trip also afforded me my first opportunity to go birding in West Africa. After gathering supplies in Monrovia, our team of five headed north on a very eventful journey, expecting to get to Wologisi in the north of Liberia by the evening. However, after several delays, including the vehicle partially falling through a wooden bridge, we became stuck in mud on the side of a road late at night. The five of us slept, as best we could, in the vehicle, but on waking before dawn and standing on the track, the experience of my first dawn in a West African forest was outstanding. Many birds started singing in the dark, particularly several of the cuckoo species. The extraordinary volume of noise included many insects as well as a number of bird species, perhaps thirty or forty. For my first time in Africa and for someone who had been used to identifying everything I could hear on a dawn chorus, this was overwhelming. I didn’t know what anything was. However, I was lucky enough to be with three experienced naturalists, two from the UK and one Liberian, who had all spent years birding in West Africa. I had made the mistake of not bringing the sound recording guide to birds of West Africa on my phone. This would have made life easier; hearing a song and referring to the guide. Even with naturalists Roger Skeen, Chris Orsman and Emmanuel Loqueh on hand

Figure 3, opposite: Wologisi, Northern Liberia, West Africa, photo: Stephen Westerberg

to help, it was still difficult to work out what was what, as so many species were singing at once. I resorted to my technique of writing down what I thought the birds sounded like, but with so many species singing, I could only do a few each day. This was the first time I had done this for decades and, as I was a lot older, my memory wasn’t so good. The only ones I can distinctly remember now from the whole trip are Common Babbler and African Emerald Cuckoo, the latter as Roger was always imitating it, calling ‘hello Georgie’! Looking at my notebook for that morning on 11th October 2018, the first line for the day simply states ‘forest dawn chorus—amazing’. I was overwhelmed and the list of species I recorded was actually quite small for the morning, though Roger would have recorded many more. There are only two with transcriptions of the songs: Blue-headed Wood Dove, ‘hoo getting faster’, and Speckled Tinkerbird, which is noted as ‘poop poop poop poop’ (although the next morning the song was noted as ‘peoo peoo peoo peoo’). The Birds of Western Africa guide gives a transcription of the latter song identical to my first attempt.1 For me the list is still full of exotic birds with fabulous names: Red-vented Malimbe, Olive Sunbird, Chestnut-breasted Negro Finch, Western Black-headed Oriole, Redrumped Tinkerbird, Hairy-breasted Barbet and White Spotted Flufftail. With help from the local villagers in Bitiba, shortly after dawn we were on our way again and arrived at our accommodation for the next few weeks at Alabama Camp. Here we were on the edge of the village adjacent to the savannah, rainforest and rice farms. Our work involved surveying the area for two of the species I had enjoyed listening to in the dawn chorus in the UK, Pied Flycatcher and Wood Warbler, that were wintering here along with several other Western Palearctic bird species. Some birds, such as Swallows, were heading further south and we were seeing thousands


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flying over in early October. Our priority was finding Pied Flycatchers, which we caught and then radio-tracked, recording in detail the habitat they were using. We were up every morning before dawn, which, as we were not too far north of the Equator, was at six o’clock. In the dark there would be African Wood Owls hooting, the low hoo of a Greyish Eagle Owl and the calls of some of the cuckoos. I heard eight species of cuckoo calling in Liberia and looking at my notes one that stands out is the Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, which, as I wrote in my notebook, sounds like a slow car alarm. Two of the most spectacular songs (and these two birds are just as spectacular to see) as it grew light were the two species of Turaco. Great Blue Turaco was loud and sounded very ‘tropical’ with a repeated quo quo call, whereas Yellow-billed Turaco song was reminiscent of the noise of a Mute Swan’s wings when it takes off. Many of the almost 200 species recorded in my notebook over the four weeks were not seen, as the vegetation was so dense, but looking back through my notes, some of the transcriptions of the songs of the birds I didn’t see bring back a smile: Grey Longbill, ‘diddly diddly diddly’, and Rufous-winged Illadopsis, ‘dikadika-dika-do-do’. I have written most of this by referring back to my field notebooks and one of the things I can now appreciate is the value of keeping notes and records of birds I have seen and heard. I have always valued contributing to and carrying out bird surveys for my own personal interest or research as well as for work and on behalf of the BTO and will continue to do so. Looking through my notebooks brings back some of those special mornings, but they are also a record of the changes in bird populations. Numbers of birds have declined in all three habitats I have written about. There are some species, Corn Bunting for instance, that were so common

Figure 4, opposite: A selection of pages from Stephen Westerberg’s notebooks

when I was twelve years old I didn’t bother to record them, and now it has been a long time since I have heard one singing. Dawn choruses used to be so noisy, with so many birds, that trying to map out singing birds used to be very difficult, but sadly it has been many years since I have had that problem in the UK. However, dawn is still a very special time and getting up pre-dawn and seeing the day start does give me an immense amount of satisfaction, as well as making sure I make the most of the day.

Footnote 1. Nik Borrow and Ron Demey, 2014, Birds of Western Africa, Helm Field Guides, London


& soft morning getting its bearings small payloads passing over bound for terminals of twig & moss blue sky empty of contrails

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Birdsong A Precious Constant in this Sea of Chaos


he morning after the Spring Equinox, the Earth’s shift on its axis seems to have turned up the volume of birdsong—surely the most allpervasive of all nature’s sounds. Standing in my Somerset garden, soaking up the unaccustomed late March sunshine, I feel as if I am listening to a whole orchestra. I’m not the only person to feel a deep connection with nature when listening to birdsong. In The Fire Trees, Mark Stewart writes:1 As birds sang their exquisite hymns from branch and bough, celebrating the simple joy of being alive in a way no chorister could hope to emulate, he found a peace that had always eluded him on consecrated ground. Yet might this response—which most of us can empathize with— simply be an anthropocentric delusion? From a purely scientific point of view, it certainly is. What we call the ‘dawn chorus’ may sound delightful to the human ear, but that is not its principal purpose. These harmonies and melodies—which we often describe with the same language we use for our own music—are actually tools in a deadly serious biological process: the annual breeding season, the crucial race to reproduce. Most small birds live for a year or two at most, so this may be the only chance they ever get to breed. In the vast majority of species, only the males sing, and the purpose of their efforts is two-fold: first, to repel rival males, and second, to attract a female to pair up and mate with them. Or, as the poet A F Harrold put it, rather more succinctly: ‘fuck off or fuck me’. So rather than playing together in the ornithological equivalent of an orchestra, they are each singing only to members of their own species, in a kind of avian apartheid.

Figure 1. Engraving by Thomas Bewick from his book A History of British Birds, volume 1, containing the History and Description of Land Birds, Newcastle, (1797) 1826, p 124

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Yet even when we understand that birdsong is simply the external evidence of a behavioural process, this does not—and should not—prevent us from enjoying it. So, as I listen, I am aware that millions of people, from my near neighbours in this West Country village to people I shall never meet in far-flung lands, are sharing the same sense of joy as I am. All the way across the northern hemisphere, from Alaska in the west to Japan in the east, human beings are listening to birdsong, and as a result—even if they do not realize it—are feeling a little bit happier and more relaxed. But this year is different. I am not walking around my local patch, visiting a bird reserve elsewhere in the country, or experiencing the unfamiliar sounds of exotic birds abroad; instead, I am confined to a small area within walking distance of my home. That’s because, like billions of others, I am in lockdown. I have no choice but to observe, enjoy and appreciate the coming of spring in my own garden and, once a day, along the country lanes where I take my daily exercise. This enforced restriction of my own territory both confines and enhances my experience. Like an artist painting with a limited palette of colours, or a wood carver using a simple set of hand-tools, I have no choice but to work with what is available. There are no rare or exotic species here—unless you count the occasional little egret feeding in the water-filled ditches nearby—so I must learn to appreciate the familiar and commonplace. And, as I listen to the chirping of house sparrows in the hedgerow, a newly-returned chiffchaff shouting out his name, or a skylark rising high into the ether and delivering his unique musical mishmash of notes, I realize that going back to basics may not be such a bad thing after all. Allowing this wave of birdsong to wash over me, I try to imagine what it

must be like not to know which species is making which particular sound. I am lucky: having spent many years making television programmes about birds and birding, writing books on the subject, and teaching nature writing, I have a pretty good command of the songs and calls of common birds. On my home patch in Somerset, I recognize almost anything I hear (though there is a famous saying amongst birders that if you can hear a bird, but cannot work out what it is, it’s always a great tit). But that was not always the case. When I was growing up, I couldn’t identify birds by sound at all. I even struggled with the obvious ones, like robin, blackbird and song thrush. Looking back at my bird notes from childhood (which are far less detailed than I would like), or ransacking my memories of early birding trips, I realize that while I became quite adept at identifying birds by sight, I virtually ignored those species and groups which are more usually identified by sound. Warblers, for instance. When I walk around my local patch on the edge of the Somerset Levels, I might tally as many as fifty singing individuals of eight or nine warbler species. Yet, unless I try really hard to track the songsters down, I rarely see them. If I were unable to distinguish one song from another, I would be missing out entirely on this fascinating group of birds. Whenever I go birding abroad, I am plunged back into a state of ignorance. Whether in the jungles of Peru, on the grasslands of Southern Africa, or amongst the eucalyptus forests of Australia, I simply cannot even begin to put a name to the birds I am hearing. It’s rather like being plonked down in a country where you cannot speak a word of the local language—you don’t just feel inadequate, you also miss out on a key part of the whole experience.


Knowing the songs and calls of birds is important to me for both practical and spiritual reasons. In ‘normal’ springs, I lead birdwatching tours around my adopted county of Somerset; and, especially at this time of year, that mainly entails ‘bird hearing’ rather than watching. There’s something empowering about being able to call out the individual sounds from the sonic melee of a May morning, as if performing a conjuring trick. The joy I see on the faces of my companions, as they too realize they can learn to identify a bird from its song, is a real pleasure. In his marvellously erudite and thought-provoking book Birdscapes, classical scholar and birder Jeremy Mynott devotes an entire chapter to using birdsong to tell different species apart, noting that—especially with the dawn chorus—sound is ‘both the necessary and sufficient means of identification’. Yet as he goes on to point out, most field guides relegate sound well down the pecking order, preferring to focus mainly on visual plumage features. On a larger scale, our collective knowledge of the status of Britain’s birdlife—the rises and falls in the fortunes of each species—is the result of local counts and surveys by an army of amateur birders. If they were unable to identify birds by their songs and calls, the overall picture of our nation’s birdlife would be far less reliable and complete. Birdsong is also crucial in marking the cycle of the seasons. For me, the first hints of spring come not with the March equinox, but as early as New Year’s Day—sometimes even before Christmas—when familiar species such as the wren and song thrush begin to sing. They do so tentatively at first, but then with gusto, as they try to get a head start over their rivals. Incidentally, if you want to learn how to identify birds by sound, January is the best time to start: each week you are able to learn a song or two, and

as each new species comes into the frame you can add them one-by-one, until you find that by the time spring finally arrives, you have mastered the common species. March sees the first returning migrants: the chiffchaff and blackcap, which spend the winter nearer to us than other visitors, in Spain and North Africa. April then opens the floodgates to long-distance travellers from sub-Saharan Africa: twittering swallows, screaming swifts and many others, including that once iconic sound of spring, the cuckoo. Birds such as the cuckoo and swallow have been central to our culture, and to those of other northern lands, for millennia. We time our seasons by their coming, and more recently, they have begun to provide an environmental early-warning system: the fact that so few of us hear cuckoos nowadays flags up their continued and rapid decline. On a broader front, the early arrival of so many migratory species, with many now reaching our shores two, or even three weeks earlier than a few decades ago, is the modern equivalent of the ‘canary in the coalmine’. Their premature appearance warns us that the seasons themselves are shifting alarmingly quickly, because of changes wrought by the global climate crisis. On a more positive note, birdsong still provides solace and comfort in these difficult times. This is not some kind of flaky, New Age nonsense, but scientifically proven: listening to birdsong really does reduce stress and improves our well-being. This was first discovered in 2013 by researchers at the University of Surrey, who pinpointed the way that birdsong in particular—not simply the state of ‘being outdoors’—has genuinely restorative effects on the human psyche. It certainly makes me feel better: nothing sets me up for the day better than being woken by the

Figure 2, opposite: Swallow

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comfortingly repetitive sound of the song thrush perched on our bedroom roof, singing his heart out. That does bring up an awkward question: what happens when, with the inevitability of age, you lose the ability to hear some once familiar bird sounds? My old friend and colleague Bill Oddie wrote recently about visiting his home patch of London’s Hampstead Heath early one spring morning, when a fellow birder called his attention to a flock of meadow pipits passing high overhead. To his chagrin, Bill realized that he had not heard their familiar ‘sip sip’ call; and later discovered that neither could he hear other songs at similarly high frequencies, such as goldcrest, treecreeper and even the penetrating song of the chiffchaff. Like most birders, I have a recurring horror of losing my sight. Yet perhaps losing one’s hearing would be even more devastating, for birdsong is not only a crucial tool in identifying a species, but also a key conduit that enables us to connect with nature. In the Age of the Anthropocene, when we are finally waking up to the damage our species has done to the natural world, when we talk about ‘connecting with nature’ are we perhaps at risk of falling into the twin traps of anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism? With the former, I have already noted how we impose our own values on birdsong, by using musical terms such as ‘dawn chorus’ and ‘avian orchestra’, despite its purely biological purpose. Likewise, by viewing birdsong as somehow ‘good for us’, are we in danger of shifting the focus from the birds to ourselves, so that even as many songbirds continue to decline, all we seem to care about is the positive effect their dwindling sounds are having on us? This argument has some merit, but as with the anthropocentrism involved in the act of naming birds,2 I am fairly relaxed about the way that

humans try to seek out some kind of meaning from the joy and pleasure we get from listening to birds. It would, indeed, be rather odd if we did not. As a nature writer, I have become increasingly aware in recent years of the potential pitfalls in ‘using’ birds and other wild creatures to evoke human emotions and feelings; I have also, especially in my short ‘biographies’ of the Robin, the Wren and now the Swallow,3 felt entirely comfortable in doing so. I try both to put myself inside the mind of these birds (an impossible, yet still I think worthwhile, task), and also to write about what these birds mean to me and to other writers, past and present. Connecting with the natural world in this way is a kind of empathy, which I believe brings us closer to nature and makes us feel part of the whole system, rather than standing outside it. My fellow ‘New Nature Writers’, along with my students on Bath Spa University’s MA Travel and Nature Writing, have also shown me the way, simply by writing about what matters to them: the ‘holy trinity’ of places, people and wildlife. Yet this kind of personal writing about the natural world is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the decades from the 1960s through to the millennium, roughly coinciding with the first half of my own lifetime, a fear of engaging with the natural world in this personal and passionate way more or less put an end to writing about nature at all—apart from the more utilitarian sub-genre of field guides and other works of reference. Since then, we have seen a juggernaut of new writing, some admittedly self-indulgent, but mostly engaging, important and enjoyable to read. And if communicating our passion for nature to others helps to save the world we care so much about, then surely that can only be a good thing. As I write, early on a fine spring morning, I can hear the rhythmic

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trilling of a greenfinch, the chirping of house sparrows and the occasional ‘kronk’ of a raven in the skies above. This sonic backdrop seems so vital, so permanent, that it is easy to assume that it will go on forever. Yet in a few weeks, once chicks have hatched and need to be fed, the volume and intensity will drop; and by the summer months, it will have vanished altogether, replaced by a more subtle and mesmerizing soundscape of bees, crickets and grasshoppers. In early autumn, one or two species will begin singing again, as robins and wrens start to defend their winter territories; then the colder months will be marked by a sound that, although made by birds, is not a vocal one: the soft, reassuring whoosh of tens of thousands of starlings’ wings, as they pass over my garden on the way to their night-time roost. As the year finally draws to a close, I shall listen out for the gentle sound of a robin. In my mind (but not his), he will be saying farewell to the old year and ushering in the new, with the tantalizing promise of spring just around the corner. For me, as for so many people, this midwinter song marks this period of renewal, bringing comfort to us all, especially in these difficult times. But next year will be different. We, and the world, have been changed forever by the current crisis, and will never be able look at any aspect of our lives in quite the same way again. That makes birdsong—the one precious constant in this sea of chaos—more important than ever. Footnotes 1. See Mark Stewart, The Fire Trees, 2. Which I examined in my recent book (2018), Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names, published by Guardian Faber. 3. Stephen Moss, 2017, The Robin: A Biography; 2018, The Wren: A Biography; and 2020, The Swallow: A Biography, all published by Square Peg, London.

Figure 3. Robin


& woodpecker drumming a heron’s shrieking pass (whitenoise of motorway coffeemaker clearing its throat)

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The Dark Side of the Dawn Chorus

Figure 1. The author setting out an all-weather recorder timed to record nocturnal song and the ensuing dawn chorus


or the Australian pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis), dawn marks the end of their night shift. Mine too. Each spring, I record these nocturnal songsters, who may hold forth for up to seven hours before sunrise. Both sexes participate in group singing, but these are largely diurnal affairs. For me, their nocturnal solo songs are paramount. Soloists begin softly and slowly, gradually coming into their full, flute-like voice. Phrases lasting a second or two will hang in the air for several more. The birds may then want to listen, but since they can take mini-breaths, they don’t need to breath—the phrases do. The crystalline timbre is remarkable. Pied butcherbirds are virtuosos of combinatorial prowess: they tinker with song elements, constantly re-ordering and rearranging them with no predictable pattern. Solo songs all differ one from another (although there are local traditions) and transform annually, so this zoömusicologist/composer is gifted with an almost unending supply of new material. (This assumes that the species continues to survive and thrive in the midst of the environmental challenges we humans throw at them.) Since 2005, I have spent months in the field each year. With the goal of recording an entire nocturnal song, I set up my digital recorder and a pair of shotgun microphones mounted on a tripod in the dark of night. (As a supplement, each afternoon I also mount a half-dozen all-weather recorders in trees at other potential sites, with a programmable start schedule set to 11 pm [figure 1] these recorders assist me in determining species presence and a song’s approximate start time.) If no singer holds forth, I must eventually make a mad dash to another site—but if a soloist is present and obliging, I’m in luck. I stay near the gear in case there is a fluctuation in volume, a change of songpost or a turn of the head, but also

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because I want to be able to make a full accounting of all avian behaviour and other goings-on: whether another pied butcherbird comes in, if someone/something interrupts, the works. Once begun, nocturnal song continues until, or even through, the dawn chorus, unless the concert is aborted due to heavy rainfall or a threat from another species. As the sun rises and the dawn chorus swells, the bird and I can take heart that we have both made it safely to another day. That’s the comforting coda I cling to in the dark. Since my main focus is on a single species, I’m grateful for those rare times when the geophony and biophony play a minimal role.1 Hours of heavenly singing, all gear fully operational—not to mention no wind or rain, cars or airplanes, or issues of personal safety—this is my best-case scenario. But then, real life intrudes. The coloured sonogram in figure 2 is a two-dimensional graphical representation of a sound. It represents time horizontally and frequency vertically, much like in Western music notation. Below the sonogram (and set in a pale green background) is a grey waveform, with the intensity of sound—its amplitude—indicated by depth of shading. On this night, there was no pied butcherbird vocalization and scant amplitude variation. A water pump inhabits the bass register, while a modulating mosquito adds a frenetic alto (it must be very close to the recorder; the lowest line of the mosquito is the fundamental pitch, and the evenly spaced stripes above it are harmonics). Between 4–4.5kHz, an insect’s regularly-spaced contribution sounds like a very fast roll on a tiny muted cymbal. In other words, it sounds like music. When the sonogram is expanded, close parallel lines indicate about twenty stridulations in less than a second. Stridulating insects like crickets have performed in twilight choruses for

millions of years. One might expect descriptions of insect sonification to read like a dry report—but that’s not at all the case. Like me, entomologists draw on musical terms (like ‘crescendo’, ‘trill’, and ‘choir’), and their studies also describe ‘instrumental musicians of the highest stamp’, sounds that are ‘profoundly musical’, and even ‘points of kinship’.2 Near the top of the sonogram at just under 5kHz is another anonymous musician, this one adding a staccato voice. In the next example, real life takes a short break. The sonogram (figure 3) displays twenty seconds of the acoustic goings-on the night of 2 September 2019 at the Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs, Central Australia (figure 4). I began recording at 1:55 am at the Two Women Dreaming Track, which contains seven registered aboriginal sacred sites and trees of significance, including a three-hundred-year-old corkwood

Figure 2. A water pump, mosquito, stridulating insect, and staccato voice in the night chorus. Audio 1


Figure 3. Four pied butcherbird phrases from the Araluen Arts Centre depicted in a sonogram (top) and a waveform (bottom). The bands between 2.5–3kHz are produced by nocturnal insects. Audio 2

Figure 4. The sun rises on the river red gums at the Araluen Arts Centre, photo: Hollis Taylor

tree and massive river red gums. Despite the constant threat of traffic, loose dogs, and late-night revelers, this location can at times be reasonably quiet in the middle of the night, and the soloist here is well worth any potential mishaps. It was a good night. Granted, this degree of quietude is more the exception than the rule. Sometimes, the ‘offending’ sonic intruder is a conspecific. While it is not unusual for another pied butcherbird soloist or two to be heard in the distance, when interaction is clearly involved, ethologists use the term countersinging. This may be matched (when a bird sings a phrase that matches what the other just sang) or unmatched. Although the function of countersinging could be a vocal contest or a ploy for getting attention, the effect is a decidedly musical one. These songs foreground vocal expertise, so counterpoint might not be their aim. However, to consider a soloist’s song independently from their neighbour’s is to perhaps endorse a functional interpretation—to buy into the stereotype that song is merely a bird taking care of business. With this in mind, two soloists from Bitter Springs Creek in Central Australia prompt me to wonder whether pied butcherbird phrases are formed with the sense that they must work together harmonically when more than one soloist is broadcasting (transcribed in figure 5). No transcription captures all the details of a performance, whether of a human or a bird. It is a translation, but a useful and powerful multilevel descriptive tool in the case of pied butcherbirds—useful because they sing low and slow enough, as well as in something closely resembling semitones (rather than microtones), to be handily represented in standard music notation, and powerful because to invent a new notation is to exoticize by building on difference, while to place the sound being scrutinized in conventional

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Figure 5. A transcription of two pied butcherbirds countersinging at Bitter Springs Creek. Audio 3

notation is to bring it into ‘a sphere of discourse that is enabled by a distinguished intellectual history and undeniable institutional power’.3 Notation says ‘music’. Appreciating that politics and ideology can infiltrate the seemingly neutral act of transcription, I situate pied butcherbirds in this power-place at every opportunity. I am quickly rehearsing this position because what interests me in particular is how birdsong transcription is also a form of ethical invitation, summoning readers to extend their feelings of connectivity and kinship beyond the human. Understanding that a lack of other species in the nocturnal sonic space could indicate a decline in biodiversity, I must curb my grumpiness when kookaburras start to chuckle, ‘car alarm’ birds begin to burst with frequency sweeps, and crowing roosters drown out what some might consider superior voices—and the dawn chorus may even bring a bit of happenstance along with increased traffic. For instance, one pied butcherbird on Magnetic Island dropped their diverse nocturnal repertoire at sunrise, settling on an ostinato (a simple, repeated and unchanging pattern, such as a blues riff ). Here, a grey shrike-thrush (GST) dominates, while the pied butcherbird’s (PBB) spare aesthetic holds to a two-note ostinato (figure 6), both set within an acoustic fabric of high-frequency shimmering from insects and the songs and calls of various birds, including pied currawong, rainbow bee-eater, welcome swallow, blue-winged kookaburra and rainbow lorikeet. The harmonic convergence, with the GST rising a major third above the pied butcherbird and doubling at the octave, makes for an enticing pairing. These apparent examples of small-scale coordination, one intra-specific and the other inter-specific, are consistent with a recent study that found


acoustic choruses can be fundamentally organized by social communication extending beyond species boundaries and that such communication networks are inherently clustered by increased stereotypy and synchrony among species.4

Figure 6. A pied butcherbird (PBB) on Magnetic Island sings a two-note ostinato while a grey shrike-thrush (GST) rings out its phrase in seeming harmonic convergence (music notation takes account of the first ten seconds). Audio 4

Figure 7. White dots mark the author’s recording sites along 17 km of the Ross Highway, Central Australia

In other words, multi-individual and cross-species convergence is not a coincidence or a fluke. How acoustic constructs are shared across diverse taxa remains a matter for further investigation. Some have suggested the presence of ‘deep homologies’.5 Bernie Krause imagines a Great Animal Orchestra, where every species takes up their niche in the sonic basket, but sometimes competition heats up for the same wavelength.6 Things can escalate not just between conspecifics but with other species that are stepping on, rather than enhancing, another’s signal (when it comes to pied butcherbirds’ nocturnal vocalizations, the closely-related Australian magpie is a frequent persona non grata). In the next case, stepping is exactly what happened. East of Alice Springs, a remote ‘highway’ runs in fits and starts, alternating between one and two lanes, and between sealed and unsealed. It cuts through the parallel red ridges of the MacDonnell Ranges, which reflect and echo birdsong (and anything else) off their sheer rock walls (figure 7). Ross Highway, 15 October 2018, 4:26 am: It’s going well, no traffic at all, which is what I would expect since no one lives nearby. At this hour, the pied butcherbird soloist and I have the place to ourselves. But as dawn approaches, I hear something (figure 8). No matter how remote a field site, nothing kills the out-in-nature vibe like a rooster or a cow in the mix. When seventeen cattle arrive at my gear (and me trying to protect it), several give an energetic bovine commentary. Can’t they see I’m recording

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an artist? I’m called upon to save both gear and recordist before the lot is trampled. There is avian consensus: concert cancelled due to rowdy cattle lacking in proper etiquette and appreciation. The dawn chorus transpires as a large-group free improvisation where avian songsters and other taxa work across species to mark a place and a moment, with heritage analogues like a town clock, the 5:17 express train, or peeling church bells. I find the howling of dingoes to be particularly evocative of the Australian outback. Two kilometres down the track from the previous example, a pied butcherbird ends their nocturnal song with some inter-specific notes of mimicry (0:05–0:12 sec, figure 9). Curving lines in the lower third of the sonogram expand the sonic story: a pack of howling dingoes are also marking night’s end. Another pied butcherbird adds a one-note ostinato to the counterpoint (beginning at 17 sec). Like the Ross Highway, the Gulf Developmental Road guarantees just a single lane of bitumen. Drivers in this part of north Queensland must keep constant watch for oncoming traffic and wandering stock and be prepared to urgently pull off onto gravel-and-red-dust shoulders. Acres of termite ‘tombstones’ line much of the road’s 442 kilometres. I head west for hours, until a long bridge crosses the dry Etheridge River. Here, a cut-out of a huge Brahman steer with floppy ears welcomes (and farewells) visitors to Georgetown, population 243 (figure 10). Grazing has replaced fluctuating mining fortunes, but since the area is in drought, these days grazing is capricious as well. You could say it’s an unlikely place to search for worldclass musicians—but Australia is full of surprises. 3:07 am: It’s hot and humid even at this hour. I depart the caravan park and drive a block to the edge of town.

Figure 8. Phrases from a pied butcherbird are increasingly drowned out by 17 cattle, ending with several moo’s as they arrive and notice the recordist. Audio 5

Figure 9. Dingoes, pied butcherbirds, and a host of other species join in the dawn chorus. Audio 6


3:09 am: I pull into tiny Greens Park and set out my gear to the accompaniment of crickets and fruit bats. The stage is awash in a threequarter moon. As I turn on the recorder, I give an ‘ident’ (time, place, moon phase, sunrise, weather, etc), then get back in the van. Otherwise, the recording would be marred by mosquitos, slapping and continual spraying to repel them. 3:13 am: In the riverbed (just down from the welcoming cow) stands a large tree where fruit bats squabble and flap their opera cloaks. 3:31 am: Another occupant of this arboreal high rise slowly begins their nocturnal song. This pied butcherbird is a favourite of mine. 3:43 am: A gecko gives out ten loud chirping sounds. 4:12 am: A feral cat slinks by. Since being launched into Australia by white settlement, these predators (twice the size of a domestic cat) now kill an estimated 75 million animals each night. I’d like to move it along, but I don’t want to disturb this virtuoso of large leaps, timbral tricks, and combinatorics. Two phrases harbour harmonic implications straight out of eighteenth-century Western classical music. S/he’s got it all.

Figure 10. Behind the farewell cow in Greens Park, Georgetown, is the tree where the pied butcherbird sang and the dry Etheridge Riverbed, photo: Hollis Taylor

4:50 am: The long, low trill of a cane toad fades in and out. The species is invasive and poses a serious threat to Australian biodiversity, but the sound is mesmerizing. 4:56 am: Another pied butcherbird is vocalizing in the direction of the caravan park.

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5:20 am: A mosquito slips through the crack in the van door, jerking me out of my trance and warning that the nocturnal song will soon wind down. 5:27 am: A blue-winged kookaburra’s guttural ‘clock clock’ is soon developed by team kookaburra into a cacophony of screeches and squawks. 5:35 am: The high pitch ‘chill chill’ of galahs (pink and grey cockatoos) splinters the air, and a few new insects add pizzazz. 5:40 am: The pied butcherbird, who has been loyal to the one songpost, begins to fade out, truncating phrases to their essence and leaving longer and longer intervals of silence. Absolute Bird, my concerto for recorder and orchestra, will begin with this recording, and the recorder soloist will then carry on with the bird’s (simplified) song. 5:48 am: Sun’s up, show’s over for the solo set, but the dawn chorus is cranking into full gear. Chirpers, trillers, and squawkers saturate the sonic space. I can pick out the brisk, rising ‘wirra, wirra, wirra’ of the eastern koel and the scratchy warbling of the olive-backed oriole. ‘Tobacco tobacco’, inserts the noisy friarbird. Every five or ten minutes, pied butcherbirds sing one of their handful of ensemble songs. Unlike the singularity of solo songs, groups songs are stable over the years. These are their classics, indicating musical custodianship of many an agreed-upon tradition. Four butcherbirds make the rounds, stopping at utility lines behind the pool, then to trees along the riverbed for a block or more before crossing over to the caravan park, and back again to Greens Park. ‘Keyhole keyhole’, insists the friarbird.

As a professional musician, I have performed both solo and as part of a hundred-piece orchestra (and other smaller ensembles). I can only speculate on whether a vocalizing pied butcherbird prefers the role of soloist or membership in dawn’s orchestra. Drawing attention to oneself in the still of the night brings increased predatory risk, while dawn offers strength in numbers. On the other hand, the minute-by-minute tasks facing an ensemble musician of whatever species are considerable, whether in the crisscross patterns of the dawn chorus or some other genre; a soloist may wish to avoid such intense competition for broadcasting space. Then again, group participation offers the reward of being embedded in a wide range of timbres, frequencies and rhythms. It’s the ultimate surround sound. As the musicians’ union bumper sticker used to proclaim, ‘live music is best’, and not just for an audience. Avian proceedings may be impacted, and often are, by humans. You could describe our contribution as the dark side of the dawn chorus. We are a noisy mob, and some birds are having to make adjustments to be heard in the midst of our traffic, airplanes, generators and other offences. For instance, I am an hour and a half into an enchanting solo on Angguna Avenue in Alice Springs on 13 September 2018, when at 5:31 am I hear (figure 11): Fuck you! [I can just make it out.] Ugly little cunt! [I get back in the car and settle for recording out the window.] Little ole cunt! [I check to make sure the doors are locked.]


Robin, you motherfuckin’. [He’s definitely walking my way.] Fuck you! Close the fuckin’ door on me! [The bird sings on.] Fuckin’ piece a shit! [Hold on—I think it’s a female voice.] Him ole piece a shit people. Make me fuckin’ walk all this way. Gonna make me walk. [It seems to be timed much like the birdsong, with intervals of sound and silence.] Fuckin’ hell. Gotta walk a fuckin’ mile away. Hi. Are youse okay? Are youse alright? [Here she is, but her voice has notably softened.] [Nodding, I reply:] Thank you. Youse, youse know where’s youse at?

Figure 11. A swearing woman as she approaches my campervan (parked on Angguna Avenue, Alice Springs) is depicted in wavy lines in the lower third, a pied butcherbird fills the mid-range, and various small birds including yellow-throated miners occupy the upper half of the sonogram

I’m recording the bird. Back that way.

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The bird. What? I’m recording the bird. Oh, recording the bird. Sorry… and my mouth. It’s okay. I was gonna ask for a lift where youse a goin’. Sorry. [Pointing to the bird, I indicate that I need to stay with the soloist, who has moved off a bit during the commotion.] I like the… I can hear them talkin’ to ya in the morning. … They help me keep goin’. Yeah. … Sorry for interfering. [We smile and wave goodbye.] South of Alice Springs, 1 September 2017, 2:47 am: I’m out on an isolated road. There’s no bird singing yet, so after I set up the recording equipment in front of the campervan, I get back in and listen intently. Shortly, my rearview mirror reveals a midnight-blue sedan, no lights on, loaded with people. They pull up behind me, right to the bumper, then turn their lights on bright—no doubt expecting to frighten a couple of sleeping tourists. I quickly close my door and lock it, hoping they’ve not seen my gear. A man gets out and approaches. ‘Police’, he says, flashing his wallet. ‘Can you just put the window down, please?’ He seems somewhat

credible, but police don’t come in fives. He presses me to get out. He doesn’t appear drunk, but I’m not lowering the window even an inch to smell his breath. ‘You aren’t the police’, ‘I am the police. You wanna check my ID?’ ‘I’m calling the police!’ I say it twice, shakily but loudly, as I dial the emergency number. This is not going as he planned. He leaves to consult his mates. The carload of them drive up parallel to me, then turn, revealing a back window covered with plastic and tape as well as a clear view of their licence plate. I read it out to the police as my troublemakers rumble off. I stay for a while, but at 5 am I declare the bird a no-show, load my gear, and relocate to another site in town, traffic and all, no worries. Despite the snags and hazards, I keep going back—but I can no longer say when I start to worry about being out alone in the dark, ‘Oh, it’s just an overactive imagination’. Perils and threats are not just human on human. When mobbing a possum, a lizard, or an owl, for instance, pied butcherbirds deliver steep ascending ‘zips’—boisterous and brassy squirts that get the point across. Their bill ends in a finely hooked tip, for killing (figure 12). Beak claps, delivered in pairs, also remind the ‘mobbee’ of what is to come if they don’t comply with a butcherbird eviction notice. I am not immune to bouts of interspecific aggression: 24 October 2014, Sandstone Point, 4:50 am. I have come here with great success for four years. The nocturnal soloist begins at Pebble Beach Commons and leads me along several songposts over the course of two hours, ending in a small wooded park where people often walk their dogs. Unusually, I’m in luck—I’ve got the place to myself. The solo ends, but I’ll stay for the antiphons in the dawn chorus. However, it slowly occurs to me that the escalating beak claps and zips from a group of about eight butcherbirds are directed at me. This time of year, young birds could be in the nest. All


Figure 12. A pied butcherbird with a long grey and black bill, finely hooked at the tip, Photo: Hollis Taylor

backstage passes have been revoked. I quickly depart through the gate, but the ensemble songs are irresistible, so I sneak back and hide behind a tree. Straightaway, a bird lands on the trunk just above my head and utters a harsh, piercing zip call. I swiftly comply (audio 7). Although I have seen pied butcherbirds drive out other species, I was not expecting to be attacked by ‘my’ bird (of course, it’s actually the opposite – I’m their human, celebrating their achievements). The theatrics of the night or dawn chorus cannot be fully told in sonograms, notations, recordings or anecdotes. Sometimes, you just need to be there. Nowhere is this more evident than in mimicry—the singing of songs outside species-typical vocalizations, although to define mimicry in this manner is to succumb to a rather impoverished way of describing the abrupt extravagance of the event. Avian mimicry is stunning: suddenly, your low-and-slow bird-musician is singing falsetto, like an individual half their size—chips and chirps, barks and squeaks, swift arabesques, next gurgling, and now metallic-sounding. The inter-phrase interval disappears, and the singing is nearly nonstop. You could call it a DJ cutand-paste session. Or a one-man band. Butcherbird mimicry often takes place quietly around midday in the shade of a tree and may last for forty-five minutes or more. In addition, about five per cent of nocturnal songs are appended with a bit of mimicry (perhaps thirty to ninety seconds), which is usually placed at the song’s end or at a point when the bird intends to fly to a new songpost or take a short break. Although pied butcherbirds excel at high-fidelity duplication, they may not copy an entire motif from the model (including anthropogenic sounds like cell phone ringtones, car alarms and sirens). Analysis of mimicry is a laborious process that requires second-by-second

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scrutiny to identify the sound treasures these mimics have rounded up. The whinny of a horse, for instance, is easily spotted, but inevitably some material remains unidentified. And why mimic? Is it an audio diary, a census, a dream state or even a musical joke? Biologists have yet to come to grips with the function of avian mimicry or even to posit an overarching hypothesis. This allows artists like me to frame their own questions and hunches on mimicry, traversing this undefended territory much as an opportunistic bird might. Wordsworth Road between Townsville and Charters Towers, north Queensland, 28 September 2007, 4:10 am: A pied butcherbird delivers solo nocturnal song with a regular pattern of sound and silence for almost two hours, only to suddenly abandon formal song with a memory bank of readymades. ‘Wordsworth’ (my ID reference for birds is tied to place names, which unfortunately but typically invoke the trespassing names and questionable honour of dead white men) manifests their own dawn chorus with a forty-three-second nonstop sonic tangle (figure 13/audio 8). I cannot fly. I cannot survive on my own in the Australian outback. But I can make music, and the musician in me deeply and absolutely recognizes the musician in pied butcherbirds. In my fieldwork, I keep bumping into a surplus of inventiveness not captured in functional accounts or technical descriptions of animal music. This underscores how the search for musicality, its origins, and its nature will be inhibited by partisan declarations of human exceptionalism and instead requires an approach across species and disciplines. Pied butcherbirds are envoys into the very stuff of music. Their meaningful, exuberant vocalizations are not the origins of music, or proto-music, or ‘music,’ but music full stop (figure 14). They exceed

Figure 13. ‘Wordsworth’ singing nocturnal song that ends in mimicry. Audio 8


anthropocentric assumptions, yet persistent demarcations like nature/ culture, human/animal and science/humanities aim to close down conversation and limit what can be claimed about a bird’s song. Planet Earth has hosted some thirteen million years of culture from these singing dinosaurs. Our First Musicians were learning, refining and transforming their complex phrases well before we had theories about them. It’s high time for the old, tired binaries to unravel.

Footnotes 1. Geophony is nonbiological natural sound like wind, rain, lightning and volcanoes. Biophony is the sound produced by animals other than humans. 2. See H A Allard, 1928, ‘Specializations Governing Musical Expression Among Insects’, The Scientific Monthly, 27:1, pp 81–88; and H A Allard, 1929, ‘Our Insect Instrumentalists and Their Musical Technique’, Annual Report of the Board of Regents of The Smithsonian Institution, United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC, pp 563–591. 3. Kofi Agawu, 1995, ‘The invention of “African rhythm”’, Music Anthropologies and Music Histories, 48:3, pp 380–395; see pp 392–393. 4. Joseph A Tobias, Robert Planqué, Dominic L Cram and Nathalie Seddon, 2014, ‘Species Interactions and the Structure of Complex Communication Networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 111:3, pp 1020–1025, see p 1020 (my emphasis). 5. Neil Shubin, Cliff Tabin and Sean Carroll, 2009, ‘Deep Homology and the Origins of Evolutionary Novelty’, Nature 457, 12 February 2009, pp 818–823; and Constance Scharff and Jana Petri, 2011, ‘Evo-devo, Deep Homology and FoxP2: Implications for the Evolution of Speech and Language’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366, pp 2124–2140. 6. Bernie Krause, 2012, The Great Animal Orchestra, Profile Books, London. Figure 14. A singing pied butcherbird in Western Australia, photo courtesy Bohdan Warchomij Figure 15, opposite: The author at Newhaven Bird Sanctuary in Central Australia, photo courtesy Jon Rose

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Noise Sound Music


have known Paul Kessell-Holland for over three years and sat on numerous PhD approval panels with him, but it is only recently that we started talking about the dawn chorus project—and I discovered that Paul had been schooled as a choirboy. We began a conversation exploring some of the parallels between choral singing and a birdsong dawn chorus. Mike Collier Mike: Paul, I was fascinated to hear you talk about your experience as a chorister and how it relates to the sound of birds in a dawn chorus— especially the relationship of song to place: Paul: I was lucky enough to sing as a cathedral chorister in my childhood, touring extensively to an incredible variety of religious buildings. There is one crucial factor that any regular liturgical singer knows they should consider, often above all others: the building itself. The acoustics of Abbeys, Cathedrals and Churches live and breathe. They carry some sounds incredible distances, and mute others. For example, the sound of an unseen choir can fill the building, whilst the voice of a clearly visible preacher may disappear completely. There is a context dependency to liturgical music, and modern performances make use of sensible positioning of resources to minimize or maximize the impact of the stonework. The relocation of a choir or soloist by even a few feet could alter completely whether the voice is heard clearly, or lost in sea of (rather beautiful) fractured echoes. It is important to note that even under ‘concert’ conditions, as boys we would often find ourselves needing to amend well-rehearsed performances to take account of the different acoustics in diverse cathedral spaces—slower tempi and

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pauses of greater length were two common examples. Mike: We know that whilst the succession of songsters in a dawn chorus remains pretty constant in any particular place, weather can play a part in altering the sound of a chorus from one day to the next. I’m also aware, from personal experience, that each place has its own singular chorus, which may vary greatly dependent on the living ecology of each place. Do you see any parallel here between a birdsong dawn chorus, which is necessarily placespecific, and choral performance in a particular cathedral? Paul: Indeed… whilst I find it extraordinary that the birds deliver such a vocal performance daily, I know, too, there is much contextualized, weatherdependent variation and re-voicing to their ‘performance’. Personally, I liken this diversity to the work of a craftsperson who is never entirely satisfied with their output. In the same way, the living acoustic ecology of each particular cathedral will vary hugely and can certainly influence the way a choral piece needs to be sung, even though the structure of the song remains constant. There is also a parallel with the numerous ‘schools’ of liturgical music that have evolved over the centuries, anchored in their own particular acoustic setting. There is much in common, and to the untrained ear they may sound the same (just as birdsong), but once you know how to listen, all these schools of sound are distinct, and unique to their particular home. Mike: Do you think that the some of the sounds we hear in today’s choral music may hold ‘echoes’ of lost choral works—in the same way perhaps that birds in a dawn chorus may be repeating modulations and variations of

Figure 1. Chartres Cathedral choir, photo: Marianne Casamance, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0


song learnt many hundreds of years ago in that particular place? Paul: It is widely thought that many of our greatest early choral works are lost to history. There are countless mentions of musical marvels, particularly in the Abbeys of Europe, with no notation or manuscript to bring back what was lost. Perhaps some of the plainsong we hear sung today may hold an echo of this lost music? Many of the records we have tend to chronicle ‘advances’ in activity, such as the building of an organ. They rarely were concerned with capturing what at the time was simply an everyday phenomenon, now lost to history.

in the fabric of the building in which the choir sings. I can attest to the impact a five-second delay will have on how you perform, and over years this will permanently alter the space taken for a line of text as it drifts across the openness of a cathedral. Similarly, the pitch of early chant is established by the cantor, based on the comfortable vocal range of those involved rather than on a given note from a musical instrument—best demonstrated nowadays when hearing a male or female choir singing the same plainsong chants.

Mike: Indeed, and as you know, I am especially interested in the point in time when choral music began to be written down—as neumes. I was excited to discover that the meaning of the word neume was derived from the Greek ‘pneuma’ meaning breath; this sense that that a neume represents the very breath of the singer. Indeed, in my own work, I have developed this idea literally, so that I see my neumatic reimaginings of birdsong as representative of the breath of the bird. Can you say a little about this?

Mike: There is, I think, a parallel here with birdsong in a dawn chorus which is place specific. Is it, perhaps, wishful thinking to believe that each individual bird in the dawn chorus has a sense of self in relation to what is happening around them; and that collectively, each species of bird in the chorus has its own culture; so that the whole dawn chorus can be heard as a pattern of different cultures expressed sonically? Self-evidently it is a soundscape that happens without recourse to written notation … and yet there are explicit texts within this chorus—messages that are clearly understood by the birds—messages around territory, mating etc.

Paul: Yes, I absolutely agree; neumes ‘breathe’. Early neumatic notation of plainchant was an aide-memoire rather than an instructive document, neumes being inflective marks that indicated the general shape but not necessarily the exact notes or rhythms to be sung; the conventions that built up were therefore more local than universal. Even today singers from different parts of Europe will deliver the same chants in slightly different ways—we might consider this performative license, but in truth many of these differences are rooted in historic tradition, and in some cases

Paul: There are almost no directions given in neumatic writing of time— instead there is text and pitch. Where the singer should slightly stretch or slightly curtail a duration, these are personal choices, and interpretations range dramatically from strict ‘every note the same’ rhythms to conversational ‘colla voce’ or ‘recitative’ style singing. The length of a pause is directly related to an instinctive ‘feel’ for when the sound has begun to sufficiently ‘settle’ in the building, so that it is sensible to move forward. Has the congregation heard the necessary text, will the next section be

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lost in a jumble of echoes? There are even a small number of multi-voice plainsong texts, where, despite the lack of clarity around duration, tempo or even exact pitch, experienced singers can navigate through overlapping vocal lines. Surely, such a notation is an ideal model for looking at the most inexact of exacting requirements—notation of birdsong? Mike: I agree—and in my case, too, the use of colour gives an added embodied richness to the reimagining of the chorus; and my use of the notation is flexible and intuitive. I build my pictures almost like a call and response series of visual and aural conversations, adapting and building on an initial idea, though, as you will have seen, the starting point of each piece is pretty arbitrary. Paul: That’s very interesting. As I said, in the early cathedral choir, all song was notated originally in neumatic notation. Some of it does not specify at all the starting pitches, leaving choirs to adapt to the range of their voices. Others start with short plainsong introductions that were familiar to their congregations, before launching into new expressions of the old prayers. Over time this has been notated into modern scores, and drove the evolution of ‘precise’ musical notation, but it is still possible with much of this polyphonic writing to perform with the same spirit and ‘breath’ as a single line of plainchant.

Figure 2. Leaf from a Dominican Antiphoner, 1300–1325, Flanders, collection of V&A (Prints and Drawings), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mike: Do you think that a successful ‘performance’ of choral music in the cathedral depends on the choir having a deep and sensual understanding of the sonic environment it is being performed in?


Paul: Indeed. An early motet sung at the incorrect speed in certain buildings can rapidly descend into a polyphonous cacophony, no matter how beautiful the elements contained in the music. The greatest of these choral works create incredible space between the elements of sounds to help with this—even the seemingly monolithic ‘Spem in Alium’ by Tallis, with forty individual lines, breathes and swells voice by voice, as a landscape of overlapping sounds. I sense that in a dawn chorus the

birds seem to know this, and manage to build their own cacophonous polyphony, masterfully blending their voices to catch the ‘air’ between each other, or overlapping to increase the power of their own call. It is one stage beyond what we managed at this tiny moment in our musical evolution—even the greatest of singers cannot spontaneously bring that much order to that much potential chaos, and must rely on one master score, voice or (more recently) conductor to ensure there is coherence in their sound. Mike: I know friends of mine who have seen and heard birds inside cathedrals! Have you experienced this—and if so, how have you experienced it? Paul: I have at times heard birdsong inside the great cathedrals. Not surprisingly many small birds find their way inside, and some become very comfortable long-term residents. Their voices carry beautifully inside the large ornate spaces, and just like the singers of many centuries they manage to use the acoustic of the building as part of their song. I find it strangely calming to see them taking flight inside these huge open but enclosed spaces, treating them as an extension of their natural world. I wonder what parallels they might see in our music, if we were able to ask them in return? What would they think of our noise, sound and music? It is far simpler than theirs, and we still have much to learn.

Figure 3. The nave of Lincoln Cathedral looking east, Lincolnshire, England, photo: David Iliff, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0

Mike: As Shelley said in his address to the Skylark, ‘Teach me half the gladness / that thy brain must know.’

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Composers of the Air Voicing the Dawn, A Memoir

A bird song can even, for a moment, make the whole world into a sky within us … because we feel that the bird does not distinguish between its heart and the world’s. —Rainer Maria Rilke


n this reflection on ‘rewilding’ my professional life as a composer and improviser, I meander through some explorations of birdsong as a musical resource and share personal thoughts about how we can live and work with nature. I link sound, habitat and the physiology of a particular time and place, something I call ‘birdmusic and nature’s ensemble’. The main focus of this essay, the dawn chorus, centres around Voicing the Dawn (2019), a piece for solo and ensemble voices. This fascination with the music of the dawn chorus made me want to explore blackbird as a soloist and so my essay then goes on to share with you the developing ideas of a future piece Gardez la Distance (2021). Finally, I move to dusk when the dawn chorus reverse-echoes as evensong, and I share a working

Figure 1. Sonogram landscape with Blackbird song notation

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musical score of a vocal piece which invites anyone to join in who has a will to make sound through listening. This final piece describes how birds in a murmuration can be embodied in musical performance.

I Birds’ singing enriches musical ideas An exchange over an article by George Monbiot (2019) on political rewilding, led my colleague Greta Muscat Azzopardi to ask: ‘I keep thinking about a comment you made about organizing your place like nature. I often wonder what other thoughts and experiments you might have around this.’ My response has become something of a memoir about how to rewild my professional life. Due to the music I had chosen to be involved with, my professional life had become increasingly human-dominated, with international travel, stuffy recording studios, air-conditioned concert halls, and soulless dressing-rooms. When I wasn’t travelling, I shared my time between living on a main road on the outskirts of Cambridge and in Brussels, at the former studio of FoAM (2014–2016) —an interdisciplinary research organisation—in the urban jungle of Molenbeek, and thereafter at my apartment in the European quarter of Brussels where European Union buildings are concentrated. In none of these places was the air good to breathe. The need to breathe better air led to a search for a musical reason to change my lifestyle. The urge to shift the balance from ‘escaping to nature’ to being and working in nature became all the more intense as environmental concerns intensified, as a natural extension of my creativity. That is not at all to suggest that one can contribute more to protecting the

environment in the country than the city—the opposite is probably true— but a musical excuse was called for to enable this shift from urban to rural. Birdsong was the ideal solution, for while being an inextricable part of urban soundscapes, it is more prolific in rural environments. There are not necessarily more birds, but because there are fewer humans (and traffic), their singing makes more impact. Birdsong also has the advantage of being culturally and historically neutral, almost impossible to write down, and freely accessible. The emerging music, which I call ‘birdmusic’, became something like an ecotone1 between me and the birdsong and all the other sounds I imagined we were hearing. This is very different to working in a studio or concert hall, where the music and musicians are protected from their outside world. Making the decision to take up the challenge of working with birdsong, took me back to an almost forgotten work, picking up a longlost musical path on which I started in the 1990s. This was an outdoor dusk performance called Gone to Earth, with the sculptor Richard Harris for the choreographer Yolande Snaith, inspired by, and set in, Wittenham Clumps (Oxfordshire), two little hills of historical significance. We had listened intensely to the birdsong on previous evenings in this special place, and made field-recordings. For the performance the recordings were replayed through speakers hung in the trees and provided a minimal acoustic backdrop to frame the real avian evensong; within this I performed my notation of the song-thrush on violin, and a second musician (Jim Denley), improvised on piccolo in response to the birdsong he heard on the adjacent Clump some distance away. Embarking now on this new phase of composition I could look back on this early work with insights of an experienced composer. Having eavesdropped on all those dusks and


been part of the singing birds’ soundscape, I now wanted to apply this more profoundly to the creative process of musical composition. In the birdmusic I had naively started making at Wittenham Clumps, and working again with birdsong and the dawn chorus, now with my skills honed, I learnt my craft by spending a huge amount of time (as one does with learning a musical instrument) listening to and notating birds’ singing and imagining it in human performance. Birds’ singing enriches our musical ideas and listening capabilities in their soundscape—how they sing in terms of time and place, silence and sound. For a composer it is a unique creative resource yet is part neither of our training nor of western music education in general. The attempt to grasp and respond to birdsong and its environment means that my composition technique is no longer based on human-made musical conventions but on birds singing. That is not to say that birdsong has not influenced the musical canon, but that it is not systematically taught as part of it. In living as a composer of the western classical tradition, I did not feel empowered to respond to my natural environment. Hence my desire to get closer to it, and the decision to learn to compose from birds’ singing is my entry-point. While I think I have some understanding of why humans make music—if only because it is something I have done all my life—with birds I can only imagine. In composing with the dawn chorus and birdmusic my compositional techniques are mysterious to me even as I use them, and my reason for doing it is not so much to make worthwhile music; it arises instead from a deeply rooted urge to get closer to nature, birds, to share something of their habitats, their songs, their soundtope.2 My creative transition was also influenced by an informal study group with the musicologist Amanda Bayley (Bath Spa University), and the

neuroscientist Ian Winter (St John’s College, University of Cambridge) and especially our conversations with the land ecologist and academic Almo Farina, as well as discussions with renowned ornithologist and writer Simon Barnes when we visited his home and studio in rural Norfolk. Two other influential factors were time spent teaching in the rural environments of Dartington International Summer School (Devon) and religious cloisters in Belgium, and starting to work with the nature poet Alice Oswald. I remember being pleasantly shocked, and then relieved, at how intensely she organized her place ‘like nature’. Now engaging with birdsong at a deeper level of how the music itself evolves I became aware of composer-ornithologist Hollis Taylor’s work in Australia. Richard Prum, speaking to Taylor on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s The Science Show in 2018, mentions how Charles Darwin (1871) touches upon ornaments in birdsong, and other birds’ preferences for them, and how they evolved with one another. Thinking about how ornithologists talk about making songbirds agents in their own evolution has been helpful in considering the relationship between performer and composer. Refinement, or what composer François Couperin (1716) termed ‘bon goût’, with reference to how the performer enhances a musical composition through ‘ornamentation’, is a highly treasured skill in solo early music but has been rather drummed out of the later classical music repertoire, performance values and pedagogy. At the simplest level ornamentation can be a mere decoration of individual notes, or between adjacent notes, in a given melody, such as a quilisma, trill, a sliding portamento, or those termed port de voix (all favourite ornaments of songbirds to a musician’s ear). At the next level, ornamentation can take on a more committed and intellectually skilful role in extemporizing

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on composed phrases and harmonic structure, or even adding a cadenza or embellished repetition as in a Baroque da capo aria. This is all the more engaging if the audience can appreciate what is going on. To my mind as a musician, there is a link between ornamentation in birdsong and ornamentation in human music, and it relates to the potential for a musical performer to be as actively involved in the evolution of the music as the composer. Being a composer who is an improviser with medieval roots, I strive to give performers the freedom to take more initiative in moulding the music, while protecting the artistic integrity of the composition. Birdsong gives me ideas about the co-evolutionary relationship between composer, performer, audience and pedagogy. Something I have probably been doing intuitively as an improviser over the last thirty years is now becoming more conscious as I grapple with birdsong and what ornithologists are saying about it.

II Being like a bird Jeffrey Skidmore, the artistic director and conductor of the Birminghambased vocal ensemble Ex Cathedra, is one of those musical heavyweights whose lightness of touch makes his approach all the more inspiring. After hearing my hurdy-gurdy concert at the Dartington International Summer School in the summer of 2018, he mentioned that Ex Cathedra has a tradition of commissioning a dawn-chorus piece each year, and asked if I would be interested to take on the challenge. Having already decided to go rural, this was music to my ears. I relocated to the village of Auby, deep in the Belgian Ardennes, nestled

in a site protégé (protected area) known as the Valley of the Aleines (Vallon du ruisseau des Aleines) and thought about how to make this natural isolation my ‘place’ and start experimenting with composing with the dawn chorus. Waking around thirty minutes before sunrise, the frost lingering well into May, I started my working day by following the progress of the dawn chorus as scheduled by the birds, waking earlier and earlier as spring unfolded. Rising with the first tweet it is possible to engage actively with the whole performance, and to be like a bird singing short songs (what I think of as songbursts) and then listening out for songbursts of another bird of the same species. Birdsong is orchestrated naturally, following a set sequence, becoming increasingly populated and complex the earlier the curtain rises. In spring 2019 (when I composed Voicing the Figure 2. Dawn) Blackbird (Turdus merula) Map showing the laboratory location, Vallon du ruisseau des Aleines was the first sound to enter—his repertoire including one of the same songbursts that my mother also noticed in Cambridge—before Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) stole the show. Blackbird would then again reappear amid a slowly encroaching amorphous chorus, still far away to


the distant east. Most of the birds at Auby perch at the same spot, with the odd newcomer turning up each day. The church bell (cast by Causard-Slégers in 1875) starts at 5.45 am with a single stroke, then at 6 am the long Angelus bell rings out, creating a sonic grid that helps me to understand the birdsong. The melodic discontinuity contrasts with the bell’s tolling pulse, and when the bell falls silent again, it has an effect of making birdsong phrasing easier to interpret. I recorded the dawn chorus from late February into May and, as the experiment progressed, I dared to join in from time to time on my baroque violin (useful because of its scratchy timbre, having gut strings made from sheep’s intestines). I wanted to trace around the birdsong with the violin or my voice attempting to follow each new entry, imagining mental relief maps of the sounds: where they come from and where they are going to. For example, listening on my roof, which looked out from the village over meadows and woods leading south-east down to the Semois river, there is a sound-path starting to the south-south-east (distant Blackbird), which connects to my east-side (close Blackbird), then to the southwest Chaffinch bursts in from nowhere, and so on. Since the sequence blackbird of sound-paths is similar each morning, the sound-map slowly becomes g 3 ! more defined as my listening becomes keener, so that I can ^` ! .to. #playQalong . P . a. . . & little with each songburst, even if only scraping the surface "of the sound. " From here I can start to understand more the feathery details of the songs, which I will eventually start to flatten out into music notation, the birdsong already starting to imprint upon my imagination like veins on a leaf. At this input stage of the experiment at Auby, I was making strategies with which to learn, while also anticipating how the sounds could be used

in music composition at the output stage, in a concert or workshop. These sound-maps reveal tracks through the complex twists and turns of the dawn chorus soundscape through listening. As spring advanced, the birdsong became impenetrably dense to my human ears. Then one dawn I realized that there was a transition in progress, harking back to the sparseness and clarity of early spring. The orchestration followed the same sequence I had heard all spring, the difference being in its diversity. The key soloist was still Blackbird singing out his delicately virtuosic ditties—so catchy yet difficult to catch—and here he is again, as one of the last remainers, as I write on this dim July Blackbird dawn, now back in Brussels. moderato e piacevole


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The next stage of the experiment was to see how the rough recordings could be used in a composition. Birdsong is an age-old resource for composers, but nevertheless remains a novelty. These composers of the air are colleagues to us composers and, along with birders, our ears are more attuned to their listening (soundtope). Composers embody hints about organising our little world like nature, but on a human scale. Musicians

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and especially composers are trained to listen for the details in sound— which are a life-force for them—and I imagine that birds do this as well. The soundscape created by birds is very special in terms of space, content and silence. It feels magical because our ears delve into a soundworld which is tough and tantalizing to fathom, and yet is remarkably musical. If we don’t hear birdsong as music, we nonetheless hear it as song. We can recognize it as song with meaning for the animal, even if it is not music as humans appreciate it. It is encouraging to find that the problems composers encounter in notating birdsong are similar to those of ethnomusicologists in notating human oral music traditions, and that we are linked into nature through our shared oral traditions and through embodying the sound. Having inhabited all those dawn choruses, I realised that I had started to compose simply by being there. My musical skills had been honed heuristically by birdsong and tested as never before. The process of transferring the sound to the written page as musical notation, the attempt to render one form into another, provides the visual metaphor mentioned earlier for understanding the complexity of birdsong. It enables a musician to transcribe it into human form and perform it to other humans. Here we stand a fighting chance of making uplifting connections with the natural world because we realise that we are so much part of it (an aspiration of my performance inventions and the experiments shared here). This feeling is so ephemeral and difficult to put into words, and yet so important in feeling human. It is evoked by Rilke’s words in the epigraph to this memoir, and I hope it is expressed in my music (perhaps this is why I am a composer) and in Voicing the Dawn.

IV Voicing the Dawn is for human resonances to share the avian soundscape Now that I was able to put my ideas to the test with a world-class vocal ensemble, there followed a flurry of intensive listening and study of carefully selected recordings that I had made over the course of all those dawns. I engaged the assistance of the sound-artist Ruben Nachtergaele and we worked in his studio in Ghent to compile my dawn recordings from Auby, along with Nachtergaele’s recordings from Viroinval (province of Namur). In recomposing the birdsongs, I was drawn towards songbursts (intense phrases framed by silences), and particularly those which I could most easily imagine being played or sung by human musicians. This resulted in a selection of songburst from six birds, one on each separate track of the multitrack recording. Nachtergaele carefully mixed down these various layers into a stereo soundscape as a compilation of birdsong based on the heard song but compressed in time. This means that each bird has a series of songbursts spaced as heard, but using just short segments of the original, lasting no longer than one or two minutes, thus keeping to the bird’s use of sound and silence, and making the progress of the orchestration discernible. I knew in advance that the work would be performed in various churches and cathedrals, and wanted to keep things low-tech so that the birdmusic soundscape could be heard using the inhouse PA system. Working alone again, the challenge now was to notate each of the selected songbursts. The solo singers could then sing the same songbursts as those recorded on the stereo soundscape—in human time—projecting their voices into the recording of the birds’ own chorus. Taylor (2018) explains that, unlike human singers, birds don’t require a pause to breathe but take a number of mini-breaths while singing. The


phrases, not the bird, need to breathe. This was something of a catalyst for me in understanding the musicality of birdsong, and dawnsong phrases gradually emerged as songbursts possible for human vocalization. Through a process of slowing the recordings to various decelerations, I transcribed the birdsongs for Voicing the Dawn by hand as the delightfully noisy aspects of the song were immediately too complex for analogue to digital conversion on my computer audio software. It was an aural workout like no other, and I felt the muscles of my listening being toned, and my notational skills being tweaked, during those weeks of painstaking struggle to write down what I heard. I mapped the notations I’d made onto digital sounds so that I could compare the accuracy of my notation with the original birdsong—like delicately reverse-wiring an audio-tomidi conversion (see figure 4). Taking my cue from the birds meant that the choir and conductor had to cope with unfamiliar challenges in learning and performing the work. They were not really a choir at all, but rather an ensemble of soloists distributed around the performance space as I had heard the birds gathering at dawn. Each voice sings the same intense, short and discontinuous burst of song that is heard in the real soundscape. As the choir’s director, Jeffrey Skidmore expertly matched the strengths of each soloist with the musical particularity or character of the different birds’ songs. The relatively simple shift from being a soprano, alto, tenor or bass to being a bird (Chaffinch, Blackbird, Blackcap, Robin, Chiffchaff, Wren), gave the singer something of the bird’s imagined persona. Magically, the habitat was transformed. There was a natural airiness, a lightness, as the terminology shifted from human to bird: Chiffchaff ’s a little loud, where’s Blackcap? Can Robin project more?—and so on. Figure 4. Example notations (songbursts of the Chaffinch, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Wren)

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Singing as a dawn chorus also gave the musicians and conductor a different sense of responsibility. The singers were individually responsible for how their sequence of songbursts unfolded and were challenged by this freedom, while the conductor had ‘less sway’ as Sarah Latto, their then associate conductor, put it. In Voicing the Dawn, the silences between the singers’ short and highly virtuosic phrases are based on timings from the actual birdsong recordings of their respective birds. The energy of the songburst alternates with silences of various durations, which act like springboards to the following burst of sound, so that the songs frame the silences as much as the silences frame the songs. For this particular commission I was asked to make a dawn chorus that could be performed by solo voices but could also be expanded to include professionally trained amateur singers. This was somewhat daunting, and again I took my cue from the birds. For example, the Blackbird soloist has seven songbursts after his initial prelude. So, for the full choir version the Blackbird ripieno (chorus) singers assigned by the conductor have a number of alternative songbursts in order to respond or react to their soloist, at a distance but within earshot (see figure 7). They need to have learnt to distinguish between the types of birdsongs in the piece, so that the Blackbird singers makes sure they are responding to the Blackbird soloist and not Blackcap—even though Blackcap may be closer to them in the performing space. Birds hear faster than us humans. We can process sounds in bytes of about 1/20th of a second long, but birds can distinguish up to a resolution of 1/200th of a second, which is why in order for us to hear the detail the recordings were slowed down to human-time. Songbirds in particular have evolved a specialized double-barrelled voicebox called the syrinx,

Figure 5. Chiffchaff

Figure 6. Blackcap


hence their rapid and virtuosic singing ability. Robin slowed down reveals very close two-part harmony most of the time, so required two singers to perform it. The songbursts also needed to be transposed downwards in order to be within the singers’ range, which I did in jumps of an octave (usually two) in order to keep the tonal basis (melodic key) of the original intact. To learn their songs each singer worked with me individually, listening to the songs sung by the bird, and then listening to them slowed down to human pitch and time, and using them as the reference for the music notation. The singers then went away with their various songburst recordings so that they could listen to them repeatedly and practice. The music is ridiculously difficult to sing and quite tough to listen to. For the singers, all this virtuosity must nevertheless sound carefree and spontaneous.

Figure 7. Voicing the Dawn: Bird perches, Hereford Cathedral

V Birdsong as a way to learn music and train the ear Although complex and nuanced, birdsong still remains accessible and inclusive, whereas complex contemporary music tends to be much less so. In the next musical experiment with music of the dawn chorus I wanted to take Blackbird’s song as my sole musical resource. This will be played out in my current piece for flute, clarinet and piano, called Gardez la Distance and commissioned by Ensemble Variance (Rouen, Normandy), a group notable for combining extreme expertise in performing contemporary music with environmental awareness. There is also an educational aspect involving the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Caen, and so my plan is to unearth aspects of birdsong that are relevant and enjoyable for participants of any level of musical ability, something I am finding birdsong lends itself well to.

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Figure 8. Robin

So, here is a scenario for revisiting birdsong, but now with my listening skills heightened by having participated in the dawn chorus. I notice that when I listen to those dawn songs a year later (February to May 2020), even at bird speed, I can hear the music that was hidden from me before. I am now hearing at a higher resolution. Composing now for instruments rather than voices and in the contemporary music niche, I will bring into the flow the process of birds learning to sing. This provides a means for the performers to learn the language of the composition (both human and avian) which will in turn be shared with the listener. The names of the movements—‘Subsong’, ‘Plastic Song’ and ‘Song Crystallisation’—are those given by ornithologists such as Dietmar Todt (Hultsch & Todt in Marler & Slabbekoorn 2004) to the distinct phases of a bird’s learning. The piece is driven by the interaction of spontaneity, notation and silence, on the basis of avian performance. The development of the song of a specific Blackbird over a single season has been described in detail by Joan Hall-Craggs (1962), a musician and ornithologist. Over a three-month period in 1957 she recorded samples of the song of one wild Blackbird in south Oxfordshire mainly at dawn and occasionally at dusk, when her Blackbird was settled for longer periods of time on a gable, noting that at no other times did it sing from that position. This was similar to my listening of the Auby Blackbird, who as mentioned earlier would start his dawn chorus, picking up from a fellow Blackbird just audible in the distance, on his regular singing perch on the neighbouring chimney pot. This was his spot for all his sustained singing in the dawn chorus, but he would also sing a coda at the very end of the gloaming, singing out the last traces of light into the westerly night sky. Hall-Craggs is particularly relevant for me since, while being highly


respected within the scientific community (she worked with William Homan Thorpe, Professor of Animal Ethology at the University of Cambridge), she was also a highly respected concert pianist, and her methodology and approach to her birdsong research are those of a musician. In her paper ‘The Development of Song in the Blackbird’ (1962) Hall-Craggs observes ‘the manner in which new song phrases were formed from material contained in existing phrases’, and proceeds to a comparative study of ‘simple phrases and the more complex forms derived from them’. Under the heading ‘Formation of Song’, Hall-Craggs presents a detailed analysis of the composition of the basic song which will be played out as musical content in my new composition. She notes that these ‘basic phrases’ were contiguously repeated by Blackbirds at the beginning of the season, a behaviour akin to the concept of practising, along with decorated variants sung immediately before or after certain phrases. Interestingly, what Hall-Cragg terms ‘decorations’ do not resemble the pure notes of the song, but are what a musician would call ‘extra-musical’ sounds. Such decorations are attached antecedently to specific phrases in the form of chuckles, squawks, ticks, rattles and the occasional trill, which are often used at the end of the songburst, and are most complete at dawn. Hall-Craggs next describes ‘compound phrases’ created by Blackbirds in a process of ‘characteristic recombination of motifs’; a process that also suggests musical content for a composer. So for example, I can compose a clutch of phrases (motifs) in such a way that phrase two has an introductory character (it sounds like it is leading to something), and phrase five a concluding character (it brings the music to a close). The players can then freely combine these phrases with the obbligo (rule) that phrase two can only be used to start, and phrase five only to finish. My

task is to create the appropriate characteristics of all six phrases. This would be my interpretation of ‘characteristic recombination’ as observed by Hall-Craggs. Other features include counter, antiphonal and communal singing—these are techniques that I want to use as nurtured improvisation with the intended performers, with those noisy decorations as a colourful bonus. In composing, playing and listening to this music, we touch— however lightly—on how (Black)birds listen, what they are listening for, and how this affects what they sing. Hall-Craggs next describes ‘compound phrases’ created by Blackbirds in a process of ‘characteristic recombination of motifs’; a process that also suggests musical content for a composer (see figure 9).

VI Visualization of Time and Frequency It is striking how sonograms, such as those recorded by Hall-Craggs in the 1950s, show the resemblance between this scientific representation of sound and its medieval representation as neumes (πνευ̃μα, pneuma, breath). Making Wren song singable for Voicing the Dawn proved particularly fascinating. Slowing the recording through sample-rate conversion (analogous to slowing down an analogue tape, as Hall-Craggs did) lowered the pitch to the range of male voices and extended the durations to reveal a free-flowing, chant-like melody. This worked well sung by an ensemble and effectively contrasted with the higher pitched solos. A cantus firmus, but from another time, sung as plainsong to close the music—which takes us back to neumes (see figure 10). When seeking out others who might have noticed this connection, I was happy to discover the work of composer/musicologist Bennett Hogg,

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  is be applied      to other concept    that    time-based       arts;  say,   how    can      to          13                                            we might use artistic contentthat refers to the mechanics of the artistic                              music, J S Bach’s Art of Fugue, BWV1080,    one   might     suggest        structure.   In                                         as an example—one Hall-Craggs’s point about Blackbird’s new      that recalls                17    song-phrases being formed from material contained in existing ones. 14                   could       say            I (see figure 12) is inspired by this  Murmuration    (one       concept                    the breath-taking   metapoesis) and           that onomatopoeia is a form of sonic   phenomenon observable21in the Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) as 32 they flock into enormous    groups    or ‘murmurations’     that can number into



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 VII Murmuration and Metapoesis Metapoesis is a poetic practice that implies the use of vocabulary in lyrics

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Neumes were the first known attempt after antiquity to notate human    song or chant. Similarly, Hall-Craggs’s experiments were one of the first  attempts to provide a systematic analysis of birdsong based on sonograms.    Both were pioneering attempts to use graphic symbols to notate what was heard and recognized.


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the thousands, and fly in intricate and apparently coordinated patterns. The score of the piece represents a murmuration and allows the performers to flock into billowing musical patterns based on a system of composed order; another example of my use of ‘nurtured improvisation’, described at the end of section V. These intricate and apparently coordinated flight patterns are indicated by the graphic flow of the starlings represented as fragmented words from a famous poem by Herman Gorter (1864–1927). Based on my descriptions and pencil sketches, the artist Kevin Mount realized the musical parameters of pitch, density and duration, velocity and volume by printing the words in delicately varying hues, opacities, sizes and densities. These are visual cues to indicate how the words are voiced, so that the performer knows whether to use whispering (a semitransparent word) spoken-singing (a word of darker hue) and fullypitched singing (a clearly printed opaque word), and the respective volumes thereof (the smaller the print, the softer the sound) and all the ecotones in between. The conductor marks the timeline, directing the flow of the voices along the score, carefully rehearsing shared hierarchies where leaders emerge through listening to each other, gradually settling on a single sustained unison to end in stillness (I enjoy the Flemish word stilte, where stillness is silence). A second Murmuration, using words by the Flemish poet Guido Gezelle, combined with an expanded version of Voicing the Dawn, will be created and recorded for the Bruges Triennale in September 2021 (see figure 13). I now have a chance to rework the piece in a natural setting, where the singers will be distributed as soloists in a huge tree, with performances starting at dawn.

Figure 11. Wren

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Figure 12. Stevie Wishart, Murmuration I, sketch

VIII The Right to Listen So, to respond to my colleague’s question about what experiments might arise in ‘making one’s place like nature’, these would be experiments to link sound, habitat and physiology of the time and place of the dawn chorus, of evolutionary ornithology, of how birds learn to sing, and of the singular activities of birds in terms of their music and movement. A desire and need to hear birdsong might lead us to consider how to reduce the intrusion of background music in green or other public spaces: in cafes and restaurants, on public transport, from wireless speakers strapped to hikers pulsing through the forest, or skimming at even

Figure 13. Stevie Wishart, Murmuration I, 2020, in collaboration with Kevin Mount


higher decibels over noisy construction sites. My music reaches out to raise awareness of the right to silence, so that we can listen to each other, have the space to think, hear nature, the trees, the birds…

Port de voix An ornament, particularly used in the French Baroque, in which the voice is ‘carried’ from one note to another. Here is Couperin’s explanation:

Acknowledgements With thanks to Paul de Lusignan, Toni Wishart, Amanda Bayley and FoAM (Nik Gaffney and Maja Kuzmanovic for editorial assistance). Also to Ex Cathedra and Peter Gysen. This essay is an expanded version of a text first published on the FoAM blog, (the upper stave shows how marked, the lower, how performed). Footnotes 1. An ecotone is a transitional area between two different biological habitats which tends to stimulate biodiversity; I came to see the music I was making with birdsong as an acoustic resonance of this. 2. Birds have a complex system of acoustic communication and some appear to organize acoustic centres for public information, which are referred to as soundtopes. See Farina (2014) for more on this subject. Glossary of musical terms

Quilisma A jagged neume placed between two notes, usually at the interval of a third, denoting a trembling or rolling sound (Greek: κυλίσμα, rolling) Ripieno The main group of musicians, as distinct from one or more soloists on the same voice or instrument. Trill An ornament, consisting of a rapid alternation of adjacent notes.

Cantus firmus An existing melody used as a basis for a contrapuntal piece; in mediaeval and Renaissance music, often a plainchant melody.


Da capo aria An aria in three sections, the first and last of which are the same, with a contrasting middle section. Rather than write the first section out twice, composers would indicate da capo (go back to the

Joeri Bruyninckx, 2018, Listening in the Field: Recording and the Science of Birdsong (Inside Technology), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

start) at the end of the middle section. For an example, see (or rather, listen to) the aria Waft her, angels, through the skies in Handel, Jephtha. Neumes Square notation used since late antiquity for notating plainchant. Obbligo A requirement imposed on the performer or composer, for example that a particular instrument or technique be used. Portamento An ornament in which the voice or sound of an instrument slides in pitch.

Karin Bijsterveld, 2019, Listening for Knowledge in Science, Medicine and Engineering (1920s–Present), Palgrave Macmillan, London

Mike Collier, ‘Singing the World: A Speculative Exploration of Birdsong in a Dawn Chorus’, in this volume, pp 102–124 François Couperin, L’Art de toucher le Clavecin, Paris, 1716 Charles Darwin, 1871, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, John Murray, London Almo Farina, 2014, ‘Patterns and Dynamics of (Bird) Soundscapes: A Biosemiotic Interpretation’, Semiotica 198, pp 241–255 Joan Hall-Craggs, 1962, ‘The Development of Song in the Blackbird’, Ibis, 104:3, pp 277–300 Henrike Hultsch and Dietmar Todt, ‘Chapter 3: Learning to Sing’, in Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong, Peter Marler and Hans Slabbekoorn, ed, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2004

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Athanasius Kircher, Musurgia universalis, sive Ars Magna Consoni et Dissoni, Ludovico Grignani, Rome, 1650 George Monbiot, ‘There is an antidote to demagoguery – it’s called political rewilding’, The Guardian, 18 December 2019 Greta Muscat Azzopardi, artist website, Alice Oswald (Author), Stevie Wishart (Composer), Kevin Mount (Designer), Garry Fabian Miller (Photographer), 2019, As Colours Steale: An Illumination by Alice Oswald of the Verse of Robert Herrick, at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, Oxford, on Wednesday 20th November 2019, The Letter Press, Totnes Alice Oswald, 2016, Falling Awake, Cape Poetry, London Rainer Maria Rilke, The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, & Dreams, Damion Searls, trans, Godine, Boston, Massachusetts, 2010 Alice Rudge, 2019, ‘The Sounds of People and Birds: Music, Memory, and Longing among the Batek of Peninsular Malaysia’, Hunter Gatherer Research, 4:1, November, pp 3–23 Hollis Taylor on The Science Show with Robyn Williams, Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast on Saturday 17 February 2018, at 12.05 pm Stevie Wishart, 2018, Murmuration I, with artist Kevin Mount, part of the exhibition ‘RETROSPECTIE V | 25 jaar galerie 1993–2018’, Galerie C de Vos, Aalst, Belgium, 9 September, printed edition 2021 Stevie Wishart, 2019, Voicing the Dawn, commissioned by Jeffrey Skidmore for Ex Cathedra, first performance in Hereford Cathedral on 6 June 2019, printed edition 2021 Stevie Wishart, 2019, The Last Dance? A Baroque Tango, commissioned by the BBC Proms and the Dunedin Consort, first performed in the Royal Albert Hall, London, 11 September 2019, printed edition 2021 Figure 14. Starling Murmuration


& sudden silence in the hedgerow a sparrowhawk’s yolkyellow iris catches the levered sun

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A Peregrine’s Eye


Figure 1. Curlew

oogle Maps has changed the way I think about the world. The spaces between here and there seem less linear, less a question of distance, more to do with scale, scope, depth of zoom. Pan out far enough and all places are the same place. We have a peregrine, now. It too makes me think again about place and scale. From seventy metres up, at the top of our town’s towering mill chimney, it sits in a hunch, circled by swifts, and watches the streets, the allotments, the trees, the road verges, the birds that come streaming through the middle air in the just-dawn: pigeons, mallards, oystercatchers, jackdaws, starlings, black-headed and herring gulls. It watches me and my daughter as we sit on the back step at half-five or so, with blankets, milk and coffee. It can see us well enough, if it wants to (its vision is around eight times better than mine: easily good enough to make out the Eeyores on my daughter’s pyjamas). I think about the hurtling scale-lurch you’d experience if you climbed that seventy metres at peregrine pace. I asked a clever friend to do the sums. From seventy metres up, he told me, after a minute, the horizon would be thirty kilometres away. Beneath you, there’d be a broad wash of land spanning around 3,000 square kilometres: an area just a bit bigger than Lancashire. A vertiginous reverse-zoom and a peregrine-specific reshaping of the landscape: all at once, from the top of this chimney on the Aire, a hundred different towns, a half-dozen different cities, all that sprawling human landscape (human names, human borders, human ideas of here and there) is drawn as if by a drawstring into the scope of one bird’s raking binocular vision. It’s not, of course, that the pergrine can see clear from here to Burnley or the south Pennines (the woodpigeons of Slaithewaite are safe from her, for now); it’s

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just that, framed by lightning conductors there on the chimney-top, the peregrine has a transformative idea of what ‘here’ means. Not far down the road from here there’s a very old woodland, mostly beech and oak, and the morning birdsong there rains down from the canopy like a spring storm. Wren, song thrush, nuthatch, jay, blackbird, woodpigeon, chiffchaff, robin (I list them here in descending order of loudness). The chiming density of sound does something else with the idea of ‘here’: it intensifies it, creates something closed-in and self-contained; standing with your back against a forty-metre beech, you feel that you’re inside a cell of bird noise—that there is, of course, a world outside, just at the other end of the footpath, but it is just that: outside, and beyond the birdsong’s event horizon. On our back step, for April and most of May, we were early enough to hear the birds’ first songs. In the woods there are layers of birdsong, but they are tightly packed, complicatedly interleaved, layers defined by pitch, tone and volume, not by place (all the songs are just THERE). From our step the layers of song are functions of distance, and they’re laid out as clearly and crisply as the layers of a landscape on a blue winter morning, as the fine layers of a paper diorama—the voices of the birds range outwards, outwards, outwards from where we sit. Of course they don’t go on forever. But they go on far enough to make me think, once again, about where I am, and where everywhere else is, and how those ideas fit together. ‘Adlestrop’ has been anthologized half to death, but it too says something about birdsong, here, and there. Edward Thomas’s famous little poem begins in the confines of a railway carriage on an ‘afternoon of heat’ in June (I’m writing this halfway through another afternoon of heat in June, a hundred-odd years later). Exactly halfway through it begins to open out

(‘And willows, willow-herb, and grass …’) and in the final stanza— And for that minute a blackbird sang Close by, and round him, mistier, Farther and farther, all the birds Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire —Thomas, or Thomas’s spirit, Thomas’s sensory self, leaps completely out of the stifling cabin and follows the birdsong, leap by leap (‘farther and farther’), over the fields and hills of the English south-west. Here is birdsong, again, throwing the world wide open. The blackbird is first, and closest to home. The blackbird is singing when I open the door and he sounds as though he’s been going a while. His song— that familiar rustic hurdy-gurdy burble, in this case centred on the point of a neighbour’s gable-end—is our innermost point of sound. The goldfinches set up a cordon of whitenoise chatter on the surrounding rooftops. From one of the mill towers a jackdaw colony looses off a dog’s chorus of yaps and jacks and in the trees that abut the allotments at the bottom of the road a chiffchaff starts up, ticking like some erratic but unstoppable mechanical toy—all of which has taken us about a hundred yards from where we sit. It isn’t quite all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire (or for that matter West Yorkshire) but we aren’t done yet. The pointless reeling of dunnocks (supposedly ‘shy’, but in fact just inconspicuous, and that only when they want to be); lyrical, effortless robin-verses, like Bing scatting; the off-the-cuff madcappery of thrushes; magpies, capable of raising a yammering hullabaloo whatever the hour; the blue tits, seeming to take in a breath, eeee, before the song proper, dididididi. All of these come rippling in, sooner or later, louder or fainter,


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and each one draws us a little further out into the world—each one places us, subtly, incrementally, without us even having to move off our step or set down our drinks, more fully and completely in this hotchpotch hybrid landscape. Sometimes wild nature can seem to enrich or consecrate a single point in space (where a bird perches to sing, where a butterfly alights, where a flower grows); at other times, times like this, the single point—second step down, below the empty milkbottles, beside a potted plant—is almost erased, because as the birds’ noise yard-by-yard maps out the landscape, we’re not just here, we’re everywhere. And all the while of course I’m trying to keep my daughter from spilling my hot coffee and I’m shouting choo-choo as a freight train comes honking over the points by the mill and she’s doing her best to fall through the railings and into the compost and I’m thinking about a hundred other things (things that are about ‘here’, about the work I need to do today, about whether the recycling needs emptying, about whether I’ve paid the window-cleaner, about what we’ve got in for lunch). I don’t know who has the time for transcendence. It’s a glimpse, a flicker of an insight: for a minute or two at a time, the focus is pulled back, and the world becomes different. In the quiet early days of the Covid-19 lockdown I could sometimes, to my surprise, hear the whinnying of curlews up on the moor, a good way off to the north. Each time I did, it made the trudging miles between me and them seem somehow less substantial—it made all that space and stuff weigh less heavily, have less clout, figure less prominently in how I thought of where I was and where they were, and this is a thing that birdsongs can do; it’s what they do for me, in those early mornings on the step, though each one is just a moment’s noise, a handful of air—the songs are

Figure 2, opposite: Peregrine

a new way of seeing, like a Google zoom from the edge of space, offering dissolution of our disparities; like how we all (me and my daughter, the blackbirds, the curlews, the houses, streets, allotments, cars) become one when caught in a peregrine’s eye.

Figure 3. Dunnock


‘Look, a birdy!’


n February 2017, my partner and I moved from Chester to Cleadon, a suburban village on the northern fringes of Sunderland. I’d grown up a few miles away in South Shields, a post-industrial town at the mouth of the river Tyne, so for me this was a moving back. The only birdsong I’d been familiar with came from the ubiquitous kittiwakes, seagulls and cormorants setting shrill noise above the churn of the waves at Marsden Bay, a semi-wild seascape at the coastal edges of town where nature and culture overlap in startling ways. The following anecdote about Marsden Grotto, a pub built into the limestone cliff-face, is both illustrative of the particulars of this environment and germane to the time in which I am writing these words, soon after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Marsden Grotto was once inhabited by Jack ‘The Blaster’ Bates, an Allenheads lead-miner who had moved with his wife to South Shields to live ‘rent-free’ by burrowing into the caves using explosives from the nearby quarry. With its looming cliffs casting the beach into shadow each afternoon, Marsden Grotto is a place where it’s not difficult to imagine utopian thinking. Bates’s endeavours to literally undermine tenancy reputedly led him to inscribe lines from The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine’s eighteenth-century treatise on common ownership, into his new abode. Standing below the cliffs now, watching as nesting birds form thousands of grooves in the rocks, carving out what us Geordies would call their hooses between the immensity of the land and the enormity of the North Sea, it’s not farfetched to imagine where Bates got his inspiration. However, while these birds’ apparent freedom holds appeal—flight as a metaphor need not be bound to a bipedal desire to break free just from gravity—we should caution against using avian imagery in the service of revolutionary thinking if such thinking does not seek to foreground its own problematic

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histories and anthropocentric world-damaging practices. With that in mind, I wish to caveat the following poem with a reflection, doing so to ‘show my workings’, as it were, dispelling any notion that the poem I was asked to write came about solely as a result of being inspired one early spring morning by romantic chirping beyond the glass. When Mike asked if I’d write something for his show at Cheeseburn Grange Sculpture Park in the summer of 2017, I knew I’d have to in some way reference the fact that, when it comes to birdsong, I am a complete amateur. Hence my lines ‘all the birds / we didn’t have names for’. If I’m honest, the poem isn’t about the dawn chorus. Not really. It’s about my interpretation of the dawn chorus: how I imagined, in the series of poems I was inclined towards writing three years ago, a dawn chorus might best be rendered within a narrative free-verse poem. Or, more pointedly: how I imagined the dawn chorus might best be rendered within a narrative free-verse poem aware of its place within a growing corpus of so-called ecopoetics. So, the main thing to highlight is artifice. I have become obsessed recently with notions of revision: my manuscript-in-progress is called Corrigenda for Costafine Town, referencing the retrospective correction slips issued by publishers to ‘fix’ earlier printing errors. I am curious about this idea of scaffolding. How much of what isn’t supposed to be there, when its absence is highlighted or it is put conspicuously back into place, can illuminate (or occlude) our earlier thinking? When I think back to that first spring in our flat and the moment that would, in retrospect, form the pre-poem render of ‘Dawn Chorus: Cleadon Village’—hearing birdsong begin to pixelate through the blinds at 5 or 6 am—I am aware that it is only as an enforced result of the current coronavirus lockdown measures that I have at any point in those

intervening years done much to heed the poem’s implied message—of slowing down and tuning in, deeply. These past few weeks, however, it’s been quieter, and the quiet has been peppered again by the birds. As we have a young son who is inclined to spend parts of the night in our bedroom, and because our bedroom is south-facing and benefits from the sun for many hours a day at this time of the year, by late April the window is nearly always open at night, meaning that when six-thirty comes around and the bairn is beginning to stir, the chorus, already in full swing, is fully audible to me, alert in a way that I previously wouldn’t have been at this time. In the past, half-past six would coincide with the beginnings of the morning commute: the nearby A1018, the main thoroughfare for traffic between Shields and Sunderland, would be rumbling into diesel-sputtering life. Because of the lockdown there are far fewer cars on the road and the birdsong, no longer facing as much competition from engines, is more audible. As some sounds dissipate, others whisper into being. I was thinking about all of this as I took my son for his daily governmentsanctioned constitutional this morning, at the beginning of the fifth week of these measures. Our routes have become much more circumscribed by virtue of these extraordinary circumstances. As anyone who’s had a child will know, life takes on a slower pace in their company. Add into that the restrictive measures we’re all living through, and this provincial turn feels profound. Routinely beating the same bounds has made me rethink some of the psycho-semantic contours of the places most dear to me. My observable world has suddenly shrunk, the patch scaled-down, and yet, like the poet Norman Nicholson observing a different kind of confinement in ‘The Pot Geranium’, I try to see this moment as a spreading-out: ‘confined as a limpet


/ To one small radius of rock; yet / I eat the equator, breathe the sky, and carry / The great white sun in the dirt of my fingernails’. Having an elevenmonth-old helps. Beginning his first forays into walking, we hold his arms as he takes furtive steps beneath our shuffling legs in the back yard. This space is usually filled with three or four vehicles, acting as the car park for the staff at the hairdressers and barber shop we live above, but now, for a short blissful time, it is empty, and ours again to explore, slowly. Aiding a baby’s walking pattern means bending double and being closer to the earth, or in our case being closer to the weeds and wildflowers that have started bursting between slabs of concrete. Our walks around the houses of Cleadon and into the edgelands between South Shields and the village, beside the old quarry at Marsden where Jack the Blaster stole the dynamite to forge his cliff-house, have been adorned with the colours of the season—cow parsley, tulips and cherry blossom coming out—and the new window decorations of rainbows marking the public’s support for the National Health Service at this time of crisis. Making short circuits of the perimeter, we stop to rattle the wind chime, or inspect the gargling drain, or marvel at our webcovered reflections in the garage window. The wildflowers growing on the wall aren’t ones I’m familiar with. Like the birds in my poem—which may not have been blackbirds nor skylarks (but those birds scanned)—I don’t know what these are, in Latin nor commonly. Consulting my Collins Nature Guides Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe is mystifying, Google more so, as I realize that I am in possession of neither the correct lexis nor the right type of eye. I WhatsApp a few photos of the flowers to Mike in the hope that he will remedy my lack of knowledge. He replies (ivyleaved toadflax and valerian) but instantly this feels like a cheat. Mike

won’t always be there to help me spot a wildflower or place the call of a particular bird species, and I know that’s something my son needs to know, too. When you grow up digitally native, how does the philosophy of looking and naming change? When it is possible to scan a queried item and a series of algorithms connected to a database will offer suggestions, is there any need to crouch down on your honkers, pull up clover, twist and sniff it, examining it like it’s the most magnificent thing the world has ever produced? I put the phone and book away, resolving also to contain these questions, for now. Thinking back to the birds, to my son still dozing in bed, and forward to the walk we’ll once again make out beneath the hills along the ash path to Cleadon Park, these past three years unfold like a slinky, and the metaphoric potential in everything, if I let it, could overwhelm me. I’ve been wondering on these walks, pushing my son along in his buggy, noticing him increasingly noticing the passing world, whether or not it matters that I don’t know the names for these birds or flowers—these things that to him aren’t yet even birds or flowers (as we ‘know’ them), but are… the colour palette and sound-board for the multisensory ‘picture’ he builds of the world as he processes it, drifting off to sleep with his pram seat tipped back as we turn around and head for home. I can’t say that I think often of Jack Bates and his wife making a home at Marsden Bay, but that of course is what they were doing: working through the troubles of the day to carve out a safe niche and gain some respite from the winds. With Covid-19 only adding further uncertainty to ongoing background anxieties such as the Climate Emergency and Brexit, I am working my way to being comfortable saying to my son, when he inevitably points to a bird or flower and asks what it is is, that ‘I don’t know’; that we’ll have to

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find out together. The more I mull over my ‘profession’—my ‘vocation’, the thing I’ve fallen into doing, or do in snatches between the other things I do to ‘earn a living’—the more the whole idea of being a ‘writer’ or a ‘poet’ seems out of step. My partner regularly says that I should take more pride in what I do: blow my own trumpet a little more confidently. She’s right, of course, in that no-one else will do it for me, but somehow that notion also feels apart from the urgency of the times and the need for an authentic commoning. Again, I have to stop myself. Introspection and catastrophizing only get us so far. Perhaps, like the dawn chorus itself, it’s important to listen at once for the individual notes between the choral refrain. For now, trying to make a safe and comfortable home for my son in a world of increasing unknowns is too big and abstract a picture. Instead, by walking, by observing and listening to the immediate here and now (‘Look, a birdy!’), by thinking (too much) and, finally, by writing some of it down, in the hope that it connects or inspires—that feels practicable. And so, if it doesn’t necessarily matter that I can’t name animal, mineral and vegetable sounds and shapes correctly, what must fundamentally matter is the looking, listening and imagining. And continuing to look, listen and imagine, from the ground up to and through the big wide sky, tracing the sounds as you hear them, even if you don’t know where they begin or where they might take you.

Footnote 1. Norman Nicholson, 1954, The Pot Geranium, Faber, London, pp 9–10 Figure 1, above: Marsden Rock; figure 2, below: Marsden Grotto


Dawn Chorus: Cleadon Village Think of it beginning as a crack beneath a door: early titular thoughts the sky has on its axis back towards us. Somewhere in the smudge beyond high-rises and docks of the city it gathers momentum much like a storm whose palms caress energy from each node and fissure of this brittle earth. All the birds we didn’t have names for in that flat above the roundabout have found their way to this sweet parenthesis within smelling distance of the sea.

So listen as blackbirds and skylarks make eaves in The Cottage serenade the turnpike, Tilesheds, each burrowing heart. Something in the chatter of this avian crowd matches the muscle in your ribcage and the cornet of your Cochlea strumming a song for the simple thrill of its catch and resonance.

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Figure 3. Ivy-leaved toadflax and valerian, photo: Jake Morris-Campbell


Shared Birdsong? Exploring Messiaen’s Relationship with Place and Birdsong through Drawing


his essay explores the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) through what I have come to term ‘his’ landscape—or better, his soundscape—detailed by the heat, the aromas, the richness of birdsong and the pervading sound of insects. I look for dialogues between the French landscape, its geology and the resulting musical interpretations in Messiaen’s great piano cycle Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–1958). In 2019 funded PhD fieldwork allowed me to physically immerse myself in the landscape/soundscape of Messiaen’s France, an experience that gave rise to this detailed exploration of the composer’s soundscape. Catalogue d’oiseaux is a two-hour piano cycle comprised of thirteen nature portraits arranged into seven books: Book 1: ‘Le Chocard des Alpes’, ‘Le Loriot’, Le Merle bleu’ Book 2: ‘Le Traquet stapazin’ Book 3: ‘La Chouette hulotte’, ‘L’Alouette lulu’ Book 4: ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’ Book 5: ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’, ‘La Bouscarle’ Book 6: ‘Le Merle de roche’ Book 7: ‘La Buse variable’, ‘Le Traquet rieur’, ‘Le Courlis cendré’ Messiaen travelled through France, transcribing both the visual and auditory relationships of birds and the landscape in his cahiers (field notebooks). The cycle embodies thirteen different attempts to musically interpret birdsong and its surrounding habitats. During my 2019 field trip I used drawing and written prose in fieldnotes as methods of exploration. I see the drawing practice as mediating between the auditory—Messiaen’s soundscape—and the visual. Linking the visual to sound creates ways of articulating what I call ‘the intangible transience of

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birdsong’; I am interested in birdsong as we experience it through human encounter—our noticing and responding to the fleeting moments of sound that pass us by as we remain tethered to terra firma. Thinking through transience, through the fleeting moment, enables me to approach the difficulty of articulating the experience of birdsong. Contextually, birdsong has been shrouded in mystery, adopted for symbolic use in mythology and religion, and scrutinized in scientific investigations. The connection of birdsong to time and space, coupled with its elusive nature, makes it a potent inspiration to the human imagination. Why Birdsong? What is it about birdsong that draws humans to imitate it? There has been a fascination, both historical and contemporary, with the endeavour to understand birds by replicating their voices in music, ‘alchemizing’ it into human form (Service 2017). Popular musical imitation of the cuckoo,1 for example, taps into this appeal by mimicking avian sound patterns. Recognizing birdsong in music enables humans to locate and temporarily occupy the same plane of existence as birds in the world, a world that, as Messiaen observed, existed before homo sapiens (Messiaen 1999: 15). The work of contemporary composers responding to and making music from birdsong, and indeed with birdsong, suggests a continued fascination with issues surrounding replication and translation. Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of the Janiculum (1923–1924), Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 1972 Cantus Articus and Jonathan Harvey’s 2001 Birdsong Concerto with Pianosong all feature birdsong recordings in dialogue with orchestral imitations. In these compositions, birdsong occupies the same musical space and time as the orchestra. This stylization approaches birdsong in two different

ways, ‘either by trying to outline the most exact musical portrait possible, or by treating the bird song as malleable material’ to use Messiaen’s words (Samuel 1994: 94). Rather than using birdsong as a mere accompaniment to human endeavour, these works by Respighi, Rautavaara and Harvey provide a platform for birdsong to sing its own narrative and resonate alongside the mimesis of their mysterious songs. Messiaen’s Relationship with Birdsong in the Landscape: Composing Catalogue d’oiseaux Messiaen achieved a sophisticated reading and musical interpretation of birdsong with Catalogue d’oiseaux by leaving the birdsong in situ in the French landscape. Instead of extracting an imitation, he transposed a holistic natural portrait of the ‘ecoscape’. This was achieved by identifying, capturing and manipulating the timbre in birdsong and landscape in transcription,2 then layering the song, enfolding it into the elements derived from landscape. Messiaen attributed anthropomorphic characteristics to rocks, fauna and insects, and the music conveys the feelings that they induce as well as conveying what they look, sound and smell like (Dingle 2007: 149). This intricacy of detail evokes the landscape as a presence within which the birdsong resides; the listener is immersed in an encounter with birdsong that engages with the world that gives rise to the song. Each score is also prefaced by a text that frames the piece with descriptive detail. This is not simple mimicry, but evidence of Messiaen’s deep engagement with the exact demands of rendering the timbre of the birdsong, which elevates his musical birdsong beyond the ‘kitsch’ (Fallon 2005: 4). It is also evidence of how Messiaen’s understanding of birds developed with this practice, and as Dingle (2007: 149) comments, Messiaen reinvented his


parameters with each nature portrait. It seems that the further Messiaen developed Catalogue d’oiseaux, the more adept he became at musically interpreting his experiences with birdsong. The listener is provided with an emotive birdsong experience, a transposed dialogue between landscape and transcription. Indeed, a transposed encounter, one of Messiaen’s personal relationship with the French landscape, his soundscape. Just as Stravinsky said that he was the vessel through which the Rite of Spring passed,3 Messiaen can be imagined as a vessel or bridge between places in France of the past and Catalogue d’oiseaux. Messiaen’s rich poetic prefaces to Catalogue d’oiseaux, describing an anthropomorphized landscape and the birds inhabiting it, drew on his lengthy vigils in various locations around France and articulate the love he had for nature. With these descriptive introductions, Messiaen fosters an imagined narrative and sets a scene for each piece. For example, the eighth portrait in Catalogue d’oiseaux, ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’, is introduced with descriptions of the landscape, atmosphere, and exact moments at which birds intervened in that setting. The detail makes it easy to visualize the dry expanse of Provence in the mid-summer: Provence in July. Les Baux, Les Alpilles: arid rocky terrain, with broom and cypress. The Crau, a stony wilderness. Fierce light and heat. 2pm. The piping call of the short-toed lark. Chorus of cicadas, the staccato alarm of the kestrel, the dull long-short-long of the quail. A two-part invention for the short-toed lark and the crested lark. Silence. The cicadas, kestrel, quail.

4pm. Alone in the heat and solitude of mid-afternoon the brief phrases of the short-toed lark. 6pm. The skylark erupts into song, vehement, jubilant. Again the short-toed lark…4 While the prefaces are rich with description, it is Messiaen’s transcriptions in his cahiers, featuring instinctive and immediate reactions to the landscape and its inhabitants, that provide key insight into his relationship with the French landscape. The cahiers dated 1954–1958 that informed the composition of Catalogue d’oiseaux provide extensive source material with which we can follow Messiaen’s journey through France. The staved paper in the cahiers allowed Messiaen to directly transcribe nature into musical notation. Visual cues emerge from the fast-paced handwriting and suggest the type of encounter Messiaen experienced. A conglomeration of hurried prose is squeezed into the margins, and the note placements on the stave have a rune-like aesthetic. This provides a pictorial echo of Messiaen’s hand, his attempts to keep up with birdsong while dissecting the timbre before the bird flew away or was lost to memory. From an outsider’s perspective, this seems chaotic. For Messiaen it was an organized flurry of dialogue between the ornithologist and the composer, who came together in his musical approach to the songs of birds. It gives us an insight into how he built his soundscapes, a process he described as ‘a transposition of what I heard, but on a more human scale’ (Samuel 1994: 95). I felt that experiencing the same landscape that Messiaen encountered back in the 1950s and collecting my own visual material could reveal more

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about Messiaen’s relationship with the landscape. Scholar and pianist Peter Hill comments that Catalogue d’oiseaux provides moments of ‘musical equivalents’ to the imaginative scenery and time, measured by the rising and setting of the sun, transcribed in the cahiers (Hill 2016: 144). Using these musical equivalents Messiaen successfully transposed his powerfully emotive experience of the scenery and birdsong into his compositions (Hill 2016: 144). When conducting my own fieldwork and collecting visual material during birdsong encounters, I attempted to visualize forms and sounds, but also to provide a narrative of what it was like to encounter Messiaen’s soundscape. By making notes and drawn transcriptions I gathered a plethora of material that I could later interrogate. Les Oiseaux de France: Drawing Messiaen’s Soundscape Having pored over Messiaen’s cahiers in the Bibliothèque nationale de France,5 examined directives in the music scores and prefaces, and enjoyed performances of Catalogue d’oiseaux, I had now come to explore the places that ignited Messiaen’s imagination.6 Between 20th July and 5th August 2019, I undertook a field trip, travelling to nine transcription sites that feature in the prefaces of six out of the thirteen nature portraits.7 Time is a key focus of Catalogue d’oiseaux, and so it seemed important to visit the sites in the same season during which Messiaen transcribed the birdsong.8 ‘Le Chocard des Alpes’—transcribed in August 1954 ‘Le Merle bleu’—transcribed June 1957 ‘Le Traquet stapazin’—transcribed June 1957 ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’—transcribed July 1956 ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’—transcribed July 1956

‘Le Merle de roche’—transcribed in June 19589 ‘La Buse variable’—transcribed in July 1957 During my fieldwork I focused on the particular sites of Messiaen’s transcription rather than the chronology of his journeys, and while there I apprehended birdsong through encounters with their habitats as well as their song. Messiaen transcribed the sensory fullness of the landscape (aural, visual, aromatic, meteorological, seasonal, spatial, and visual) into musical and written transcriptions in order to compose the auditory (Catalogue d’oiseaux). My journey led me to transcribe the same facets of the landscape that I could observe and hear into photographs, drawings and the prose in my field notebook. Of all the sites I visited, Les Baux and La Crau, at the foot of Les Alpilles in Provence, offered the richest opportunity to understand how Messiaen embedded himself in the landscape. Messiaen’s transcribed encounter with these particular sites, like the other cahier transcriptions, is natural and immediate. His subsequent compositional decision-making seems to trust the precision of the material recorded in the cahiers: ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’ is lifted almost directly from the transcriptions taken at the location. The deep engagement Messiaen experienced with the place enabled him to articulate and reimagine the specifics of its soundscape, with what Roderick Chadwick and Peter Hill describe as a ‘sophisticated handling of birdsong and environment’ (2017: 96). ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’, like the other books in Catalogue d’oiseaux, paints a portrait in music. The notated music score, which signposts each bird and its character, details of insects and landscape forms, and the poetic preface are vehicles for this musical encounter with the landscape


of Provence and its inhabitants. ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’ takes the listener to the hot, desert-like planes of La Crau and Les Baux with pauses and drawnout chords reflecting the vastness of the planes of Provence, juxtaposed with the fast-paced interventions of birds and insects. The piece opens with the slow, peaceful introduction of the landscape through two chords and a direction above the score for those playing the piece: ‘heat and solitude of La Crau desert’.10 The chords are entirely alone and the use of the sustain pedal holds the notes a little longer. The extended vibrations of the piano strings create a moment of stillness, transporting the listener to the sweep of wilderness that is described in the preface. Then the desert chords ring out twice more after two sudden, sharp interruptions from the short-toed lark (L’Alouette calandrelle). After a monotonous scream from a choir of cicadas, the piece gets into full swing with a busy, fastpaced five-minute ensemble of birdsong from the common kestrel, quail, short-toed lark and crested lark, all vying for attention. The cicada’s abrasive call conjures the desert planes of Provence engulfed in fierce heat. Messiaen’s use of this monotone after the fluid song of the short-toed lark provides a jarring sound element, so we might almost feel the invisible creatures are enveloping the listener with their racket, competing with the avian protagonist. Around two thirds of the way through this piece, the surrounding landscape creeps back into focus with a long interruption from another choir of cicadas. The common kestrel reappears, followed once again by the quail, in an echo of earlier motifs. Then the landscape returns to the foreground; slow and steady chords permeate the ensemble, creating moments of calm in between more interruptions from the piece’s main protagonist: the short-toed lark. Another cry from the quail interjects as a support-act for a one-time only, long song of vehement

jubilation (‘Jubilation vehemente’) from the Eurasian skylark. The nature portrait concludes with the quail, a final set of chords evoking the desert and then the short-toed lark, which steals the last word with a single bar of birdsong. The environment at Les Baux is described on page eight of the Camargue cahier (MS-23043) where Messiaen notes its situation in the magnificent mountainous countryside of Les Alpilles: ‘(magnifique) paysage de montagnes—Les Alpilles’ (see figure 1). Notes at the top of the page place Messiaen at the bald summit of the mountain plateau at Les Baux, above the valley of cypress and broom where he observes a strong smell of wild mint and thyme and the incessant noise of cicadas. Messiaen also comments ‘chaleur effroyable!’, and on my visit the heat was indeed unbearable, an unwavering 35˚C at two thirty in the afternoon. The overpowering heat intermingled with the stifling smell of lavender that hung heavy in the air. The acoustic accompaniment to this suffocating sensory overload was the constant screaming of the cicadas (an uneducated guess led me to mistake them for crickets at the time). There was a notable absence of birdsong, possibly due to the lack of places for the birds to hide and cool down in the fierce heat. On the fourth line of the same cahier page from 1956, Messiaen observes a common kestrel chasing and attacking a much larger Egyptian vulture in flight (‘le petit a chassé le gros’). In 2019 as I looked out over Val d’Enfer, I could hear the lonely sound of one kestrel somewhere out in the valley, camouflaged and unseen against the craggy rock faces of the surrounding mountains. The invisibility of the bird ignited my imagination. Unable to observe the bird, I linked this sound event with the musical interpretation, and was transported in memory back to listening

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to ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’. The lament of the kestrel in the Val d’Enfer encouraged a simple sweep of a pencil across my notebook, undulating and arcing in response to the calls as they travelled through the open space (see figure 2). This moment of transcription visualized the sound event of the kestrel’s call.11 But the lone, motionless pencil marks, situated on the flat plane of white paper, did not seem to embody the feeling of freedom the bird enjoyed. Instead, it accentuated the freedom the kestrel had from human sight and its ability to tumble into the immeasurable vastness of the free-fall drop below me. The metaphors that began to emerge from my drawing process, and the inability to fully articulate the kestrel’s freedom, reflected Messiaen’s process of creating metaphors from nature.12 These inspired in him a kind of transcendence; concepts of time, eternity, and faith greatly influenced Messiaen’s relationship with nature and the landscape. Although the metaphors that were manifesting in my drawn transcriptions arose from and focused on the material relationships of drawing, and not on spirituality, they were produced within the shared space of this landscape while thinking through Messiaen’s own notations. The difficulty of giving expression to fleeting auditory encounters with the kestrel led me to draw from what was visible. I soon experienced how intertwined birds were with the landscape, each the cause and effect of the other, as indeed Catalogue d’oiseaux describes. This was made clear while looking out over the Val d’Enfer from the highest points at Les Baux, the castle ruins. I could hear the faint sound of the kestrel reverberating around the valley next to the mountainside village of Baux-de-Provence. The jagged valley below created a natural soundscape in which the faint birdsong was projected hundreds of metres, so that it filled the expanse, while at other times the incredible heat of the day appeared to stifle Figure 1. Olivier Messiaen, Camargue Cahier, MS-23043, page 8, digital image, © and permission Fonds Messiaen and Bibliothèque nationale de France


Figure 2. The author’s field notebook, 2019, pages 78–79, pencil on paper, A5 double spread, 42 x 29.6 cm, photo and copyright: Harriet Carter

Figure 3. The author’s field notebook, 2019, pages 80–81, pencil on paper, A5 double spread, 42 x 29.6 cm, photo and copyright: Harriet Carter

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birdsong. Each affected the other, and this led to their marriage in my own notations, with birdsong weaving in and out of layered landscape drawings of the valley (see figure 3). Standing on the ruined edge of a tower that may have once been a lookout post, I sketched the rock formations of the valley below. In 2019 it felt important to record the vastness of space, nature’s largest empty room in which this lone, exhausted kestrel searched for prey,13 the enormous battleground where a fierce avian skirmish had taken place before Messiaen’s eyes over sixty years earlier. The rocks in the valley, formed by quarried material, are ancient. They absorb and hold rainwater, vegetation, fossils and now human-made structures, carrying different moments of time. Professor of Musicology Robert Fallon (2013: 333) suggests that geology unfolds history and perhaps this explains Messiaen’s fascination with time, particularly in this mountainous landscape. It seems fitting that Messiaen found such an affinity with Les Baux, embedded in Les Alpilles, where the rising mountain towers into the skies and seems to point upwards to the heavens. Messiaen’s preoccupation with the eternal led him to consider it a different construct to time. Although time was central to his focus, he remarked that he aspired towards the eternal (Samuel 1994: 34). For Messiaen the eternal manifests God’s very nature, ‘he who is without beginning, without end, without succession’ (Samuel 1994: 34), and he observes the paradox that when seeking the eternal one is hampered by the ‘temporal notions of “before” and “after”’ (Samuel 1994: 28). In his work birdsong becomes a fitting temporal vehicle for an exploration of nature’s divinity and the eternal, which Messiaen believed to be present in all of God’s creations, even though they existed in time (Samuel 1994: 34). Ultimately, birdsong is a metaphor for God’s message, and Messiaen constantly interweaves

it with allusions to light, in reference to the eternal. This is particularly explicit in the circadian structure of Catalogue d’oiseaux, which is constructed around a revolving piano cycle of birdsong coordinated with the passage of the sun. Deconstructing the temporality of birdsong and embedding it in a living landscape may be one of the most appropriate vehicles for seeking the eternal. My drawings visually reconceptualized what this valley and its lone kestrel manifested in metaphor. Against the backdrop of the aged rocks of the valley and crumbling ruins of the castle, the lone kestrel became an agent of time. It flitted between my present and Messiaen’s written records, as I imagined Messiaen perched by the ruins, looking out at the birds, and contrasted this with my inability to spot them. The kestrel’s invisibility made it feel like an echo of the past within the landscape. Final Ruminations My experience of the site visits was immersive, but I felt unable to embrace and articulate the invisible ephemera that I encountered: the atmosphere, the perceived space between objects in the landscape, the birdsong. The materials used to transcribe these experiences felt problematic, and I grappled with a slipperiness of perception akin to that observed by artist and scholar Jorella Andrews, when reflecting on Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on painting and his interrogation of space. Andrews comments that depth is a lived space that the body inhabits; depth confuses even as it enables the body to navigate the world, and so it renders the world ‘explorable, but never graspable’ (2019: 240). As I drew, I created marks that were the product of encountering intangible, transient ephemera of birdsong and the landscape; they were not a depiction of what was


already there but of what existed in the moment of my experience. My efforts to transcribe these ephemera recalled Andrews’ description of ‘the emergence of a world that will always reach beyond our encounter with it and in which we are not certain of our own limits’ (2019: 243). I was not experiencing the same place Messiaen experienced over sixty years ago, but something of an echo. The landscape, that remains wild and rural as it would have been all that time ago, continues to shape the air that passes through it with the sharp stony forms of a desert environment. Whilst my experiences there were not of the same moment of Messiaen, they were shaped by the same landscape. The visual perceptions that emerged from my transcriptions were a product of this land, an echo of the soundscape that inspired Catalogue d’oiseaux. My expedition culminated with a visit to the annual Messiaen Festival at La Meije in the Alps.14 As I attended performances dedicated entirely ‘pour les oiseaux’ (fortuitously the festival’s theme that year), the enormity of the legacy Messiaen left behind became apparent. My pursuits around rural France had chased mere fragments of Messiaen’s process, his composition material. The unique musical encounter with birdsong in Messiaen’s music draws on the complexities of nature deconstructed into musical language, fashioned into nature portraits, and decorated with prefaces and musical direction, is still influential today. I, meanwhile, have joined a group of individuals delving into the details of this music through immersion in the landscape that inspired it. By shadowing Messiaen and adopting his approach of transcribing an immersive soundscape at Les Baux, I was able to explore his relationship with the place. Catalogue d’oiseaux is the product of Messiaen’s exhaustive attempts to musically grasp and reimagine the visual and aural essences

of the landscape. I found myself chasing birdsong, the smell of lavender and heat from nearby rocks, attempting to visualize ephemera that escape articulation in words, materials, and gesture. Far from achieving Messiaen’s ease in notating the unique timbral qualities he heard in the same place, my drawing process accentuated the slipperiness of transposing from the landscape; the impressive scale of Messiaen’s musical soundscape seemed magnified by contrast. In his dedication to Messiaen ‘In Memoriam’, from a book of conversations with the composer, Claude Samuel observes that Messiaen was ‘at ease in the trappings of eternity’ (Samuel 1994: 261). Messiaen’s quest for the eternal continues in every interaction with Catalogue d’oiseaux, both through performances and the analysis of those who research it. Messiaen’s composition is ordered by time in the circadian Catalogue d’oiseaux, and loops as the piece is played, listened to, recorded, replayed and relistened to. We continue to receive transpositions of Messiaen’s encounters, filtered through each performance. Every moment of listening communicates a unique musical birdsong encounter.

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itself is identified with him’ (2013: 338).

1. See examples in Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (1650: 30–31), Daquin’s Le Coucou (1735), and Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912).

13. I deduced the exhaustion from Messiaen’s observation that ‘summer is a time of silence because the birds are parenting and occupied with feeding their young. This is an awful task; the males are exhausted by the search for prey, which must be constantly carried to the ever-open little beaks, always begging, always hungry.’ (Samuel 1994: 93)

2. Observations of ‘timbre’ in birdsong relate to the conveyed mood, what the sound feels like. Messiaen would often use metaphor to explore the timbre of birdsong. For example, on page 6 of the Camargue cahier (MS-23043) he describes the quail call as one of a soft, wet clucking like dripping water. 3. ‘I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed’ (Craft and Stravinsky 1981: 148).

14. This was en route to explore the scenery of Les Étages and Les Écrins where Messiaen transcribed material for ‘Le Chocard des Alpes’. 15. The festival has been organized annually since 1999.

4. Translations are taken from Peter Hill’s CD note to Catalogue d’oiseaux. 5. I visited the Fonds Messiaen at the Bibliothèque nationale in April 2019 on an archival research trip to examine Messiaen’s cahiers and pilot scores for Catalogue d’oiseaux. 6. I was guided by Chadwick and Hill’s extensive research linking Messiaen’s cahier notations and prefaces to the transcription sites. See particularly pages 9–10 of Chadwick and Hill (2017); also ‘Live notations for Catalogue d’oiseaux, 1954–58’, pp 162–171 in Hill (2013). 7. Challenged by time constraints, instead of visiting all sites that informed Catalogue d’oiseaux I could only reasonably access sites on a driven route over a short period in the summer months. 8. The World Data (2020) and Trading Economics (2020) websites observe an increase of 1.7˚C in temperatures from 1956 to 2019. Weather conditions will not be the same as they were when Messiaen was transcribing in the landscape. In addition, though the sites were all very rural, the geography will not be exactly as it was, mainly as a result of agricultural change which, alongside climate change, has impacted bird populations since the 1950s. See Crick (2004) for research on phenological disjunction in Europe as a result of climate change. See Galewski and Devicor (2016), European Communities (2007), Brigit Katz (2018) and Laurianne Geoffroy (2018) for research and reports on the impact of climate change and land-use, specifically pesticides, on the endangerment of bird species. 9. While Messiaen transcribed birdsong for this portrait from birdsong recordings, he transcribed the location for this piece from nature: Cirque de Mourèze. In addition, he transcribed the scenery in the month of June even though the preface to ‘Le Merle de roche’ sets the scene in May. Investigating the fabrication of ‘Le Merle de roche’ from a combination of birdsong recordings and transcribed landscape is a line of enquiry that is still evolving within my research. 10. Translations from the score are my own. 11 Composer and acoustic ecologist R Murray Schafer defines a sound event as the focus of an individual sound to consider associative meanings (1977: 131). 12 This echoes Robert Fallon’s contemplations during his exploratory trip to Mount Messiaen in America, where he considered Messiaen’s influences and Des Canyons aux étoiles. Fallon recreated Messiaen’s process of creating metaphors from mountains, observing that ‘Reflecting on Mount Messiaen and my experience there, my memories seek to identify with Messiaen as the mountain

Bibliography Jorella Andrews, 2019, The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty, Bloomsbury, London BBC Radio 3, 2017, ‘Is Birdsong Music?’, radio programme presented by Tom Service (UK), 14 May, 34 mins, available at, accessed 11 March 2020 Roderick Chadwick and Peter Hill, 2017, Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux: From Conception to Performance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Robert Craft and Igor Stravinsky, 1981, Expositions and Developments, University of California Press, California H Q P Crick, 2004, ‘The Impact of Climate Change on Birds’, Ibis: International Journal of Avian Science, 146:1, available at Christopher Dingle, 2007, The Life of Messiaen, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Christopher Dingle and Robert Fallon, ed, 2013, Messiaen Perspectives 1: Sources and Influences, Ashgate, Surrey Christopher Dingle and Robert Fallon, ed, 2013, Messiaen Perspectives 2: Techniques, Influence and Reception, Ashgate, Surrey Drawing Projects UK, 2018, ‘Mike Collier: A Dawn Chorus, 26 October to 24 November 2018’, available at, accessed 19 March 2020 European Communities, 2007, Management Plan for Skylark (Alauda arvensis) 2007–2009, available at, accessed 19 March 2020 Robert Fallon, 2005, Messiaen’s Mimesis: The Language and Culture of the Bird Styles, doctoral thesis, University of California, Berkeley


Robert Fallon, 2013, ‘Placing Mount Messiaen’, in C Dingle and R Fallon, ed, Messiaen Perspectives 2: Techniques, Influence and Reception, Ashgate, Surrey, pp 323–339

Olivier Messiaen, 2005, Olivier Messiaen (1908–92): Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–8) Books 1–3 (1956–8), Peter Hill (pianist), CD, recorded at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, London, December 1986, RRC 1108

Thomas Galewski and Vincent Devictor, 2016, ‘When Common Birds Became Rare: Historical Records Shed Light on Long-Term Responses of Bird Communities to Global Change in the Largest Wetland of France’, PLoS ONE, 11:11, available at file?type=printable&id=10.1371/journal.pone.0165542, accessed 19 March 2020

Olivier Messiaen, 2005, Olivier Messiaen (1908–92): Catalogue d’oiseaux Books 4–6, Peter Hill (pianist), CD, recorded at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, London, April 1988, RRC 1109

Laurianne Geoffroy, 2018, ‘Where Have All the Farmland Birds Gone?’, CNRS News, 21 March, available at, accessed 19 March 2020 Peter Hill, 2013, ‘From Réveil des oiseaux to Catalogue d’oiseaux: Messiaen’s Cahiers de notations des chants d’oiseaux, 1952–59’, in C Dingle and R Fallon, ed, Messiaen Perspectives 1: Sources and Influences, Ashgate, Surrey, pp 143–174. Brigit Katz, 2018, ‘Pesticides Have Led to a “Catastrophic” Decline in France’s Bird Populations’,, 22 March, available at:, accessed 19 March 2020 Athanasius Kircher, 1650, Musurgia Universalis, vol. 1, manuscript Af-x.9, University of Glasgow Special Collections Department, Glasgow Olivier Messiaen, 1999 Traité de Rythme, de Couleur, et d’Ornithologie (1949–1992): Tome V, 1er volume—Chants d’Oiseaux d’Europe, Alphonse Leduc, Paris Claude Samuel, 1994, Olivier Messiaen: Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel, E T Glasow, Amadeus Press, Oregon R Murray Schafer, 1977, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Knopf, New York Trading Economics website, 2020, ‘France Average Temperature’ page, available at https://, accessed 19 March 2020 World Data website, 2020, ‘The Climate in France’ page, available at europe/france/climate.php, accessed 19 March 2020 Discography Jonathan Harvey, 2011, Bird Concerto with Pianosong, London Sinfonietta, David Atherton (conductor), CD NMCD177 Olivier Messiaen, 2005, Olivier Messiaen (1908–92): Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–8) Book 7, La Fauvette des Jardins (1970), Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux (1985), Peter Hill (pianist), CD, recorded at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, London, December 1989 and Brandon Hill, Bristol, December 1992, RRC 1110

Einojuhani Rautavaara, 1997, Einojuhani Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus Piano Concerto No.1 Symphony No.3, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Hannu Lintu (conductor), CD 8554147 Ottorino Respighi, 1997, Ottorino Respighi: Pini di Roma, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa (conductor), CD E4158462 Archive Manuscript Olivier Messiaen, 1956, Camargue Cahier, MS-23043, Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris


& nine days into June: willow warbler silent great tit silent a starling that calls in curlew a blackbird’s resolve


John Bevis is a writer and poet. His nature titles include The Keartons: Inventing Nature Photography (Uniformbooks, 2016) and Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds (MIT Press, 2010). Books on art and artists’ publishing include Martin Rogers: Construction Storage Despatch (Coracle, 2015), Printed in Norfolk (RGAP, 2012) and Certain Trees (Centre des Livres d’Artistes, 2006). Poetry collections include Letter-winged Kite (Penteract Press, 2020), The Window Paintings (Galerie Hubert Winter, 2015)and Some Alternatives to Flock (Coracle, 2008). Having worked as publisher and printer with Coracle Press and the V&A Museum, he currently lives in Shropshire and works freelance as writer, editor and proof reader. Professor Tim Birkhead is a Fellow of the Royal Society and Emeritus Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Sheffield, UK. After a DPhil at Oxford on guillemots in 1976, he took a lectureship at Sheffield in 1976 where he remained until retiring in 2019. His main research was on promiscuity in birds and the history of science. Tim has won several awards for his undergraduate teaching and for his popular science books. His book on birds’ eggs, The Most Perfect Thing (Bloomsbury, 2016) was made into a BBC television programme with Sir David Attenborough. Dr David Borthwick teaches environmental humanities at the University of Glasgow’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies, specializing in contemporary ecopoetry and narratives of walking and place. He is a tramper of fields and stander in the rain who also writes poetry and non-fiction.

Harriet Carter is a doctoral researcher at Birmingham City University. She attained a BA at the University of Worcester, graduating in 2014 with the Elmley Foundation Award, and an MRes in 2017. In 2018, she was awarded AHRC/Midlands4Cities funding to undertake her PhD. This practice-based project in painting is situated between Birmingham School of Art and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Her work has featured in group exhibitions in Worcester, Kenilworth and Bristol. Harriet resides in Worcester, spending time between transcribing birdsong in the surrounding natural landscape and making paintings in response in her studio at home. Dr James Castell is a Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University. His research focuses primarily on the complexity of the word ‘nature’ in poetry from Romanticism to the present. He is interested in literary encounters with animals, various disciplinary approaches to the question of ‘life’, the importance of sound in accounts of nature, and also in how literary texts are reinterpreted through the lens of their changing ecological circumstances, including in our own age of environmental crisis. He has published on William Wordsworth, John Clare and Ted Hughes, as well as on the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Dr Clara Dawson is Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Manchester. Her research covers poetry of the long nineteenth century and she has recently published a book with Oxford University Press, Victorian Poetry and the Culture of Evaluation. Her research is increasingly oriented towards the natural world and she is beginning a new research project on poetry and birds.

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Marcus Coates is an artist who sets out to relate to others, re-imagining the defining characteristics of relationships, testing actual and perceived boundaries as individuals, as communities and as species. He uses a process of radical empathy as a motivation to create, examine and critique relational tools. Marcus has collaborated with people from a wide range of disciplines including anthropologists, ornithologists, wildlife sound recordists, choreographers, politicians, psychiatrists, palliative care consultants, musicians, primatologists amongst others. He has been exhibited and performed his work internationally for the last twenty-five years and recent exhibitions and performances include The Animal that therefore I am, OCAT Institute, Beijing, China, 2020; 24/7 Somerset House, London 2019; Conference for the Birds, Cherryburn National Trust, 2019; Near-life Experience, Kate Macgarry, London, 2019; Animalesque, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, 2019; The Extended Mind, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, 2019; Wilderness, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Germany 2018; Animals and Us, Turner Contemporary, Margate 2018; The Land We Live In, The Land We Left Behind, Hauser & Wirth Somerset 2018; As Above, So Below, IMMA, Dublin, 2017 and Arrivals/Departures, a sculpture commission for Utrecht Centraal Train Station, Netherlands 2017. Recent publications include the monograph Marcus Coates (Koenig, 2016) and UR… A Guide to Unconscious Reasoning (Bookworks, 2014, 2020). Professor Mike Collier is a lecturer, writer, curator and artist based at the University of Sunderland. Much of his work is collaborative, working with musicians, sound artists and printmakers. His work pays close attention to the environment and is usually place-specific. Most recently, Mike has

examined the nature of local soundscapes, exploring ways of showing how we might better understand our complex relationship to a more-thanhuman world, enabling us to value the whole world (birds, plants, animals, peoples etc) as a living ecology of cultural differences. His current work examines, visually and sonically, the way that individual birds from different species interact ‘culturally’ in the dawn chorus, and re-imagines this exploration of avian cultural diversity in vision and sound. In 2010 Mike co-founded WALK (Walking, Art, Landskip and Knowledge), a research centre at the University of Sunderland which looks at the way we creatively engage with the world as we walk through it. Mike has exhibited in the UK and abroad and his work is held in a number of public and private collections. Tim Collier is a photographic artist living in South Wales. His work revolves around all aspects of the land, from those who work on it to the flora and fauna that we share it with. After an initial career spent in various photographic practices, he became Senior Lecturer of Photography at the University of South Wales for ten years before leaving to concentrate on personal projects. Tim often works collaboratively with poets, artists and, more recently, a musician, and two of his published books, Rhiwlas and A Landscape in Waiting, reflect this. He continues to play a role in contemporary photographic practice and education in Wales whilst also pursuing his love of ornithology and the land. He is currently working on a major project that brings together the three elements that define him: birds, books and photography, taking quotes from a wide range of historical texts and combining them with images from his personal library.


John Dempsey works on the Sefton coast for the local authority’s Green Sefton team. He has recorded and enjoyed the flora, fauna and history of this coastal landscape to the north of Liverpool for more than four decades, but has also travelled widely in pursuit of birds in Europe, Asia, Africa, North, Central and South America and numerous far-flung islands around the planet. Before working full time on the Sefton Coast, he was a journalist for twenty-three years, publishing Wild Merseyside, a guide to the region’s natural history in 2009. John also wrote the Liverpool Daily Post’s Country Matters column, taking it on after the death of its legendary creator and natural historian extraordinaire, Eric Hardy. He still occasionally produces articles for the region’s media. Publications on the Sefton Coast include Sefton’s Wild Flowers, Beachcombing for the Weird and Wonderful and Shipwrecks of the Sefton Coast. His book Sandscape: The Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Sefton Coast was published in 2016. John also produces a popular blog detailing encounters with birds and wildlife across the globe at Sean Dilrosun’s connection with the avian world came at a later stage in his life. He grew up in the city of Paramaribo, capital of Suriname, carrying a guitar wherever he went. He suggests that it is the link between music and birdsong that has enabled him to tune his ear to the sound and song of the birds of Suriname. His entertaining skills, honed whilst performing on the streets of Paramaribo, also came in useful when he decided to become a tour guide, leading groups of tourists on multiday trips through Suriname’s astonishingly rich and ecologically diverse interior. Sean considers himself highly privileged to have had the opportunity to explore this very different part of his country through the frame of reference of the tribal people living

there. He worked for many years with the indigenous Tareno and Wayana people at the village Palumeu, and on the Upper Suriname River where the Saamaka people live. Professor Anne Douglas is an artist researcher and Professor Emeritus, Art in Public Life (Robert Gordon University). Her current research focuses on the potential of art to generate new forms of practice in response to the environmental crisis. She has previously published on artistic leadership, participation, improvisation, drawing and more recently on the absurd in contemporary art. Anne was an associate researcher for Knowing from Inside (PI Ingold 2013-18, funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant). She is a Board member of the Barn, Scotland’s largest rural multi-arts centre, supporting the Barn’s work on environmental issues. Dr Linda France has published eight poetry collections, including The Gentleness of the Very Tall (Bloodaxe, 1994; a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, longlisted for the Los Angeles Book Prize) and Reading the Flowers (Arc, 2016; longlisted for the Laurel Prize). ‘Bernard and Cerinthe’ won the 2013 National Poetry Competition and her work has won her numerous Awards and Fellowships in the UK and abroad, most recently a Society of Authors Cholmondeley Award. She collaborated with sound recordist Chris Watson on The Moon & Flowers (Chesters Walled Garden 2009), Stone Meadow (Ledbury Poetry Festival 2013) and Compass (Cheeseburn 2016/20). In 2020 Linda was appointed the UK’s first Climate Writer in Residence at New Writing North and Newcastle University.

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Rachel Gefferie is a PhD student from the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research project ‘Being-Creole’ explores the politics of boundaries and labels in embodying a social-cultural identity during Afro-Surinamese celebrations in Suriname. It aims to help elevate the discussion about understanding ethnic labels such as Creole and other Afro-Caribbean labels that are subject to racialized interpretations. As part of her passion for Creative Anthropology, Rachel has also contributed towards a series of stories representing the erotic experiences of the enslaved Africans in Suriname, a subject that has not been explored before. These series are her own fictive stories published on the official website of the ‘Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren’. Rachel’s connection with the world of the birds is one that has been nurtured through spiritual and cultural practices amongst the Kaliña indigenous tribe in Suriname. Jay Griffiths was born in Manchester and studied English Literature at Oxford University. She spent a couple of years living in a shed on the outskirts of Epping Forest but for many years she has been based in Wales. Her first book, Anarchipelago, was a story about the British antiroads protests. The second book she wrote was Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, a manifesto for time and against clocks. Her third book, Wild: An Elemental Journey took seven years to research and write and is an evocation of the songlines of the earth, the result of long journeys among indigenous cultures. It explores the words and meanings which shape ideas of wildness, arguing that wildness is intrinsic to the health of the human spirit. It is about necessary nomadism and the truant heart. A Love Letter from a Stray Moon is a fictionalized biography of Frida Kahlo, a

tribute to the Mexican painter and to Subcomandante Marcos, and the rebellion at the heart of art. Jay has written for The Guardian, is a regular columnist for Orion magazine and has written frequently for The Idler. She has contributed to The Observer, The Ecologist, the London Review of Books, the Utne Reader, Wild Earth and Dark Mountain. She has broadcast widely on BBC radio, including Start the Week, Woman’s Hour and on the World Service, and has several times been a guest on Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live in Australia. She has written for peer-reviewed academic publications and for the British Council. Dr Michael Guida is a cultural historian with a particular interest in the place of nature in British modernity. He is a research associate and tutor in Media & Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, UK, and is publishing his first book, called Listening to British Nature: Wartime, Radio and Modern Life, 1914-45, with Oxford University Press in 2021. His recent publications include a book chapter about Ludwig Koch’s birdsong broadcasts during the Second World War in the monograph Being Modern (UCL Press) and another about birdsong and emotions, which is part of The Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History. Dr Bennett Hogg is a composer, sound artist and cultural theorist in the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University. He has a particular interest in electroacoustic music, environmental sound art and free improvisation, especially in connection to the natural environment. From 2012–14 he was PI of Landscape Quartet, an AHRC-funded project focussed on participative sound art in natural environments, and in 2014 held a six-month Austrian Science Fund fellowship at Kunst Universität,


Graz, working as a co-investigator on the Emotional Improvisation project, led by Dr Deniz Peters. His academic writing tends to come from a phenomenological orientation, but he has also drawn on psychoanalytic theories, and other hermeneutic theories. His creative practice covers a broad range of musics, from experimental environmental sound works, through electroacoustic composition, free improvisation, a more ‘conservative’ voice in instrumental composition, and Northumbrian folk music. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Music at Newcastle University and composer/musician in residence at Cheeseburn Sculpture Gardens in Northumberland, for which he has created a number of new commissions including Lost Voices (2017), a sound installation using reconstructions by Magnus Williamson (Professor of Early Music, Newcastle University) of missing voice parts from sixteenth-century church music. Yves Tjon Sack Kie is Chair of the United Tour Guides Suriname (UTGS) and Project coordinator for the Paramaribo Live Museum. In 2014, Yves and seven other tour guides decided to officially establish the UTGS and currently the organization consists of over one hundred registered tour Guides across the country. UTGS has been appointed the role of administrator in the implementation of the Paramaribo Live Museum with the aim of preserving and developing the historical, cultural and natural value of the Capital of Suriname, Paramaribo. The inner city of Paramaribo is listed on the UNESCO world heritage list. To sustain all the achievements of the Paramaribo Live Museum project Yves, together with three other experts in the tourism industry, has initiated the Cooperation Paramaribo Creative City project, responsible for gradually leading Paramaribo towards becoming recognized as a Creative City.

Paul Kessell-Holland is a composer and education policy professional, currently undertaking his PhD in models of education in practice. His interests in education and approaches to learning spring from a childhood as a cathedral choirboy and ‘first career’ as a professional classical musician and composer. Paul combines his ongoing work as a creative writer and composer with his career in policy, drawing on his own experience and that of other practical/vocational learners in a system focusing more on theoretical teaching approaches. His composition career has been mainly as a writer for voices, whether in theatres or for choirs. His work has been performed by the BBC Singers, a number of national youth theatre companies, and a wide range of cathedral and church choirs. Dr Alex Lockwood is a novelist, writer and scholar working at the intersection of animals, activism and narrative theory. His research explores how we produce knowledge through practices of writing in the fields of interspecies relations, the representations of nonhuman others, and eco-crises. His 2016 memoir, The Pig in Thin Air, explored narrative paths to connect climate change with the food we eat. His 2019 novel, The Chernobyl Privileges, shortlisted for the Rubery International Prize, took on the psychological legacy of environmental disaster. He has published on environmental issues in The Guardian, The Independent, The Millions, and other publications. Gerry Loose is a poet living on the Isle of Bute, in Scotland. His work is to be found inscribed in Botanic Gardens, wild landscapes, hospitals and galleries as well as in his books. His concerns are with the natural world and the world of geopolitics, which intertwine. His awards include a

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Creative Scotland Award, a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, a Society of Authors award and a Kone Foundation Award. His most recent books are fault line, night exposures and The Great Book of the Woods. He has been translated into many Asian and European languages. Professor Bernhard Malkmus is a literary scholar and philosopher with a particular interest in theories and narratives of modernity, the environmental humanities and history and philosophy of ecology. He is Professor of German at Newcastle University and co-directs the Anthropocene Research Group at that institution. His research seeks to make a contribution to our understanding of rapidly changing relations between humans and more-than-human life, the human condition in the Anthropocene, and the role the creative arts can play in practices of mourning and resilience vis-à-vis the loss of biodiversity and dwindling human resonances with the natural world. He enjoys listening to and watching birds and has never managed to surpass mediocrity as a singer and violinist. Dr Jake Morris-Campbell was born in South Shields in 1988. A recipient of the Andrew Waterhouse award, he has published two pamphlets of poetry: The Coast Will Wait Behind You (Art Editions North, 2015) and Definitions of Distance (Red Squirrel Press, 2012). His poems, essays and reviews have appeared widely in print and online journals. Two were included in the Bloodaxe Books anthology Land of Three Rivers: The Poetry of North-East England. He is a frequent collaborator on multidisciplinary arts projects. Jake holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Newcastle University and his debut full-length collection of poetry is in preparation.

Stephen Moss is one of Britain’s leading nature writers and broadcasters. Now based in Somerset, he was born in London and read English at Cambridge before joining the BBC. His TV credits include the BAFTA award-winning Springwatch, The Nature of Britain and Birds Britannia, while his books include Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, Wild Kingdom and The Swallow: A Biography. He writes a monthly ‘Birdwatch’ column for the Guardian, is President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust, and teaches an MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University. A lifelong naturalist, Stephen has travelled to all seven of the world’s continents in search of wildlife. Assocaite Professor Rachel Mundy is an Associate Professor of Music in the Arts, Culture, & Media program at Rutgers University in Newark. She specializes in the history of twentieth-century music at the juncture of sound studies, the history of science and animal studies. She has been invited to present her research at leading universities and public institutions in the United States and Europe. Her book Animal Musicalities traces histories of modern sound through comparisons between animal and human musicality, drawing on the history of biology, anthropology, psychology and comparative musicology. Her current research explores the place of animal voices in modern narratives of environmental crisis. Ronald Michel Nasja (also known as Tushi) is one of the most wellknown shamans from the Kaliña indigenous peoples. He lives in Galibi, an indigenous village located in the Marowijne district of Suriname. During the Covid-19 pandemic in Suriname he was stranded in the capital (Paramaribo) and therefore had to stay with his daughter and his son-in-


law, Mark Langaman. Because of his old age he decided to transfer his knowledge of Shamanism to his son-in-law and Mark Langaman has now grown to be a well-known assistant shaman, capable of performing rituals related to the indigenous culture. Katrina Porteous is a poet, based for over thirty years on the Northumberland coast. Her work, published by Bloodaxe in The Lost Music (1996) and Two Countries (2014), is informed by a deep commitment to local ecology and culture. Containing a strong performance element, it often involves collaboration with other artists, including painter James Dodds (Longshore Drift), Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston, and radio producers Julian May and Adam Fowler. Katrina’s most recent collection, Edge (Bloodaxe 2019), draws on work with physicists, astronomers and electronic composer Peter Zinovieff. Her latest project, The Bird Roads, is a collaboration with wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample. See Dave Pritchard is a proponent of stronger links between the worlds of environmental policy, cultural heritage and the creative arts. He has worked for almost forty years in a variety of research, policy, legal, management and governance roles in all these sectors, and has held several non-executive directorships. He is now an independent consultant for bodies ranging from the UN Environment Programme and the Council of Europe to the Arts Council in England, and has academic involvements at several universities. Dave also coordinates the Culture Network of the Convention on Wetlands, advises the UNESCO Global Network of Water Museums, chairs the UK Arts & Environment Network and serves on the UK government’s Darwin Expert Committee.

Professor Kate Rigby is Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University and Adjunct Professor in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities; the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. Her research ranges across German Studies, European philosophy, literature and religion, and culture and ecology. Among her many publications in these areas are Gender, Ecology and the Sacred (coedited with Constant Mews, 1999), Topographies of the Sacred (2004), an ecocritical study of European Romantic-era philosophies and aesthetics of nature and place, Dancing with Disaster: Environmental Histories, Narratives, and Ethics for Perilous Times (2015), and Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonization (2020). She coedits the University Press of Virginia’s series Under the Sign of Nature and is a key research with the Australia-Pacific Humanities for the Environment Observatory. She was also founding co-editor of the ecological humanities journal, Philosophy Activism Nature (http://www., founding President of the Australia-New Zealand Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture (http:// and the founding Director of the AustraliaPacific Forum on Religion and Ecology. Geoff Sample is a field recordist, natural history author and sound artist, with a special interest in birdsong and the cultural history of hearing music in nature. His books and audio guides have been published by HarperCollins, including the best-selling Collins Bird Songs & Calls, and other commissions have included English Nature, Scottish Natural

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Heritage and the British Trust for Ornithology. His radio work has ranged from the BBC’s Tweet of the Day to the essay series on Radio 3, A Birdsong Garden (2020). Arts collaborations have included the highlyacclaimed Dawn Chorus with Marcus Coates and Away with the Birds with Hanna Tuulikki. Richard Smyth is a writer and critic. His work appears regularly in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, and he is the author of the non-fiction books A Sweet, Wild Note (Elliott & Thompson, 2017) and An Indifference of Birds (Uniformbooks, 2020). His novel The Woodcock will be published by Fairlight Books in May 2020. Professor John Strachan is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Bath Spa University. He has masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Oxford. A Professor of English Literature, John is Associate Editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His books include Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period (Cambridge UP, 2007), Poetry (with Richard Terry, Edinburgh UP, 2000; 2011) and a collection of poetry, Waterloo: The Field of Blood (Art Editions North, 2015). Professor Harriet Tarlo is a poet and academic. Her single author poetry publications are with Shearsman Press and Etruscan Books, and her artists’ books with Judith Tucker are published by Wild Pansy Press. Cut Flowers is forthcoming with Guillemot Press, 2021. She edited The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (2011) and has written special

features on ecopoetics for How2 and Plumwood Mountain as well as many academic essays for journals and edited collections. She is Professor of Ecopoetry and Poetics at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. Dr Hollis Taylor—violinist/composer, zoömusicologist, and ornithologist— is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She previously held research fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, and the University of Technology Sydney. Since 2005, Taylor has spent months in the field each year recording the vocalizations of the Australian pied butcherbird and reflecting on animal musicalities. Her double CD, Absolute Bird, and monograph, Is Birdsong Music?, were released in 2017. In depicting a variety of multispecies dawn choruses in image, audio, and text, her real-life essay eschews any romanticization of nature. Stephen Westerberg’s passion for birds began at an early age, encouraged by joining a school birdwatching club at age twelve. While at school, working holidays with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers guided him into a career of site-based nature conservation. Stephen has an interest in all aspects of natural history, but his main focus has always been birds, particularly undertaking surveys, and he has been involved with local bird clubs and volunteers for the BTO. Obtaining a bird-ringing license has enabled him to understand birds, particularly Dippers, Whinchats and Stonechats, in more detail. Stephen is currently Site Manager of RSPB Geltsdale Nature Reserve, Cumbria, and says that his most enjoyable employment was as a Little Tern warden, living in a shed on a Lincolnshire beach.


Stevie Wishart is a composer with roots in improvisation and early music. She is also a performer on the violin and the hurdy-gurdy. Educated at the University of York, the University of Oxford and the Guildhall School of Music, she also studied informally with John Cage in Edinburgh. During her early career she played with leading free jazz improvisers in London, Berlin, New York and Sydney while also launching her own ensemble, Sinfonye, and recording for Decca, Hyperion, Glossa and many indie labels. She has performed and had her compositions played at major venues including London’s Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Royal Festival Hall, Sydney Opera House, and St Peter’s, Rome. Wishart is a long-standing member of the transdisciplinary network FoAM and her love of nature and concern for the environment is a natural extension of her creativity. Her 2019 BBC Proms commission was an orchestral piece using the call of the critically endangered hooded grebe Podiceps gallardoi, the work’s title The Last Dance? drawing attention to its plight. Also in 2019, Stevie was commissioned by Jeffrey Skidmore, the artistic director and conductor of the Birmingham based vocal ensemble Ex Cathedra, who have a tradition of commissioning a dawn-chorus piece each year. The result, Voicing the Dawn, was premiered in Ex Cathedra’s Summer Music by Candlelight concerts, and an outside version was made to inhabit the garden and trees of the Gezellehuis (Guido Gezelle Museum). Murmuration II has been commissioned by the Concertgebouw and the Bruges Triennial for September, 2021 (performances starting at dawn).

Opposite: Common Whitethroat

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his book is part of a larger project called ‘Songs of Place and Time’ and was conceived and coordinated by Mike Collier.

A project such as this involves many people in its realization. Most importantly, we would like to thank Geoff Sample whose knowledge, wisdom and generosity has guided this project from its inception and who also gifted the title for the book. The continued support of James Brady is hugely appreciated and we are delighted that Songs of Place and Time is being published by Gaia Project in partnership with AEN and Bath Spa University. From the University of Sunderland, we would like to thank Professor Arabella Plouviez (Dean), Professor Donna Chambers, Martin Finlayson, Michelle Marshall, Graham Mitchinson and Charlotte Emmerson. From Bath Spa University, our gratitude extends to Sarah Priston, Stephen Moss, and Andrea van Poeteren. Thanks to Adrian Cooper at Little Toller Books for allowing us to reprint Jay Griffiths’ essay, Birdsong: Hannah’s Wood, Heart of Wales in our collection. Little Toller Books is a wonderful independent publisher and Adrian’s kind words throughout this project have been much appreciated. Thanks also to Pamela Quick (MIT Press) for allowing us to reprint John Bevis’ essay, A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong We have especially appreciated the invaluable and generous help of a number of curators including Joanna Riddell and Matthew Jarratt (Cheeseburn Sculpture Gardens); Professor Anita Taylor and Gary Sangster (Drawing Projects UK); Tony Charles and Michaela Wetherell (Platform A Gallery);

Helen Radcliffe and Alan Smith (ACA: Allenheads Contemporary Arts); Melanie Day and Helen Ottaway of Listen at Black Swan Arts and Merrie Snell for her work on the animation of a Dawn Chorus. This project has received considerable support from a number of organizations including Arts Council England, Bath Spa University, Newcastle University and the University of Sunderland, which we warmly acknowledge. We are particularly grateful to Professor Kate Rigby for her insightful foreword to this book. Kate’s own research has proved to be a touchstone and source of continued inspiration. Special thanks, too, to Bernard Malkmus for his continued and warm support throughout the editing of this book. Also, sincere thanks to Tim Collier for allowing us to use his images and for his help in choosing which ones to select for each essay. We would also like to extend thanks to our colleague Manny Ling for the design of this book and to our copy editor and proofreader Zoë Petersen who accepted the challenge of working with us. Both Manny and Zoë have been extremely thorough and very patient as we have made many changes to the texts and layout. Thanks also to Tom Jordan for his scrupulous assistance in sourcing images and ensuring we had the correct copyright for them. We greatly appreciate the help and assistance of Arnaud Moinet and, again, Tom Jordan, whose technical assistance has been so comprehensive throughout this project, and we are grateful for the invaluable contribution of natural historian Keith Bowey of GLEAD Ecological Services. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, our sincere thanks to our contributors for helping us make this book. q

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Song Thrush, South Wales, 4th May, 6.15 am

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Phrasing of Blackcap and Common Whitethroat

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In that dawn chorus of birds one hears the throb of life itself Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (1959)

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Mike Collier, The Burring Dor Hawk, 2018, Unison pastel, manipulated sonogram and digital print on paper, 100 x 100 cm, produced in collaboration with Geoff Sample and EYELEVEL Creative The Nightjar, called ‘The Burring Dor Hawk’ by Wordsworth, has many superstitious colloquial names including the Corpse Bird or Lich (corpse) Fowl and Gabble Ratchet (a name for the Gabriel Hounds of the Wild Hunt). In Nidderdale (Yorkshire) there is a folk legend that the souls of dead unbaptized children go into Nightjars. As Kate Rigby says in her foreword for this book, ‘perception of birds among the Kaliña people as guides, teachers and mediators between the human and spirit realms reminded me that within the archives of Western culture too we might find examples of birds in the company of seers’. This work was made in collaboration with Anna Svensdotter, who produced a companion sound piece called Nattskred—Dew Fall Hawk (2018). The title Nattskred refers to two of the many Swedish and English dialectal names for the Nightjar. Her soundscape was inspired by these names, as well as an old Swedish folk story about a woman who loved spinning so much that she did this on Sundays as well as on weekdays. As a result, she was turned into a Nightjar—destined to spin forever. You can find this on Anna’s SoundCloud page.

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ISBN 9780993219290

9 780993 219290

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