The Piccolo and the Pocket Grouse

I. NIGHT BLACKBIRD SONG, for two piccolos (one doubling on flute) and three percussion (1999)

The piece starts with a bang, as the long, drawn-out cry of piccolos brings the listener to attention. After a pause, a wind rustles leaves; a wood block beats out drops of rain. Then a piccolo—the blackbird—starts to sing, warbling over quiet musical gusts of wind. Another bird chimes in, and the two duet (or duel) over a building percussive din. The overall effect is spare and lovely, that of two birds singing to each other, swaying on branches in the dark, trying to be heard over an incidental urban cacophony.

In an interview with journalist George Tombs, Emily Doolittle, the composer of the piece, described its origins. It was 1997, and she had recently moved to Amsterdam from the Midwest. Living in an unfamiliar place, she was more attentive to its aural ecology, and one night she lay awake listening to a European blackbird as it sang outside her window. The blackbird is a member of that family of noted songsters, the thrushes. Its song is rich and melodic. In it, Doolittle heard elements that reminded her of human music. She listened more closely, listened also to other blackbirds down the street. She gathered themes from them, made up some of her own, and wrote a piece as she thought a blackbird might, stitching phrases together in an improvisatory and at times arbitrary fashion.

Still, “Night Blackbird Song” is representative rather than replicative. By its end, the bird-flutes and bird-piccolos have become just flutes and piccolos, incorporated within a more conventional musical statement, as Doolittle makes allowances for the human ear and its expectations. “It is more patterned,” she told Tombs, “there is more transition between motives, things are more connected . . . ”

As one who follows the comings and goings of birds, I was intrigued by Doolittle’s efforts to write music more or less on their terms. When I found out that she lives in Seattle, I wrote to her and asked if she would mind chatting about intersections between music and ecology. We meet at a small coffee shop near the Cornish College for the Arts, where she teaches music theory and composition. “I’m interested in ways that animal sounds are and are not like music,” she says. “There are a few names for this—biomusicology, ecomusicology—but zoomusicology is probably the most specific.”

The term zoomusicology was coined in 1983 by French composer François-Bernard Mâche. Mâche argued that bird song and human music share many attributes. Both rely on repeated patterns, scales, arpeggios, themes, and variations. Both are frequently used to attract mates, or claim territory. (How much conceptual daylight is there between a national anthem and a blackbird singing to tell other males to clear off?) It was possible, then, to analyze animal sounds using musicological principles.

Mâche went further, though, wondering whether birds might consider their own calls aesthetically as well as functionally. Scientists had observed that bird songs are often more complex and ornamented than seems absolutely necessary; and some species create their songs rather than know them innately, cobbling their own compositions together with snippets from their parents, their neighbors. Do these birds improvise and mimic and mock for the sheer raucous thrill of it? Do they hear their own songs as music? If they do—if, as Mâche put it, music could be considered a “widespread phenomenon in several living species apart from man”—the very nature of music would be called into question.

II. MUSIC FOR MAGPIES, for viola da gamba with quarter-tone frets (or cello or viola) (2003)

Magpies don’t have much of a song to speak of, so there are no magpies in Music for Magpies. Instead, Doolittle plays on their reputation as collectors of pleasing objects, gathering in this suite of five short pieces “an array of shiny, attractive songs”: the pied butcherbird, the hoopoe lark, the ringed river snike, the pileated pocket grouse, and the green-rumped antstalker.

The suite is impish. Each piece focuses on the single singing bird, rather than evoking a whole atmosphere like a tone poem. On a viola da gamba, the birds’ songs are lower than they would be naturally; subtle elements of harmony and technique emerge where higher pitches might obscure them.

Some of the species Doolittle chooses I am familiar with. The pied butcherbird, for instance, is well known for its complex and melodic song; Doolittle’s rendering gives a bird whose voice seems the essence of “flutelike” (or, at the very least, like a wind instrument) a nice ballast and power. But other species, like the snike, I don’t immediately recognize. I spend more than a few minutes online trying to find out about them. I especially want to hear a recording of a pocket grouse, the song of which, in Doolittle’s hands, is reminiscent of a sage grouse’s chesty whoomp.

It takes longer than I’d care to admit for me to figure out that there is no such thing as a pocket grouse, or a snike, or an antstalker. Doolittle made them up.

Doolittle doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a zoomusicologist, but if someone wants to call her one, that’s fine. At Princeton, she wrote her dissertation on the similarities between human music and animal songs. Thoughts for her come thick and fast; she speaks quickly and quietly and is more interested in exploring new ideas than repeating herself. Sometimes when I ask a question, she will say, “You can read what I think in [title of article she authored].”

She says this when I ask just how long people have used animals in music, directing me to a review she wrote a few years ago. When I find the appointed (assigned?) article, I read that birds—and other animals as well, but birds primarily—have had a place in music for as long as there has been music. Even Western classical music, an art that would seem far removed from wild and thicket, is an aviary. Vivaldi quotes bird song in The Four Seasons. Musicologist Meredith West argued that Mozart memorialized his pet starling in “A Musical Joke,” a piece noted for its dissonances and unorthodox structure. In his Sixth Symphony, The Pastoral, Beethoven marked in the score the stylized calls of nightingales, cuckoos, quails. The list could go on and on.

The relationship between music and birds changed in the mid-twentieth century with French composer Olivier Messiaen. Where other composers had used bird song as an aural garnish in larger works, he approached it as an ornithologist might, spending hours in the field transcribing songs by ear, filling up notebooks. When he composed, he tried to be faithful to the avian character of the sounds, re-creating their fragmentary rhythms, the tonal relationships, the ecological resonances born of many species singing at once in field or forest. Mâche studied with him, so while Messiaen predates zoomusicology by a few years, he is, according to Doolittle, a spiritual father of sorts.

A few weeks later, I check out the sheet music for Messiaen’s Petites Esquisses d’Oiseaux. Like Music for Magpies, Petites is a suite, albeit for piano. It has six pieces, each two or so minutes long, each devoted to a single bird: the European robin (three times), the blackbird, the song thrush, and the Eurasian skylark. (Unlike Music for Magpies, all the birds in Petites are real.)

I flip to one of the shorter pieces, “Le Merle Noir.” What is it like to try to sound like a blackbird? On the page, it doesn’t appear unduly difficult, but I have trouble playing it nonetheless. I studied the piano for many years, and this might be part of the problem. Classical music, or at least the classical music with which I am most comfortable, is structured around lines and phrases and extended musical ideas. Western music theory reinforces this fluidity, emphasizing progression and resolution. It may not be natural, but to my ear it is custom.

As such, “Le Merle Noir” is evocative and beautiful, but not immediately pleasant. To sound like a bird is to confront certain human limits of physical expression. I spend a lot of time contorting my hands into precise alignments to manage all the note clusters, then rushing up the keyboard to approximate the blackbird’s song. The music starts and stops, waiting, as a bird might, for something to respond. After a while, my brain aches; my fingers feel like claws. I’m frustrated, I’m no closer to sounding like a blackbird than I was two hours ago, and I’m thinking dark thoughts about the folly of gilding the lily. As if Messiaen could compose a song purer than the blackbird’s, and I coax its sound from a piano! But I understand his desire to know what it is to make these sounds naturally, without thinking. To have a voice such as this.

III. HERMIT THRUSH, a hermit thrush (ongoing)

A month or so later, Doolittle invites me to a small dinner party at her house. Also present is Kristin Laidre, a biologist from the University of Washington. As might be expected when musicians and biologists mix, conversation turns to zoomusicology.

“Do animals make music?” Laidre asks. She sounds curious but skeptical.

“I don’t think human music and animal sounds are homologous,” Doolittle says. But music is one of those words, like culture, that seems easy enough to define at first only to become more slippery and elusive the more it is probed, until it is hidden behind layers of academic caveat. What makes a sound music? That it is simply pleasing to the ear is hardly enough, or every babbling brook would have an opus number. That it has artifice, then, and is composed either by adhering to certain conventions, or tastefully defying them? Doolittle is circumspect when it comes to hypotheses about music and animal perception, and whether or not animals have aesthetic sensibilities akin to a human’s. On the one hand, she thinks that, historically, behaviorists are too reluctant to think of animals as anything more than sex-crazed automatons. On the other, some musicians are too willing to ascribe musicality to animals. But while a bird may not be calling for joy or for the sake of art itself—having rather some other outcome in mind—that doesn’t mean we can’t find the roots of our music in its song. Why else would we call it a song?

After dinner, Laidre gets out her laptop. “You have to hear this,” she says. She has recently returned from Greenland, where she was recording calls of narwhals, which she has studied for more than ten years. While listening to playbacks she heard the craziest thing. Narwhals squeak and gibber, but there was something else, a louder and more resonant call. “It was bowheads, singing,” Laidre says. We all listen to the strange music: the drawn-out wail, deep and sonorous, corkscrewing down into the depths of the Arctic seas.

“That’s wonderful,” Doolittle says. She fetches her own laptop and says she, too, has some things we need to hear. She plays a clip of a musician wren chirping out an eerily human-sounding song. Next, she plays a video of two gibbons howling a duet in a zoo. Finally, she plays a recording of a hermit thrush.

The hermit thrush is a small songbird found throughout much of North America. It is visually nondescript, perhaps seven inches long, with a brown back, buffy breast, and russet tail. It flits about the underbrush, where it feeds on insects and berries. Oh, but its song. Bear in mind that The Sibley Guide to Birds says the hermit thrush sings thus: zreeeeeew cheedila chli-chli-chli. Somehow this doesn’t quite capture the spirit of a bird whose song has enchanted musicians, naturalists, poets, and scientists, all trying to get at its secret. Doolittle herself is working with an ornithologist, a computer scientist, and a music theorist to analyze the harmonic structure of the song. She has listened to it over and over, considered it aesthetically, mathematically. “It’s something you never get tired of,” she says.

The recording plays the song first at normal speed. I am at once transported to the forests of the Cascade Range, where my family spent a lot of time when I was young: there is that first pure thin note followed by the rich liquid warble, a phrase repeated two or three times, sounding at once near and very far away. Then the song plays again, slowed down to half speed. Lowered into the more human registers, the notes seem to come from the world’s most virtuosic piccolo player. Then it plays again, at one-quarter speed this time, and I can make out discrete structures, earlier hidden—individual trills, broken chords, an eerie polyphony, strange echoes. Lastly, it plays at one-eighth speed. The effect is shamanistic, the notes soft and heavy as if from an enormous wooden flute, filtered through dream haze. Is it music? I don’t know. I don’t care. It is one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard.

Eric Wagner writes about science and nature from his home in Seattle, Washington, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Scientific American, Smithsonian, and elsewhere.