What Mozart Learned from the Birds

Classic Arts Features   What Mozart Learned from the Birds
One day, as he walked past a bird store, Wolfgang Amadeus heard a cagedstarling singing one of his own melodies. The remarkable thing was, no one had heard thatpiece aside from Mozart.

Had the bird picked it up from Mozart whistling in the street? Or had Mozart inadvertently composed something the bird already knew? The great composer was going to find out. He bought the starling and took him home.

Nothing more appears in Mozart's papers regarding the starling until June 4, 1787, when his beloved bird died. A full funeral was held, and the maestro recited a poem of his own for the occasion:

...He was not naughty, quite,
But gay and bright,
And under all his brag
A foolish wag....

Did Mozart learn anything from his pet bird? His composition "A Musical Joke" (K. 522) is a work for an unusual chamber orchestra of two French horns, two violins, viola and bass. The andante cantabile contains a "grotesque cadenza which goes on far too long and pretentiously ends with a comical deep pizzicato note," say the liner notes from a DG recording of the music on the album Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It seems that after hearing a starling sing one of his own melodies, Mozart wrote a piece incorporating the disjointed musical sense that marks the starling's song.

Human musicians have learned from birds for as long as there has been music. The acute outdoor listeners among us cannot fail to take the forest songs of dawn and dusk as serious opportunities for inspiration. Because it's part of nature, bird music seems always somehow right, while human construction so often fights to assert its own importance.

This year's Mostly Mozart Festival goes far beyond Mozart to expand on what birds have taught us about music. Festival director Jane Moss came up with the whole idea, and working with such a rich topic has changed the way she sees and hears the world. "I've taken to listening to birds far more carefully; it's so interesting in life how much is wallpaper that you never notice. To what degree is it music? How do they produce sound? What do they hear?"

Most songbirds have a two-part vocal chamber called a "syrinx" that is far more flexible than our larynx; it enables them to easily make more than one tone at a time. They hear a smaller range of frequencies than we do, and their brains are particularly attuned to respond to their specific songs. Biologists distinguish between bird "songs" and bird "calls." The latter are short sounds with very specific meanings, such as "there's a hawk flying overhead." Such language-like sounds are often innate, with the birds understanding them from birth. The more musical sounds, usually made for the purpose of defending their territories and attracting mates, need to be learned by young male birds over a period of several months or even years.

The musical qualities of the songs are very hard to explain in terms of their function. Birds evolved the need to make music, much like human beings. It is difficult to reduce this beautiful part of their lives to the survival of the fittest. Darwin understood this well, and he wrote in The Descent of Man that "birds have a natural aesthetic sense...."

When it came time to program the Mostly Mozart Festival, Moss had already arranged for the International Contemporary Ensemble to be in residence. "We started looking at the ICE repertoire. We had already scheduled the Bart‹k piano concerto, and of course they could do Olivier Messiaen, and Jonathan Harvey gets relatively little play in New York. The great Russian violinist David Oistrakh had always heard that birds like Mozart better than any other kind of music. I knew Mozart had an affinity for birds, and Messiaen of course loved Mozart." The logic of the program quickly fell together.

Olivier Messiaen is the 20th-century composer most known for allying his oeuvre with the sounds of the avian world. He is the one man of his era known for heading out into the world to directly transcribe what the birds were doing, and convince people to copy it as closely as possible. He began this process while interred in a Nazi prison camp in 1940, while composing The Quartet for the End of Time, his first piece to make use of birdsong, and one of his greatest. Years later he wrote: "In my hours of gloom, when every musical idiom appears to me as no more than admirable painstaking experimentation, what is left for me but to seek out the true face of music somewhere off in the forest, among the birds."

Unlike earlier and later composers, who often tried to emulate the musical energy of birds by using the shapes of their melodies, Messiaen was as concerned with the tone quality and rhythm of birds as he was with the tunes. There are two 600 page volumes of his Trait_ de rythme, de couleur et d'ornithologie containing detailed transcriptions of bird songs. By blending together all the bird songs that might be heard in one location, in Oiseaux exotiques, which we will hear in the Festival, he combined exact notations with ecological ideas.

One thing Messiaen expressly did not do is use recordings of actual bird songs in his work. Birds were still sources of inspiration rather than participants in the mix. In more recent decades, however, plenty of composers have brought feathered sounds directly into music through advances in technology. Jonathan Harvey has combined recordings of bird songs, their pitch and rhythm lowered and slowed down, with a chamber orchestra, in his Piano Concerto with Birdsong. The avian sounds are here integrated with the written score more carefully than any other piece I have heard. This is the work's North American premiere, played by the stellar pianist Joanna MacGregor, who has long introduced music/nature sessions into the Bath Festival in England, of which she is artistic director.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller delve even further into the nebulous borders between the human and avian worlds with a construction that defies easy categorization. The Murder of Crows, placed in the Park Avenue Armory, is a multimedia experience with a strong narrative quality often lacking from such installations. Why is a flock of crows called a "murder"? If one member of the flock dies, the survivors are known to surround his corpse and loudly caw for up to 24 hours. Intelligence? Empathy? For this installation, 98 independent audio speakers are mounted on chairs and stands, all objects in a mysterious flock. The work also draws inspiration from Goya's Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, with its engraving of a sleeping man surrounded by dream images of owls and bats. This is evoked by a desk in the center with a speaker tilted on its side. The sounds coming out of these boxes include Cardiff's voice recounting dreams, Tibetan nuns, and original music by Frieda Abtan, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, Tilman Ritter, and the artists.

The little we know about the lives and music of birds is only a faint peek into their alien lives. Consider again the starling, whose song is noisy and not a favorite of most human birdwatchers. It remains, however, essential to the science of communication. Only six years ago psychologist Tim Gentner discovered that starlings were able to include "parenthetical remarks" within the course of a song, like little diversions from the main theme. Linguist Noam Chomsky had previously postulated that only humans can do this. Turns out starlings could easily be trained to insert such phrases into their music if rewarded by their human caretakers; they knew full well which was the correct song, but would sing the wrong one for food.

Mozart would certainly have been amused. Once again an attempt to prove something unique about the way humans communicate was shot down. Maybe it makes more sense to think of all this human and animal chatter as music, as if we are all part of one great animal orchestra that has been singing happily for millions of years.


Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing and Survival of the Beautiful. His next record for ECM will be based on the bird transcriptions of Olivier Messiaen. He is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology

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