Eleven Paths to Animal Music

By David Rothenberg

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We cannot ask other species to explain themselves, since it is not language we share with the birds. It is music.

Every time I come to Helsinki I try to visit the famous music store Digelius, founded by the electronic music pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi and now run by “Emu” Lehtinen, so nicknamed because of his love of birds. And of charging, passionate, unpopular music. Walk in the door and he’s never really surprised to see you. Always something interesting is playing. “Isn’t it a pleasure,” he asks, holding his hands out in the air, “to be able to come to work and listen to Charles Gayle? Or the pied butcherbird!” The great exploratory musicians of Europe and the world might just as easily pass through these doors, and we will run into each other and never really be surprised.

Excerpted from Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound by David Rothenberg. Used with permission of the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2019 by David Rothenberg.

Nightingales in Berlin, by David Rothenberg

As philosopher and musician David Rothenberg shows in this searching and personal new book, the nightingale’s song is so peculiar in part because it reflects our own cacophony back at us. Rather than try to capture a sound not made for us to understand, Rothenberg seeks these musical creatures out, clarinet in tow, and makes a new sound with them.

Learn more about the book.

“So you like the songs of birds?” Emu asks me. “Then you really should listen for the Blyth’s reed warbler.” That was a bird I had never heard of. I knew of course about all the studies on the sedge warbler, how this is the one bird we’re sure of that, when he sings louder, longer, more complicated songs, he does have better luck with the girls and reaches that holy grail of improved mating success. But there is no such luck when it comes to some of these other European warblers with super-complicated songs, such as the marsh warbler, the great reed warbler, and the icterine warbler. They sing, sing, and sing some more, and we do not know why. No correlation with mating of any kind.

But Blyth’s? Who was this Blyth? Edward Blyth (1810–1873), curator of the Royal Asiatic Museum of Bengal in Calcutta, got four bird species named after him and the only one without a direct Wikipedia link from his page is the Blyth’s reed warbler. “What, Emu, is so special about this bird?”

“Oh, I don’t know, David, but I think it’s my favorite.” Coming from such a master of the world’s music, that opinion matters to me. I file the information away. One day I hope to meet a Blyth’s reed warbler and hear him sing.

Blyth's reed warbler
Blyth’s reed warbler.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.
Ville and I drove two hours north from Helsinki wishing to hear some really wild nightingales, birds of the deeper forests, far from the madding crowd of Finns and foreigners and traffic sounds that dominate the nearby suburban island of Lauttasaari. We’re up at 3 a.m. and the woods are all quiet, not a satakieli to be heard. Hardly a sound at all until around 4 a.m., when a strange cacophony of experimentation begins to appear, near a little abandoned encampment with rusting barrels and old portable saunas, piles of rusting refuse, and low willow thickets. There seem to be three or four birds, ranting and riffing, jumping from one agitated tune to the next. Their music is indescribable, chattering and noisy, but somehow impossible to stop listening to, and, for me, impossible not to join.

It isn’t a sedge warbler or a reed warbler. Could it be the elusive marsh warbler, who copies African birdsongs learned on his winter migration? No, they don’t make it this far north. Because of the deep music, this has to be a colony of Blyth’s reed warblers. A band of male Blyth’ses, hardly a female in sight. They don’t seem to be competing, but rather engaging in something more like a jam session, singing all together to bring forth the day.

I am reminded of the story of how the dawn chorus sets up a whole environment of marvelous sound, and that birds sing all over the world at dawn, although we still don’t know why. This is no ordinary singing bird, but a true composer, an experimenter amid melody and noise, a bridge of sorts between human and avian musical aesthetics.

The iPad agitates him a bit, then spurs him to innovation. He parries with a melody, then leaves space to see what I will do. I am playing the furulya, a tiny Bulgarian fipple flute, a bit like a pennywhistle but with two chambers so a drone note can be played, or harmonies in parallel seconds like the Bulgarian State Female Radio and Television Choir perform. The almost-chord is something a bird could do with its syrinx. A few scattered melodic quips and the bird announces a melody that arrests me by sounding immediately human, something rare in the world of bird music, but especially of interest to those of us looking for a foothold into their world. Dum dum dum, dum dum dum, daaaaah… Dum dum dum, dum dum dum, daaaaah..

At once, the Blyth’s has taught me a melody. With the doubling minor second it is instantly melancholic. It is just a taste, just a glimmer, something hopeful and pure. Perhaps most of you will hear nothing in it. But I love it. I feel vindicated, as if I’ve suddenly gotten somewhere, entering this musical space between the human and the animal, that ideal place I am always trying to go.

Is this really a Blyth’s? How can I be sure? I know nothing about birds, really. But today we have xeno-canto, a crowdsourced website where hundreds of people post their birdsong recordings, and there are many dumetorum tracks posted from central Finland. So I’m leaning there. Still, I ask around on Facebook. “Anyone out there know if this is a Blyth’s reed warbler?” For a few days, no one has any idea what I’m talking about. But then, corroboration. The great bird recordist of England Geo Sample chimes in: “Definitely Blyth’s. This bird builds sophisticated rhythmic inversions through his development of motifs. These motifs consist of alternating elements: one a percussive salvo of thick, broad-band, and harmonically rich notes, the other a purer-toned, whistled phrase; the combination of the two creates its own internal rhythm…. The Blyth’s reed warbler is a master of precise articulation, of balanced phrasing and building thematic variation. There may be a simple formula behind the structure of its song, but if there is, I don’t want to know.”

I ask him if we couldn’t possibly come up with a better name for such an amazingly musical bird. He wonders: “Well, the old Finnish and Estonian birders used to call these little brown critters that just darted around in the thickets ‘snake birds’—madulinnud—for want of clarification. But we might take a cue from the bird’s own sound and call him the sisichak.”

Sisichak, sisichak, sisichak. I like that. In Finnish the Blyth’s is viitakerttunen, in Japanese shiberia yoshikiri, in Polish zaroślówka, and in Faroese he gets his best moniker: kjarrljómari. Language is finally beginning to approach music when its diversity is transmuted from babble to repercussion.

Sound recordists sometimes compress an entire day into one hour, trying to be honest about the progression of different sounds through a 24-hour period even as they speed things up. Messiaen tried to use piano emulations of the species found in a single habitat, to be ecologically honest and respectful to the interrelationships of native species. Some people have slowed down ocelots to turn them into jaguars, or pitched down humpback whales because their actual sound is shriller and higher than we want a whale to be. We trade on impact and stereotypes in field recording, as in the rest of life. They are to be deplored much of the time, but they are also used and exploited.

Musicians playing to/with a nightingale.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

We are adrift in the park with our machines and our dreams. I can go on and on about what this does to me as a lone human out on my quixotic quest. But I don’t want to do that anymore. I am learning to love bringing other people along with me on the journey. It is either an aha moment, an aha period of life, or simply the sign of growing up. So I decided to write out some suggestions to help others join me on this pursuit:

Eleven Paths to Animal Music

  1. Forget the name of the bird you hear. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cardinal (peo peo peo peo) or a white-throated sparrow (old sam peabody peabody peabody) or a veery (wheeooo wheeoo wheeoooo). Just listen to each song as if it’s a wonder you have never ever heard before.
  2. Leave mostly silence and space. Become just another nameless bird trying to fit your own music into the entire soundscape.
  3. If an encounter with the bird music is not changing your own music, then you have not listened long enough. Try to make something new that no one species could make alone.
  4. You are not the center of the concert, just one more musician in the mix. Don’t feel the need to be in charge. For thousands of years humans have made this mistake. You can change this.
  5. Remember, this is some of the oldest music we know. It’s millions of years older than our species. There must be something right about it to have lasted this long. Learn from this rightness.
  6. Thousands of years of people trying to make sense of what is and isn’t musical in birdsong have made it no less elusive. It still lies beyond our comprehension. Work with that ineffability, engage with the other while knowing you will never completely understand him.
  7. Scientists may tell us birds care only for the sounds of their own species, ignoring everyone else. That’s what they see when looking at what areas light up in their brains as they hear. But as listeners we hear otherwise. These creatures are precisely attuned to sound. All kinds of tunes around them engage their attention.
  8. Why do birds sing most at dawn? It happens universally, but even after thousands of years of witnessing this phenomenon we don’t know why. We cannot ask other species to explain themselves, since it is not language we share with the birds. It is music. Music does not exist to be decoded. We and the birds exist to make it. Make it together and the whole world feels its power, its joy.
  9. Add a groove or a drone with caution. Sure, a repeating, grounding musical force can make any flights of fancy seem logical. But you want to be leery of imposing on a phrase meaning that might not be there.
  10. Who can tell what music means anyway, be it human or avian? It’s the essence of birds to sing. We are the same. There is so much music in the world, and we cannot escape our yearning for it. We continue to listen and to love.
  11. The world needs no more music. It needs no more of us. Still, we keep going on, and the more we listen to everyone else out there, the more we might make music as necessary as what the birds have been singing for millions of years.



David RothenbergMusician and philosopher David Rothenberg wrote Why Birds Sing, Bug Music, Survival of the Beautiful, and many other books, published in at least eleven languages. He has more than 30 recordings out, including One Dark Night I Left My Silent House which came out on ECM, and most recently Tablatun and Trio Senza Rete. He has performed or recorded with Pauline Oliveros, Peter Gabriel, Ray Phiri, Suzanne Vega, Scanner, Elliott Sharp, Iva Bittová, and the Karnataka College of Percussion. Nightingales in Berlin is his latest book, CD, and film. Rothenberg is Distinguished Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Read (and listen to) more work and interviews by David Rothenberg appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo of music making with a nightingale courtesy David Rothenberg.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.