Nightingale: The Bird of a Thousand Songs
Despite the reverence their culture shows for nightingale song, Afghan musicians have not made much specific use of bird song in their melodies or forms. John Baily, one of Europe’s greatest authorities on the musical culture of Afghanistan, brought a recording of English nightingale song and played it to some Afghan refugee musicians living in Pakistan. They were immediately excited. First they responded to the taped bird song using the ‘drum language’ of spoken bhols in which players speak the patterns they later play on the tabla. Although no one had noticed it before, the bird’s phrases fit right into the sixteen beat recurring tintal cycle that is the most popular of rhythms in that part of the world. Dha Ti Ta Dha | Ti Ta Dha Ti | Dha Dha Ti Ta | Dha Dha Tu Na. Then they got out their tabla drums and rebab violin to jam along with the tape. To the drummers the nightingale’s phrase was a fully stuctured tabla solo, easy to assimilate and respond to. But their tradition had not explicitly made use of nightingale rhythms before.2 The end result sounds like a new kind of interspecies music, part nightingale—with the relentless call-and-response not trying to go anywhere or conclude—and the musicians caught in the web of the challenge, trying to play exactly what is heard and to take it to some other, human level.
In neighboring Iran, in the Persian music tradition, there is a kind of musical ornamentation called Tahrir-e Bolboli, where singers and their accompanists imitate one another with rapid trills and nightinglike quips. Here is a tale about one of their most famous singers, named Qamar:
Once upon a day Qamar went to Darband, a scenic place near Tehran, to take a walk and practice in the open air. Qamar started singing Tahrir-e Bolboli while she was walking among the trees. A nightingale sitting on a branch heard her beautiful song, and he began to sing along. The nightingale was trying to sing like Qamar, and Qamar was trying to sing like the nightingale, just as singers and players meld together in traditional Persian music. The fever rose as they each tried to sing faster and louder. Suddenly the nightingale fell down and died, because it could not keep up with thie great Qamar. Qamar cried deeply for two days. She could not forgive herself for having killed a bird with music. Was all this beauty and intensity nothing more than a fight to the death? Song, whether coming from birds or from humans, must be more than war.3
The yearning of the nightingale figures prominently in the famous Sufi fable of Attar, The Conference of the Birds, among the most known works in all of Persian literature. The master of birds, the gaudy Hoopoe, is trying to assemble all the other bird species to join him on a quest for the sacred valley. Here’s how the nightingale answered the call to join up:
In Persian music and literature, and in the Afghan experiment, we see that much of the musicality of bird song lies in its special use of rhythm as much as its organization of pitches and recognizable melodies. I doubt it is an accident that we hear these sounds as being closer to music than to words.
Can we be any more certain that nightingales are making music if the song brings pleasure to our ears? “The supreme notes of the nightingale envelop and surround us,” wrote Lord Gray of Fallodon in the nineteen twenties. “It is as if we were included and embraced in pervading sound.” Yet he is not a complete fan. The song “arrests attention, and compels admiration; it has onset and impact; but it is fitful, broken, and restless. It is a song to listen to, but not to live with.”5
We long for similarities between us and the birds to make us feel more at home in their world. Perhaps animals’ perception is farther from our own than we would admit. Sixty years ago the great ethologist Niko Tinbergen noticed a stickleback fish aggressively displaying toward the window of his fish tank. What did he see there? Certainly no red-bellied fish that would indicate the traditional attack posture. No, the fish was striking toward a red mailman’s truck far in the distance. Why bring in this story? Nick Thompson, the brown thrasher man, mentions this in his critique of anthropomorphism in ethology, saying that this tale shows that this fish has one strange way of reacting to the world, something far from what a human would see. We should not imagine that we share much about aesthetics ire with a fish! He really didn’t like that truck.
Each animal species lives in its own unique ethological world. Aesthetics, should we believe they exist in animals, must be part of that. The starling will never sing “-nee River.” Song sparrows find matching songs to be a mark of aggression. Wood pewees’ elegant songs are theirs alone. Why even claim then to appreciate bird music for some kind of elusive, eternal essence?
Sure, each species is different, but we are still all bound by some of the same kinds of cycles. Birth, experience, love, mating, travel, death. Each one of these phases can to be expressed! Raw emotion leads to bird song and also to human art of all kinds. Something needs to be released, and what does come out is so often wonderful. Communication and miscommunication both result from listening and playing along. Consider Oscar Wilde’s story “The Nightingale and the Rose,” where he turns that Persian nightingale story upside down to imagine a bird trying to interpret human sentiment and performance, and getting it all wrong.
A young philosophy student is desparate for a girl who says she will only dance with him if he finds a red rose. But there is none in the garden to be plucked. A nightingale in her nearby nest hears his plight. “Here indeed is the true lover,” says the Nightingale. “What I sing of, he suffers: what is joy to me, to him is pain.”6 At once the difference between birds and men arises. We suffer in love while the nightingale just enjoys it! (Wilde’s singer is a ‘she,’ not a ‘he,’ but literature never exactly matches life.)
There is only one way the Nightingale can get the boy a rose, that terrible travail of Persian myth. A Tree tells her the method: “If you want a red rose you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn.” The thorn will pierce the bird and she will bleed into the tree and a red rose will grow by morning. So love for the bird will strike from joy into pain and then death.
But she’s ready to do it, and cries to the student with a song he cannot understand: Be happy, she sings, you will get your rose. “All I ask of you in return is that you will be a true lover, for Love is wiser than Philosophy.” The student looks up, not comprehending, and only whispers, “Sing me one last song. I shall feel very lonely when you are gone.” And then remarkably, at once he starts to analyze the nightingale music he hears: “She has form—that cannot be denied to her; but has she got feeling? I am afraid not. In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity.” If he only knew why she has begun to sing, and where it will end! All for him! “She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish. Still, it must be admitted that she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.” The boy remains a philosopher, best trained to be a critic than anything else.
He goes to bed to dream of love, not listening close enough to the bird to grasp what she was doing for him. In the morning the nightingale lies on the ground, dead, but on the very top of the tree stood a magnificent red Rose, “petal following petal, as song followed song.”
What luck, cried the student and plucked the great flower. He takes the proud flower to his girl, but she just sloughs it off. It won’t go with her dress, and another boy has already bought her some gemstones. “Everybody knows jewels cost far more than flowers.” The student tossed the rose into the street, and a cart ran over it. “What a silly thing Love is,” he decides. “It is not half as useful as Logic.” It always makes us believe things that are not true.
The nightingale spilled all of his blood to use song to make a flower, which no one cares for after it fails. The bird and the human never understand one another. That beautiful suicidal music changes nothing at all.
The basic criticism of the Romantics’ love of nature is that they listened out to birds and heard only themselves. If we are sad, the nightingale sings a sad song, and if we are happy, the same music is all about joy. Wilde reverses this “pathetic fallacy,” and has the nightingale suffering because she imagines the young boy is consumed with passion, while in fact he is a lover of logic more than anything else. He, in similar misconstrual, hears design in the bird’s fatal song but no great wonder and force. He wants the flower but hears no connection between blossom and bird. Because the splendid rose gets him nothing in the end, he throws it out and goes back to his books, having missed the whole point and learned nothing of love, nature or life.
What will it take for us to learn all that we can from the song world of birds? We need reason, passion and diligence. Here are a few people who have taken the great time and effort to decode glimmers of great meaning out of the surges and patterns of the sounds of birds. They have listened and waited, imagined and described. Music, science, poetry, practice, theory intensify our awareness of nature’s music without reducing the lingering wonder. If all the information doesn’t bog you down, you may emerge from all the details with even more attention, more surprise when you hear a bird sing something you do not expect.
It is one small step from playing a bird back his own song to playing him ours instead. In the 1920s, the British cellist Beatrice Harrison moved to the Surrey countryside and began practicing outdoors in spring. Nightingales began to join along with her, and she heard them matching her arpeggios with carefully timed trills. After acclimatization they would burst into song whenever she began to play. In 1924 she managed to convince Lord Reith, director general of the BBC, that a performance of cello together with wild nightingales in her garden would be the perfect subject for the first outdoor radio broadcast in world history. Reith was initially quite reticent: surely this would be too frivolous a use of our latest technology? What if the birds refuse to cooperate when we’re all set to go?
It took two truckloads of equipment and a bevy of engineers a whole day to set up what could today he arranged in minutes. The microphone was set up close to the nightingale’s usual singing post. Harrison dressed in finery as if for a London premiere, though she sat with her cello in a muddy ditch next to the bird’s bush, so that the one microphone could pick up the both of them. She started with ‘Danny Boy’ and parts of Elgar’s cello concerto, which had been written especially for her. No sound came from the bird. Donkeys honked in the distants, rabbits chewed at the cables, but no bird could be heard. This went on for more than an hour. Things didn’t look promising.
Suddenly, just after 10:45 pm, fifteen minutes before the broadcast was set to end, the nightingale began to sing, along with Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” If Hultsch and Todt were listening, they would definitely hear song overlapping here. Was the bird really trying to ‘jam’ the cello message? Most of us would hear something more sensitive, a mixture of bird and Beatrice, an attempt to fit in. Doth the pathetic fallacy rear its ugly head—naive anthropomorphism, or some moonstruck wish to hear music where there really is nothing but practical noise?
I doubt many of the more than one million listeners who tuned into this broadcast were so skeptical. Never before had a bird’s song or any other sound from the wild been sent out over the airwaves. The program was heard as far away as Paris, Barcelona, and Budapest, and many who head read all these famous nightingale tales now heard one on radio for the very first time. Harrison received fifty thousand letters of appreciation. After this late night triumph she became one of the most sought-after cellists of her time.
The cello-nightingale duet was repeated live each year on the BBC for twelve years, and afterwards, the birds alone were broadcast until 1942, when the recording engineer making the show heard a strange, unmistakable droning sound which turned out to be the beginnings of the “Thousand Bomber” raid heading via Dover to Mannheim. He quickly shut off the sound, having the sense not to broadcast such a sound during wartime. The recording was preserved, and you can hear it today,7 this strange soundscape of menacing bombers and incessant nightingales, singing as they have always sung even in the midst of human destruction and the violence that comes with civilization. The airplanes could not silence the nightingale. Here is a bird who cares nothing for the whims of men and the great noises we produce. Does he know his place extends far beyond the disasters of history?
This essay is an excerpt from David Rothenberg's new book, Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song, published by Basic Books in April 2005.
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