For several months now, I’ve avoided mentioning one of the most impressive performances I ever heard. The idea of reviewing a bird just seemed too ridiculous. But the little fellow I happened to hear on several mornings on Long Island last summer is still locked vividly in my memory, and I just can’t ignore him any longer.
I’m not even sure what kind of bird he was. Some sort of thrush, I suppose. He had a dull color, a longish beak, and an amazing musical vocabulary. He was particularly fond of a certain television antenna, and he used to perch there for long periods of time. Sometimes he would sing for 20 or 30 minutes almost nonstop, spinning out spontaneous concerts that would make the finest flutists and sopranos green with envy.
Basically he seemed to work with about three kinds of licks. First there were the pure whistle-like tones, which sometimes slid up, sometimes slid down, and sometimes looped around in neat little curves. Then there were the harsher, raspier tones, usually squawked out in the lower register, and often produced at a louder volume than the pure tones. Then there were the gurgles, something like the flutter-tongue techniques that wind-players use, but much more flexible. He could gurgle on pure tones or on raspy ones. He could do quick gurgles, slow gurgles, and gurgles that changed in speed. He could even take a gurgle and gradually slow it down so much that it became just a series of repeated notes, or start with repeated notes and ease into a gurgle.
In fact, about the only thing he didn’t do was sustain long tones, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he could have done that too if he had felt like it. Maybe long tones just didn’t fit his morning mood on the tv antenna. Or maybe long tones are just too boring to a creature like this, who has so much facility with the fast flashy stuff. He also didn’t demonstrate much control over exact tuning. The same lick wouldn’t always come out on the same pitch. But that is irrelevant, because he is basically an atonalist. I’m sure he couldn’t care less about human tuning theories.
As I listened, I became interested in how the bird’s complex phrases were put together. Did he do some licks more often than others? What followed what? Were there patterns of repetition? Naturally, being a human being, I figured I was a lot smarter than any bird, so I thought I’d try to figure out what the patterns were all about. I was convinced that he was just going through some automatic, instinctive routine. No doubt the fast array of licks could be boiled down to a few basic patterns. Or so I thought.
It took me a long time to become familiar enough with his licks to work out a few basic labels, so that I could even recognize one of his sequences if he did happen to repeat it. With the tremendous variety in materials and the very fast pace, it was tough going, and I had to concentrate as hard as I could. I worked at it pretty hard several different times, but I never managed to put my finger on anything. The licks came in countless variations and just about every possible sequence, and I finally concluded that this little creature could probably go on all day without actually repeating himself. The sequence of events was delightfully unpredictable. Yet the materials were all related, and the music held together just the way good human compositions are expected to.
A short time after this, I spent some time browsing in the library to try to learn more about bird calls. One of the most interesting things I ran across was a comparison between the technical abilities of one-year-old song birds vs. two-year-olds and three-year-olds. Apparently there is a tremendous growth. Even birds need to practice a few years in order to get their chops really working right.
The books also contained a few charts analyzing the frequency of bird calls at various times of day and in various seasons, some discussion about bird ‘songs’ vs. bird ‘calls,’ and a few unimpressive attempts to decode what the songs mean, on the assumption that they can be dealt with linguistically. Of course, I could have been looking at the wrong books, but my general impression from what I did find was that song birds are about as baffling to ornithologists as they are to music critics.
But the bird’s song itself, though impressive, was not the whole thing. Much of my pleasure, no doubt, had to do with the circumstances of the concert. For once, I was hearing music which was completely unsullied by egotism. Which is not to say that the bird didn’t have motives. I’m sure his singing had to do with mating or territorial rights or something. But at least he wasn’t trying to become famous, or get more bookings, or get reviewed, or draw crowds. If he even knew that someone was listening, he didn’t allow that to affect his performance.
I keep thinking how good it would be if humans could do that—find some natural easy-going way of making good music, and then just let it happen as a natural part of life, without any hype.
And I keep thinking about my listening habits too, and wondering how many equally impressive bird songs I must have missed during my life, just because I wasn’t sensitive enough to stop and listen, or because I usually think of music just as a matter of human performance and electronic stereo equipment.
And sometimes I also think about the bird himself. He is probably sunning himself down South somewhere now, singing his heart out on somebody else’s tv antenna. Maybe other people can hear him. Maybe some of them are really listening to him.Note:
There were several letters following this article, all assuring us that the soloist was a mocking bird.