Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Birds and Music part 1

A friend of mine is a Fellow of the Linnean Society which is the world's oldest extant biological society, dating back to 1788. As many will know, it was at a meeting of the society that Darwin and Wallace's theories of evolution by natural selection were originally presented, so it occupies a significant position in the annals of natural history.

So it was with great excitement that I attended their recent lecture on 'Birds and Music' delivered by classical violinist Paul Barritt (Halle Orchestra).  As both a musician and wildlife enthusiast this was of huge interest to me. I have heard this subject explored before in depth by Peter Cowdrey and his fascinating work with 'The Conference of Birds', but the added appeal of the Linnean Society setting was enough to draw me to this lecture.

He outlined the ways in which classical composers have been inspired and drawn on the 'natural music' of birds, as well as alluding to the centrality of birdsong in even very early forms of human music making. He played various notable examples of the ways in which composers have drawn on birds in 3 ways; as mythic inspiration (e.g. Stravinsky's Firebird Suite), to channel the feelings evoked in the composer on hearing birdsong (e.g Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending) and as a literal musical inspiration (e.g. use of the cuckoo's call in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony amongst many other examples of that bird's call in the classical canon).

There are also more extreme examples of using transcriptions of birdsong (Messaien) and even recorded birdsong alongside more traditional instruments (Rautavaara). And again, Peter Cowdrey has undertaken some fascinating studies of birds calls using modern digital recording techniques to slow their song down to a more human speed and pitch to allow easier examination and transcription. In doing so, it reveals the fact that many birdsongs obey similar features to human music, making use of diatonic scales, repeating motifs and phrases, as well as a blend of 'composed' and 'improvised' elements (I am aware that this is somewhat anthropomorphic language, hence the apostrophes...). All of which raises the question as to whether birdsong is music. Which is not a question I feel I can answer, well not here and now anyway, but happy to chat it through over a beer!

However, this lecture as well as Peter Cowdrey's work (and in fact the passing mentions in Mark Cocker's 'Birds and People') are mostly drawing on classical music examples.  As more of a folk (for want of a better word) musician myself, I am interested in how birds and birdsong have inspired and informed folk and other roots music...

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