The Musical Interconnectivity of Man and Beast

“The stones cry out, bells shake the sky. All creation groans…Shhhh!!! [honestly, be quiet a while-particularly outside] Listen to it!”

—mewithoutyou, “O Porcupine”

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Bird Song by Kenneth Rougeau
Used with permission of the artist.

Attempting to write about the interconnectivity of music and nature is a slippery endeavor pestered by paradoxes. The relationship between the two is at once immediate, tangible, visceral, but also elusive, ethereal, ultimately incomprehensible and seemingly just beyond our reach.

Of course, I am not the first person to ponder this issue, nor will I be the last. In an intensely illuminative anthology called The Book of Music & Nature, co-editor David Rothenberg begins to elucidate the intricacies of music’s connective function within the confines of nature:

You will hear compositions that mirror the workings of nature in their manner of operation, an aesthetic dream most often attributed to John Cage. Cage learned of it from art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, who had extracted it from Aristotle’s vision of techne—a word that once meant both ‘art’ and ‘tool.’ Addressing nature as a manner of operation, we complete processes that have been left unfinished, leaving a place for the ingenuity that so marks human presence on the earth.

But no music can exist without the given ways that sound behaves, with or without the human impulse to organize and perceive it. At the same time, music seems to be about little else beside itself—the play of tones up and away, the game of noise and silence.

Perhaps no one musical composition is as revelatory in this game Rothenberg writes of than Cage’s iconoclastic 4’33”. In the book Noise/Music: A History, Paul Hegarty wrote perceptively about this compositional game changer—”The world, then, is revealed as infinitely musical: musicality is about our attentiveness to the sounds of the world.”

In an essay contained in The Book of Music & Nature entitled “Music and the Soundscape,” composer and author R. Murray Schafer places the discussion within a broader multicultural context by reminding us that in many cultures—African and North American Indian ones particularly—there is no equivalent word for “music.” “Much of the soundmaking in these cultures might be better described as ‘tone magic,’ ” asserts Schafer. This statement suggests that what we would call the “music” of these cultures abdicates control to the surrounding environment, and attributes much of the creative process to nature. This mystical perspective on sound is inevitably tied to a culture’s collective internalization of spirituality. In contrast, Western culture tends to differentiate strongly between the surrounding environment, music, and the setting in which it is made. There are the sounds that inhabit nature, and then there are the sounds that inhabit the concert hall.

Schafer sets forth a basic dichotomy between the Western culture of European descent, most easily examined within the context of the Christian musical tradition, and non-Western culture. He excavates the former’s musical manifestation of the Judeo-Christian tradition in this way:

We recall that the ancient Greeks originally employed the word mousike for a whole range of spiritual and intellectual activities before it gradually took on the more restricted meaning we have inherited. Ours is a special concept, nourished in the crucible of European civilization, from which it went out (along with Europeans) to many other parts of the world. What makes it special is its abstraction from daily life, its exclusivity. It has become an activity that requires silence for its proper presentation—containers of silence called music rooms. It exhibits the signs of a cult or a religion and to those outside who have not been initiated into its rituals it must appear strange and abnormal….

Schafer later illuminates how the architecture of the Christian Church—beginning with the construction of medieval cathedrals—has in part dictated how we experience music in a space.

The music of the cathedral is unseen; it rises vapor-like to fill a large resonant space, restricting harmonic and melodic mobility to produce a hazy wash of sound blending with the mystique of Christianity’s invisible God….The medieval schoolmen spoke of God as a presence whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. It is an acoustic definition of God…

Reductively speaking, there is an alternative mode of listening, which is based on the inclusiveness of life’s activities and the environment in which one partakes of them, rather than the exclusivity of the Western church tradition, which went on to inform the “classical” concert experience, protocol, and decorum.

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A 1992 Princeton University Press book that attempts to come to terms with the music of nature.

Tsai Chih Chung captures the inherent potency of this alternative listening style in the poignant comic book Zhuanzi Speaks: The Music of Nature, and specifically in the excerpt “Zhao Wen Quits the Zither.”

Once there was a famous zither player named Zhao Wen who could play the zither like no one else. But one day, Zhao Wen suddenly stopped playing the zither altogether. He finally realized that in playing one sound, it would be to the neglect of all the other sounds. It was only when he wasn’t playing that he could hear everything in complete harmony. The principles of music and wood carving are alike—when a wood carving is finished, it has been created at the expense of all the wood that has been carved away. Only the music of nature is complete and undiminished.

Here, the comic book’s characters exhibit a non-Western approach to music and the practical philosophy from which it derives its potency. That approach is strikingly similar to what Schafer refers to as peripheral listening. “…the ear remains open to sounds from any direction or distance, scanning the environment for information from anywhere. It’s the perceptual attitude of people who live outdoors or whose jobs involve movement from one place to another. The world is always full of sounds.”


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In The Singing Neanderthals, Steven Mithen suggests that music is not the exclusive domain of human beings.

If we follow the lead of Cage, whose final definition of music is “sounds heard,” it seems that one could infer that music is not merely a human creation or experience. Sounds—all sounds, any sounds—created by humans and non-humans alike, exhibit a kind of music.

In the fascinating book The Singing Neanderthals, University of Reading Professor Steven Mithen offers several pieces of corroborating evidence that suggest the making of “music” is not an activity confined to the human species. Helsinki University psychologist Lea Leinonen’s studies demonstrated that humans—children and adults alike—could identify the emotional content of macaque monkey calls, and as such, “share the same vocal cues in emotional communication.” There is also Bruce Richman’s eight-year study of the vocalizations of gelada monkeys:

The acoustic feature that most interested Richman was the great variety of rhythms and melodies that the geladas use: “Fast rhythms, slow rhythms, staccato rhythms, glissando rhythms; first-beat accented rhythms, end-accented rhythms; melodies that have evenly spaced musical intervals covering a range of two or three octaves; melodies that repeat exactly, previously produced, rising or falling musical intervals; and on and on: geladas vocalize a profusion of rhythmic and melodic forms.”…he concluded that they performed much the same function as the rhythm and melody that is found in human speech and singing.

But the case for a non-human music can also be made, in part, by human activity. Mithen cites numerous cases of musical savants who exhibit profound mental acuity in music while demonstrating severe linguistic deficiencies. He also points to Stanford University’s Dr. Anne Fernald, and her studies of infant-directed speech, or IDS, in which—universally across the linguistic and cultural barriers—” ‘the melody is the message’—the intention of the speaker can be gained from the prosody alone.”

Examples of such sounds evidenced in the second stage of IDS, are as follows:

When soothing a distressed infant, an adult is more likely to use low pitch and falling pitch contours; when trying to engage attention and elicit a response, rising pitch contours are more commonly used. If an adult is attempting to maintain a child’s gaze, then here speech will most likely display a bell-shaped contour. Occasions when adults need to discourage very young infants are rare; but when these do arise IDS takes on a similar character to the warning signals found in-non-human primates—brief and staccato, with steep, high-pitched contours.

In comparing IDS with pet-directed speech, or PDS, Dennis Burnham of the University of Western Sydney found a similar prominence of prosody in PDS. The substantial difference was that in IDS both the emotional and linguistic needs of the hearer are met, whereas because of a lack of language among the animals, PDS meets only emotional needs.

The second word in Cage’s definition is key: heard. If music is sounds heard, then that also inevitably means that the sounds must be heard in order to constitute music.

While we know that non-human creatures can and do hear, we do not necessarily know to what extent these beings comprehend the sounds they hear. Even when we do have a general idea as to a particular animal’s comprehension of sound, as in the example of mating calls, our system of defining and organizing sounds in a codified way is predicated on human language and development, and not animal language or development. We can hear and appreciate the sounds of animals, and we can interpret those sounds in light of our system of sound organization called music, but we cannot really begin to interpret their sounds using their particular languages. We simply do not presently have the ability to speak those languages.

In The Singing Neanderthals, Professor Mithen’s central argument is that music and language as we now recognize them evolved from a sophisticated form of communication used by our early, non-human ancestors, which Mithen calls “Hmmmmm”—communication that was “holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and mimetic.”

The fact that the music and language systems in the brain share some modules is also to be expected given the evolutionary history I have proposed, because we now know that both originate from a single system. Conversely, the fact that they also have their own independent modules is a reflection of up to two hundred thousand years of independent evolution. The modules related to pitch organization would once have been central to ‘Hmmmmm’ but are now recruited only for music (with a possible exception in those who speak tonal languages); while other ‘Hmmmmm’ modules might now be recruited for the language system alone—perhaps, for example those relating to grammar.

David Cope, composer, author, computer programmer, and professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, sees a clear and strong distinction to be made between language and music, which he defines as “a progression of sounds and silence that means nothing.” This binary paradigm of human expression, which consists of language and music, is far different from the integrated form of expression that Mithen envisions in “Hmmmmm,” which seems closely related to the emotional/linguistic communication of IDS. Cope elaborates on music, “It’s extremely important to us to have this emotional feedback, if you will, but it is not meant to convey meaning from once source to another, like language is, and I feel very strongly about that. It provokes, it doesn’t communicate.”


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” And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Illúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, “Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur”

In David Rothenberg’s view, a language barrier does not preclude collaborative music-making from occurring between humans and animals. In a Discovery Channel blog post from November 2010, the author/editor/composer/clarinetist made a poignant analogy:

As a jazz musician I know how exciting it is to jam with a musician who can’t speak my language but can make sense of my music as I play along with theirs. It’s astonishing to realize this can also work with other species—from birds, to bugs. Even to humpback whales, the animal with the longest, most moving music in the natural world, a sound that can be heard underwater from ten miles away; a song with clear melodies, phrases, rhythms and parts that takes the whale twenty minutes to sing before he starts the cycle over again, in performances that last up to twenty three hours.

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David Rothenberg
Photo by David Keller

Rothenberg’s jam sessions with whales are documented in the album simply titled Whale Music. The music’s compositional approach is distinctive in that neither the human musicians nor the whales appear dominant. This approach is in contrast to several compositions from the 20th and 21st centuries. Alan Hovhaness’s And God Created Great Whales evokes the great majesty of the animals as it “samples” their sound, while John Cage’s Litany for the Whale evokes their mystery and solitary beauty by instructing a pair of singers to simply chant the letters W-H-A-L-E. More recently, the song cycle Mount Wittenberg Orca by the avant-pop band Dirty Projectors and Björk employs the Western compositional technique called hocketing in order to give voice to kid whales.

While human expression is indeed dominant in George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), the true voice of the whale seems more apparent due to Crumb’s keenly idiomatic writing. The piece uses the conventional instrumentation of flute, cello, and piano to deftly imitate the sounds of the humpback whales. “I used kind of special ways of playing the flute and the cello to kind of suggest a little bit of the sense of the whale music—the glissandos, for example, the extremes in register, the very high flute as opposed to the low notes on the piano,” explains Crumb. “But it seems to me that music is never a true imitation of nature…like Beethoven in the Pastoral Symphony, nobody’s gonna run for their umbrella when they hear the ‘storm’ movement. It’s not a realistic storm, it’s an artistic evocation of a natural event.”

John Luther Adams’s Songbirdsongs is also a prime example of the utilization of Western instrumentation to accurately portray the natural sounds of animals. The emulation of birds here is so effective that at times it sounds as if one is not listening to human musicians at all, particularly on pieces such as “Mourning Dove.”

In the case of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, the artistic evocation stems from building musical architecture around recorded bird sounds. While the orchestra sometimes emulates the melodic and rhythmic movements of the birds, perhaps more importantly, it creates a new sonically symbiotic environment in which the bird sounds flourish. The real genius of Rautuvaara’s work is the way the overtly human musical exploits of the orchestra serve to heighten the listener’s sense of separation from the arctic birds. The soundscape here is ravishingly beautiful, but ultimately forbidding. One is left feeling the overwhelming, innate differences between mankind and birdkind, and not—as in the case of Songbirdsongs—the unifying similarities.

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Judith Shatin
Photo by Peter Schaff

Opposite Cantus Arcticus on the spectrum of human/bird interaction is composer Judith Shatin’s For The Birds. In this work for amplified cello and electronics, the sonic similarities between the cello’s phrases, the recorded bird sounds, and the subsequent electronic manipulation of those bird sounds result in an integrated soundscape in which the identities of the individual sound sources dissolve. In their place, the timbres creates an illusory “single source” that implicitly underscores the unity between humans and birds.

The exploration of animal sounds through composition is by no means a recent phenomenon. Crumb acknowledges that Western music has a long history of evoking the sounds of nature, from Rameau’s La poule (chicken) and Debussy’s La Mer, to Bartók’s “night music,” and Messiaen’s numerous works inspired by birds, such as Réveil des Oiseaux and Catalogue d’oiseaux.

Like Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, Rothenberg’s Whale Music portrays the animals less abstractly, but it gives them a more prominent role in the compositional process. If Rothenberg’s role was made dominant, the music might sound like some insufficient emulation of whales. If the animals were given complete precedence, though, the result might be more akin to an ambient soundscape.

Instead, Rothenberg offers the listener what sounds like a balanced partnership, a concerted effort in producing a music that is equal parts human and whale. But how was this music achieved? The musician explains:

I’m playing my clarinet onboard a boat into a microphone that’s plugged into an underwater speaker, so the notes I play are being broadcast out into the sound world of the whales. Then I’m wearing headphones which are attached to an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, which is listening live to the underwater sound environment, which includes the singing whale and my deep sea burbling clarinet, altogether. It’s kind of like a recording studio where each player is isolated in a separate booth, except one booth is the whole ocean with a forty foot whale in it, singing the one song he needs to know.

Perhaps the most compelling of the Whale Music sessions is the opening track “Valentine’s Day 1992,” in which the whale utterances sound like that of some ancient and roughhewn underwater shofar, with a tremulous timbre and ethereal, glissandi-laden melodic motives. In its duet with the whale, Rothenberg’s clarinet seems imbued with a soulful purpose—and in deep drones it mirrors the enigmatic moan of the animal as the track fades out.

Schafer describes this kind of interaction in “Music and the Soundscape”: “When the reciprocity between music and the soundscape is effectively intuited, the interaction can be like that of text and subtext, as when the rhythms of work or the motions of tools inspire the singer, or bird song inspires the flutist.”

But can the flutist—or in the case of Rothenberg, the clarinetist—inspire bird song? If his album Why Birds Sing is any indication, the answer is most certainly “Yes.” The duet “White-Crested Laugh,” in which a white-crested laughing thrush joins Rothenberg in song, finds man and bird playing off one another in a series of free-spirited improvisations. Of the experience, Rothenberg wrote on his “Why Birds Sing” web site, “I had no idea a bird could interact so spontaneously with a human musician.”

The clarinetist found that whales were capable of interacting in this way as well. “Most of the time the whales are not interested,” Rothenberg admits on the Discovery Channel blog.

But once in a while, when the sea is calm and one great beast is right under the boat, so close that his moans can be felt right through the hull, sometimes he changes his song when he hears what I play. At those moments I feel a true sense of awe, that music is something really big; bigger than our whole species, something written right into the fabric of all life whose beauty is far beyond our ability to explain, or even feel its purpose.

Rothenberg seems fully aware of the apparent lack of practicality inherent in such a musical endeavor. “What use is a whale song in our human world?” he asks. “It reminds us that we are not the only musicians on Earth, and that if we want to understand the natural world beyond our narrow human concerns, we have to listen to and appreciate the full range of animal musics that have been on this planet for millions of years before humans ever got here.”


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Members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra in performance
Photo by Millie Young

In sharp contrast to Rothenberg’s music, which meets the animals more or less “where they live”—within their own natural environment as they produce sounds without any direct human influence—there is the example of the Thai Elephant Orchestra, or TEO. Co-founded by composer Dave Soldier and conservationist Richard Lair, TEO consists of six to eighteen elephants performing on percussion instruments specifically designed for them, under the direction of Soldier and Lair, and with the assistance of elephant trainers known as mahouts. The instruments employed include the renaat (made of industrial steel tubes and akin to the xylophone), tuned rattles called angalungs, a gong, thundersheet, harmonicas, Issan bells, and various drums.

Regarding the extent to which human involvement influences the music-making process, Soldier writes:

I don’t think it’s interesting to teach elephants to play prewritten human melodies. It’s much more interesting to hear how they “choose to play”. After teaching the elephants to play the instruments and giving some indication of how the instrument should be played for that piece, Richard or I would cue the elephant and mahout to start and stop. The mahout would encourage his animal by moving his arms in a mime of the elephant’s trunk.

What we hear from the elephants is not the “source material.” For that we would have to hear the elephants’ own trumpeting, rather than what is essentially the mimicking of human behavior. Instead, the draw here seems not to be that the elephants themselves are creating music on their own, but rather that the elephants are playing instruments that humans would normally play.

Because the majority of the sounds are being made on what are essentially human instruments, we are faced with the fact that elephants are being asked to speak our musical language, and not their own. However, in the case of works such “Little Elephant Saddle”—which appears on the 2004 recording Elephonic Rhapsodies—elephant vocalizations can be heard in concert with human musicians. The result sounds natural and organic. The listener is left with the sense that we have happened upon the animals in their element, so as to join them in their song, rather than taking them out of their element, intent on having them sing our song.

Contrast the music of the Thai Elephant Orchestra with Eberhard Schoener’s work Sky Music, for which the composer attached bells and whistles to carrier pigeons, before releasing them into a wind tunnel. As with the TEO, the birds are—through human interference—creating sounds they would not normally make. The difference here is that Schoener has not called upon the birds to act in ways that are not “bird-like.” Simply through the act of flying, the birds contribute to the partially artificial soundscape (the cooing of the pigeons can also be heard). The animals are ostensibly still in their element, and the process of sound creation does not come off as a contrivance.

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A recent CD recording of John Cage’s Bird Cage

In John Cage’s 1972 work for 12 tapes, entitled Bird Cage, the interaction between humans and animals is perhaps at its most artificial. Here, the composer inserts the sounds found in aviaries and the sounds of human activity, into the same contextual environment, which also includes Cage himself singing. The composer then applies chance procedures to determine the arrangement and sonic alterations of the recordings. The juxtaposition of electronic manipulations and the more “natural” bird sounds can sound bizarre and discordant; the admixture of sounds, at first, seems entirely arbitrary. Upon further listening, however, the disparate timbres coalesce, and one is struck with how realistic this “artificial” environment is when compared with our own. The soundscape of the world in which we live does not separate animal sounds from human sounds—all are melded together into a singular, dense, and inundated sonic atmosphere.

The allure of music—whether created by humans or animals—is in its mystery. And we don’t have to unravel the enigma to enjoy it in all its various languages. Humans don’t need to know why birds can mimic our musical production. And whales don’t need to know why humans place microphones in their home. What’s truly important is that we, humans and non-humans alike, continue to do such things. There is something inherently beautiful about embracing the harmonious differences between species with enthusiastic wonder. We may not ever learn what the birds are really singing, but we will learn more about our surroundings and how we fit within their confines.


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Daniel J. Kushner

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts journalist, music critic, and blogger for The Huffington Post. His work has also been published in Opera News, Symphony, and The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. His blog, You’re So Post-Post-Rock Right Now—which includes a recent three-part series on the Ecstatic Music Festival—can be found at postpostrock.com.

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