The Original Twitter
June 9, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Long before Twitter became a social media platform, the word “twitter” was simply a verb meaning to make quick high-pitched sounds, or more informally, to talk about something inconsequential. Tweets weren’t something people sent out; tweets belonged to birds. Some birdsong sounds like the definition of “twitter,” while other birds chirp, and still others sing little tunes. Before recordings or sheet music or even musical instruments, birds provided the morning soundtrack for the first people. We might imagine that our first attempts at music might have involved a steady beat—like our heartbeat—and little tunes like the ones the birds sang. In a book called Why Birds Sing, author David Rothernberg explores birdsong from many perspectives: scientific, ornithological, musical, and ecological. He discusses birdsong that has similarities with certain scales we use in our tonal system, and tries to uncover why birds sing. Is it for communication? Courting purposes? Or is it just fun for birds to sing?
Birdsong has fascinated humans for thousands of years. I remember my own childhood, and being fascinated with birdsong. My Grandmother would whistle like a bird for me, and I would laugh and clap my hands at how she did it. I remember learning to whistle and mimicking the doves in springtime. My experience is not unique. Most people with musical ears must notice birdsong at some point in their lives, and that just makes us part of a very long tradition. When music developed into an incredibly complex system, with melodies and harmonies, counterpoint, and an extensive written system, the songs of the birds remained in the human imagination. Birdsong can represent the coming of spring and renewal, the peacefulness of natural settings, or even the blossoming of love.
There are basically three ways to render birdsong into musical compositions: 1) voices and instruments can play tunes or motifs that mimic birdsong; 2) recordings of birds can provide quotation for musical pieces; 3) live birds can provide their song during performances. We might also count the influence of birdsong, but not its actual quotation.
Back in the sixteenth century, a French chanson composer named Clément Janequin composed a programmatic chanson about birdsong. A programmatic chanson is a song that has its singers imitate the sounds of something like a battle or nature. His Le chant de oiseaux is a highly entertaining tour de force of vocal bird imitations. Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Spring” from the Four Seasons features the sounds of spring—including birdsong, of course—rendered in a small Baroque orchestra. The cuckoo, and its distinctive call, has been a favorite of composers, and has appeared in: the thirteenth century song “Sumer Is Icumen In,” Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Mahler’s First Symphony, and György Ligeti’s The Cuckoo and the Pear Tree.” The cuckoo’s song is easily imitated, as is that of the quail. Schubert used the quail’s call in the song Wachtelschlag, and it also appears in Beethoven’s Pastoral. Beethoven loved nature, and one might imagine him savoring the birds’ songs and saving them in his memory. Keyboard composers like Frescobaldi and Pasquini also brought birdsong into their work. Two important keyboard works inspired by our fine, feathered friends are Francois Couperin’s Le rossignol en amor and Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux. The latter composer is arguably the king of birdsong in music. While everyone else we’ve mentioned merely dabbled in birdsong, Messiaen was fairly obsessed with it.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a French composer who wrote many innovative pieces in the course of his career. From the 1950s, he worked with birdsong in many of his compositions. He worked at the Paris Conservatoire, and in 1952 he was asked to provide a challenging piece for flute applicants. The resulting piece, Le merle noir, is a piece based on the call of the blackbird. In Reveil des oiseaux (1953), Messiaen begins the piece with the song of a single nightingale, and little by little, more and more birds sing their songs, until there is a near-cacophony of sound. Messiaen, who was meticulous in his study of birdsong, provides the name of each bird in the score, next to its first entrance. In total, Messiaen names nearly forty birds who “participate” in this symphony. Three years later, Messiaen began composing Catalogue d’oiseaux, a huge cycle of pieces for piano, featuring the birds of France. Following that, he expanded his bird vocabulary, if you will, to represent birds from around the world. To him, the songs of birds represented, according to a musicological expert on birdsong, “the development of a new musical style with the birds’ irregular phrase structures, rich timbres, complex melodic contours and intricate rhythmic patterns in incessant variation.” They were challenging, unpredictable, and yet still beautiful. In a word: brilliant.
What about actual bird recordings? One of the first people to use pre-recorded birdsong in one of his compositions was Ottorino Respighi, an Italian composer who lived from 1879 to 1936. He was a great fan and connoisseur of birdsong, often indulging in his hobby of transcribing the birdsong he heard into traditional notation, a feat that can be quite challenging. Respighi used a recording of nightingale song in his Pines of Rome from 1924. (Another piece, Respighi’s Gli Ucceli—The Birds, does not use recordings of birds, instead having instruments play their parts. There are four movements named after birds: the dove, the hen, the nightingale, and the cuckoo.) In 1972, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara composed a piece of music called Cantus Arcticus. Like Respighi and others before, Rautavaara used recordings of birdsongs. In this case, these were the sounds of migrating birds that were recorded in the Arctic.
Human beings have been creating music for tens of thousands of years. Notation is fairly new in the grand scheme of things. Out tonal system, especially in terms of written history is just hundreds of years old. We have tried everything under the sun to manipulate rhythm, harmony, tonality, and melody. We have brought every one of those musical aspects o its breaking point and beyond, sometimes coming back around to where we began. Yet in all that time, birdsong has still continued to linger in the minds and imaginations of composers and listeners alike. The birds, it seems, still have something to teach us.