Saturday, October 01, 2011

Beasts and Beats: Does the Cosmos Sing?

We call the chirps and calls produced by birds 'song' but little of it resembles music to me. That said, I'm deeply fascinated by the communicative sounds of birds and other animals, nonetheless. We might say this so-called bird song collectively resembles musical sound, but only in so far as speech and syntax is musical, no?

I think it more fair to say that though we might perceive bird vocalization as song, whether or not it is intended as such is still a mystery (at least, to me) –that is, do birds distinguish between speech and music?

In my own observations of various birds, I've identified warning calls, feed-me chirps, mate-with-me cooing and sometimes even beautiful, melodic utterances that seemed voiced simply for the self satisfaction of the bird itself. But whether or not such vocalizations by birds or any other animal was conceived as entertainment for a given bird's own pleasure is beyond my capacity to identify it as such.

Is the cicada actually singing, or is it more likely the cicada is simply communicating his desire to attract a mate? Maybe we should classify all activities, produced with the intention of resulting in sex, whether by human, animal or insect, as music?

When a dog whines along with an aria, can we say he or she is actually accompanying the tune? Does our music hurt their ears, as it sometimes appears to do? And yet, sometimes they seem to enjoy it to. It's as if dogs enjoy expressing their pain. Would it be too far afield to suggest dogs have a natural inclination to sing the blues?

Are the hydro acoustic sounds produced by whales and dolphins songs? If so, might one also reasonably ask if SONAR is song, produced by a chorus of instruments which include in their ensemble a signal generator, a power amplifier, an electro-acoustic transducer and the echo response produced by the ocean floor.

As for the origin of rhythm, we might equally argue that the beating human heart or the Circadian Rhythm forms the basis for all music, but if rhythm is fundamentally defined by regular mechanical movements, then does that make solar system a musical instrument? What about a mechanical engine? A car, for instance? Certainly the locomotive inspired much music after its invention, but is the train itself a musical instrument? Can we write a sonata for violin, clarinet and Amtrak?

Some who study Zoomusicology do argue animal vocalizations do fall under the category of music. I think it depends on whether a specific animal is singing or speaking, just like humans? But certainly, animals respond to man made music in different ways.

And in the case of SONAR and synthesizers, we do recognize that machines are capable of making music, but in those cases, the machines are actually modern instruments, manipulated by human operators.

In the case of synthesizers, I don't for instance, recognize the emissions of a random tone generator as music, but I do recognize their possible use as an element in creating purposefully designed music.

Does that mean works created entirely by random means, such as by choosing pitches based on a roll of the dice, or by some algorithm, are not music? I think of such works as musical games. The question is whether or not the result of a game based on random choices can be considered purposeful.

Which is not to say we should deny ourselves fun. In fact, purposeless activity can be as restorative as it is playful. At the same time, I think it is useful for professionals to distinguish between purposeless play and purposeful performance. The actors in a theatrical performance are not really playing. Likewise, musicians might be said to play an instrument, but it might be more accurate to suggest they're actually working an instrument.

Granted, you see and hear something like this video, and you think, maybe these birds are indeed singing, and also, possibly engaged in some kind of dance, too? It is certainly a performance of some sort, but is it art?

Does the cosmos sing? Are animal vocalizations song? Such vocalizations don't fall on my ear as song. To me, they resemble language, and while language might be a component of song, and linguistic techniques have long been used to analyze musical works, I personally don't think the spoken word (or the bird call, dog bark, etc) is by itself musical in nature. And yet a modern composer or sound designer with a sampler can take any of these sounds and incorporate them into a musical work.

But by themselves, in their original context? Well, if we choose to ignore intention, then perception is everything. After all, many things which are not musical in origin might indeed be music to one's ears.

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