Sounds of the natural world
We have counted about sixty-five different species of birds in our yard in Maine. We have ruby-throated hummingbirds (3 inches long and .1 ounce), great blue herons (52 inches long and 51⁄2 pounds), and bald eagles that weigh in at around 12 pounds, have wing spans over 7 feet, and dive to the water at 100 miles per hour, miraculously surfacing with a fish in their talons. We have five different varieties of gulls (greater black back, lesser black back, herring, laughing, and Bonaparte’s gulls), and five of woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied, flicker, and pileated woodpeckers). We have crows, lots of crows, but we also have their goth-heavy metal cousins, the ravens.
We have half a dozen different bird feeders around the yard, so we see lots of our birds up close. Except for the pileated woodpeckers that are too big, all our woodpeckers come to the suet feeders on the deck, next to the hummingbird feeders that are the sites of pugnacious air battles. There is a definite pecking order among hummingbirds.
Recently, son Christopher and his sons, Ben and Sam, came for a weekend. We were sitting on the deck one evening, and five-year-old Ben started noticing the variety of birds coming and going from the feeders just outside the screen. I identified some of them for him and told him a little of what I know about them. Pretty soon he was identifying the birds himself as they returned to the feeders. I brought out a field guide, and Ben and I sat at a table on the deck for a full hour looking at the pictures and reading about the birds we were seeing, getting the hang of understanding the range maps, looking further into birds we might see in the area, and those we would never see here. The following morning, Ben picked up the guide and sat down with me for another hour. In an age when parents struggle with the “screen issue,” trying to find a balance between staying current and staving off addictions, those were a couple hours I will never forget.
The weekend after that visit, they all went camping. Chris sent a photo of Ben with field guide in hand, working hard to identify some slithery creature that another kid had in a plastic container. I do not know if this curiosity about the natural world will last long, but for now, Grandpa sure is pleased to share something special with a bright young mind.
Taking a glimpse into the natural world with my grandson refreshed my awareness of all that lives around us. (As I write, I am watching a pileated woodpecker tear up a tree, chips flying and insects scurrying.) And I do not have to be in Maine to be a witness. Last year I joined a group of New York University students in Washington Square Park watching a red-tailed hawk sitting in a tree eating a squirrel.
When I write of birds, many readers will think instantly of Olivier Messiaen, that giant of twentieth-century music who was so inspired by birdcalls. In earlier works, Messiaen included stylized, even perhaps fictional birdcalls in his music. At the Paris Conservatoire, Messiaen was a student of Paul Dukas, who encouraged all his students to “listen to the birds,” a suggestion that informed much of Messiaen’s music and life. He traveled the world notating birdcalls, accompanied by his second wife, Yvonne Loriod, who made tape recordings to back up her husband’s pen. And the calls that he collected are present in much of his music, often as direct quotes, and often as the primary substance of entire pieces.
One of Messiaen’s great works is his Catalogue d’Oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds), a suite of thirteen pieces for solo piano, each inspired by a different specific bird. The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard presented this work in a unique series of performances at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2016. He programmed four concerts based on the time of day that the various birds are active, and played them outdoors, allowing the audiences to hear the local birds comment on the music. The first of those concerts started at 4:30 a.m., the very hour when crows start hollering in our yard in Maine. Aimard was a student of Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s widow, who performed the premier of the work, and to whom the music is dedicated, and he must have had many inspiring conversations with her about this great piece. You can read Michael White’s New York Times review of those performances at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/22/arts/music/review-pierre-laurent-aim….
Follow the nuts.
Watching birds on the deck with Ben was fun for me, but there is another level of that activity, better known as “birding.” I know lots of people who can be called “organ nuts,” and many of those are also “train nuts,” so colleagues are well equipped to understand that rare breed of nut, birders. If you are hiking in a state park and run into a group of people with floppy hats, lots of pockets on their clothes, $2,500 binoculars (a.k.a. “binos” or “bins”), and camera lenses the size of howitzers, it is a safe bet that they are birders.
There are nearly a thousand different species of birds in the United States, and serious birders set off to site as many as they can in a single year. It is called a “big year” as hilariously chronicled by Steve Martin and Jack Black in the 2011 movie by that name. For most serious birders, a big year consists of 675 species. A new record of 749 was set in 2013, which was shattered in 2016 by four different people, with the highest tally at a whooping, oops, whopping 780. Because many birds are season and site specific, achieving a big year involves intricate planning and tens of thousands of miles of travel. In these adventures, identifying a bird by sound counts as a sighting, whether or not you actually laid eyes on the creature.
Most birds have several different distinct calls. There are multi-syllabic calls and warbles, and one-tone “notes,” and they are as different aurally as the birds can be visually. You would never mistake the “pew-pew-pew” of a cardinal with the raucous “caw-caw” of a crow. The raven’s call is similar to the crow’s, but down a fifth and dripping with attitude. Robins sing a rhythmic series of warbles, as do goldfinches, but the goldfinch’s song is an octave and a half higher. The song of the rock dove (a.k.a., pigeons) is a characteristic chuckling cooing while her demure cousin, the mourning dove, produces a similar tone quality, but in an ordered and measured cadence.
Any field guide includes page after page of sparrows that all look alike. They are distinguished by features like a little brown mark behind the eye, a black stripe on the crown, or a tuft of brown on the white belly. Even serious birders refer to “LBJ’s”—little brown jobs. But their songs are much more distinctly different from each other. You would never mistake the multi-octave swirl of the song sparrow from the dry trill of the chipping sparrow.
One of the more beautiful calls we hear at our place is that of the hermit thrush. It is an otherworldly, hollow trilling, easy to pick out near sunset in the woods to the north of our driveway. When you record it and play it back slowly, you can distinctly hear two different lines of music. And even more exciting, the various pitches are related to each other by the overtone series. Three cheers for Pythagoras!
All birds have a sound-producing organ called a syrinx, a two-piped structure capable of producing two pitches simultaneously. The various types of thrushes, which include our locally admired veery, have all developed complex songs that exploit the contrapuntal capability of the syrinx to the fullest. The world of birds brings one of the richest varieties of musical tone on earth.
The ancient Greeks and Romans each developed complex systems of gods and myths in efforts to explain natural phenomena they did not understand. We are all familiar with Zeus, the cranky and irascible god of the sky and thunder. The iconic image of a heavy bearded dude with a quiver full of lightning bolts was enough to make a humble farmer behave himself.
A Greek myth tells of Syrinx, a chaste nymph who was chased by the leering and persistent Pan. In an effort to escape, she ran to the edge of a river and pleaded to the other nymphs to protect her. In response, they turned her into hollow grasses that made haunting whistles when the frustrated Pan’s breath hit them. Pan cut the grasses to different lengths and fastened them together, making a musical instrument on which he could play tunes. From legend into reality that instrument was called, wait for it, the panpipe, or in ancient Greek, the Syrinx. (The word syringe is derived from the same root.)
The panpipe is the ancient forerunner of the pipe organ, so we have a mythical connection between birdcalls and the organ. All are wind-produced sounds. Different species of birds have hollow cavities like sinuses, specially evolved echoing bone structures, and other physiological features to help project their calls. The hermit thrush is a pudgy LBJ with a peppered white breast, less than seven inches long and weighing just a few ounces, but its call is heard clearly hundreds of feet away.
As the lusting Pan chased Syrinx to the bank of the river, to be rewarded only by the invention of a musical instrument, I wonder how many early musicians and craftsmen were inspired by birds to develop more sophisticated varieties of tone color.
Over centuries, organbuilders have developed countless different organ stops, each distinguished from the next by the shapes and dimensions of their pipes. An experienced organbuilder, voicer, or tuner will automatically call up the characteristic sound of an English Horn when seeing the equally characteristic “Choo-choo Train” at the top of the resonator. Listen to a recording of colorful organ music or during a live performance and see how many different individual stops you can identify. How would you describe the difference between the timbre of that English Horn and an Oboe or Clarinet? In your mind’s ear, do you know the differences between those stops?
It is more difficult to identify by ear the stops that make up a big chorus, unless you are familiar with the given instrument. In the pews or on a recording, it is easy to tell that you are hearing a principal chorus, but is there an 8′ flute playing that darkens the chorus just a little? Maybe (watch out for lightning bolts) even a 4′ flute?
Turn that story around. You are sitting on the bench of an organ that is new to you, ready to register a familiar piece. Do you draw the same list of stops that you used last week on a different organ? Do you decide you cannot play that piece on this organ because there is no Tierce? You have an idea in your mind’s ear about how that piece could or should sound. Find the combination that comes closest to that. Or, find a completely different combination that sounds good. No one is insisting that the Mixture has to be on all the time. Choosing stops, especially on a well-balanced organ of good size, is one of the great freedoms granted to organists.
If adding an 8′ flute to a chorus is a subtle change for the listener, it is a magic ingredient for the organist, something like a dash of turmeric to make a subtle change in a recipe. It is actually a gift to the listener, because the chorus at the beginning of the fugue is just a little different from that at the beginning of the prelude or toccata. Some trained listeners might notice that, but with any luck, you will have lots of untrained listeners in the pews. Your subtle touches of registration will make your program more interesting. No one wants to listen to the same 8′-4′-2′-IV all afternoon, no matter how much they know about organ sound. Color those basic-four with a light reed, with a Quint, with a flute or two. Go ahead. I dare you.
Do you recognize the difference between the sound of a wide-scaled principal and one with narrow scale? Echoing the early twentieth century, it is increasingly common today to find two, three, or even four different 8′ principals on a single keyboard division. Why is that? Is not one enough? For how long would you gaze at a painting by Rubens if every time he used red he used the same red?
I was taught a few rules of registration in my first organ lessons. For example, it was suggested that you should not use a 4′ flute over an 8′ principal. Fair enough, you might say. But what if it sounds good? You are not going to be pulled over and given a ticket for playing in a “no flute” zone.
The listening organist can spare the listeners another ignominy. You draw a couple stops and start to play, and it sounds awful. Why? The cap of middle D-sharp of that Gedeckt has slipped and the pipe speaks drastically sharp. Do not use that stop. Couple the Postiv chorus to the Great, and you hear a great clashing clang. It might be that the exposed Positiv is surrounded by warmer air than the Great. When the sun goes down it might be fine. But for now, not so much. Turn off the coupler and find another sound.
The best performances of organ music come from musicians who listen as they play. If you do not want to listen, why should your audience?
I leave you with another lovely episode from grandson Ben. His parents took him to early life music lessons that included introductions to lots of instruments. (He has a pretty good embouchure for the copper-hunting trumpet we have on the mantle.) In a recent visit, he and I sat together at the piano for twenty or thirty minutes. I taught him the names of the notes, how to find “C” (just to the left of the group of two black notes), and a little about how scales work. I asked what songs he knows, and he quickly gave me “Twinkle, twinkle.” I played the tune in the key of C and showed him how you can play it in different keys using scales based on different notes. I compared major and minor scales, and then played “Twinkle, twinkle” in the minor. He furled his little five-year-old brow, “Oh, Grandpa, that’s a very dark ‘Twinkle, twinkle.’”