Playing Nature’s Songs
Imagine for a moment that you are out in the wilderness, walking through a meadow of waist high grass with snow-capped mountains in the distance. You hear the wind blowing through the grass and the chirping and cooing of birds from all directions. You think to yourself: “It is great being surrounded by nature. God’s creation is so beautiful.”
Such an imagined experience is so common that it borders on cliché. Yet despite this almost universal response in current times to wilderness and birdsong, historically such a response is far from universal. Views on what is beautiful in nature change over time. One example is the interpretation of wilderness and the alpine landscape. Prior to the 18th century, the alpine landscape was considered imposing, not beautiful. It took the arguments of Immanuel Kant and others to change the way people viewed mountains. There was even a brief time when people held picture frames out in front of them to view mountains, believing that they looked beautiful only when framed!
The above example shows that perceptions of nature are altered by artistic practices and by inherited cultural assumptions about the world. Often we believe that art is an imitation of nature. If we visit a place of great natural beauty, we might purchase a painting of that place to remember the natural beauty. Or perhaps we purchase an album of ocean sounds dubbed over easy listening music to remember the vacation by the ocean where we left the sliding door open all night to sleep to the sounds of waves crashing on the shore. Far from simply imitating our experiences of ‘real nature,’ these pieces of souvenir art begin to shape our memories of experience and future experiences. Artistic experience affects experiences of nature. Instead of art merely imitating nature, “how nature pleases us belongs instead to the context that is stamped and determined by the artistic creativity of a particular time.”1
An interesting case study in the relationship between nature and art is birdsong in music. Below I explore brief historical examples of the relationship between music, birdsong, and ideas of nature that reveal the changing perceptions of birdsong throughout history.
An early pagan myth held that music was learned from birds. Like many pagan myths, it was Christianized in the early church. Gregorian chant – an 8th century musical form named after the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great – was said to have been dictated to Gregory by a dove who was the messenger of God. Music in Christianity was thus linked with birdsong.
Even through the major changes in the practice of music between chant and Bach, in 1776 John Hawkins argued that birdsong was the origin of the tonal systems of music. In the same century we find a prominent portrayal of birds and the surrounding countryside in ‘Spring’ from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ which you can listen to here.
Despite the importance of birdsong in the development of Western art music, few composers interacted with birdsong seriously until Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). A devout Catholic, he held positions as a church organist in Paris and was a leading modern music composer and teacher. His faith led him to consider birdsong as an important source of music, and he spent vast amounts of time listening to and transcribing birdsong. While Vivaldi’s pieces only incorporated elements of birdsong that fit into Baroque musical practice, Messiaen allowed the complex rhythms and non-tonal patterns of birdsong transform his compositions. Still, Messiaen incorporated the complexities of birdsong into the modern methods of composition available to him.
The differences between Vivaldi’s and Messiaen’s use of birdsong reveals that what is salient in birdsong is affected by contemporary musical practice. To hear what I mean, listen to this recording of Messiaen’s 1956 work ‘Oiseaux Exotique’, and to the composer himself talking about birdsong. A more in-depth discussion of Messiaen’s thoughts on birds can be found here, as well.
Contemporary Sound artist David Dunn (1953-) also explores the interface between music and nature in his compositions. In his 1976 work ‘Mimus Polyglottos’ he presents electronically generated sounds (that sound to modern ears like retro video game shooting sounds) to a mockingbird in a park. The bird begins to pick up on the sounds and echo them back to Dunn, creating a kind of quasi-dialogue. Here Dunn plays with what zoomusicologists, acoustic ecologists and others have also discovered: the sounds we add to nature change nature. A previous post on this forum used Robert Frost’s poem that gets at a similar point.
Outside of the Western art music tradition, birdsong has been integrated into cultural relationships with nature in other ways. The Mayans considered the quetzal a sacred bird. When you stand near the pyramid at Chichen Itza and clap, a sound very much like that of the quetzal echoes back to you, as heard in this video. Whether the architecture was made to imitate the bird or if the bird became sacred after the pyramid was built is unknown.
And finally, we have the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea. Though they live in one of the most difficult to inhabit places in the world, they are also surrounded by a rich soundscape of rainforest sounds. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld has found that Kaluli music is integrated with the sounds of the rainforest. The Kaluli sing with the birds. Feld argues that integrating forest sounds into their music makes them more aware of their acoustic surroundings, a cultural adaptation that facilitates living in their harsh conditions.
The point of this survey of birdsong and music is to open up the complex relationship of humanity and nature. Too often people make an easy distinction between ‘the natural world’ and the ‘manmade world,’ but the question remains: what is nature?
As a word, “nature” is not identical to one thing, and cannot be pinned down to an easy dictionary definition. In one sense, nature is what is ‘out there.’ It is the world outside of us: the trees, the mountains, and the grass. But is the grass really ‘nature’? When we create a lawn or a garden, is it ‘nature’? A garden is in some sense out of our control, but in some sense in our control. Even if we choose to create a nature reserve, human beings have a hand in that. We are always interacting with ‘nature.’ In another sense, ‘nature’ is a completely human concept. It is we (and not the trees) who create the category of things considered ‘nature’ and those that are ‘manmade.’ As we have seen, the human concept of nature and what is considered a part of it have changed over time.
For some, recognizing that their perceptions of natural phenomenon like birdsong are influenced by past cultural and artistic practices might seem to diminish the majesty of God’s creation. I, however, find it exciting God has provided different cultural lenses through which to look at God’s creation—or rather, different ears with which to hear it. That nature involves humanity as interpreters serves as a reminder that human beings are part of the ecology of the created world. It also means that our work as scholars and artists can change the ways that people understand the world around them, helping them to live in it differently. That, too, is stewardship!
1. Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2000) ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ in ed. Clive Cazeaux, The continental aesthetics reader (Routledge: London), 182-3.
Jeff R. Warren is Assistant Professor of Music at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He has presented and published internationally on musical improvisation, meaning in music, soundscape, modern European philosophy, psychology, and ethics. Jeff’s creative work includes jazz composition, performance on double bass, and sound installations. Jeff received his doctorate in music and philosophy from Royal Holloway, University of London.