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This is not a Bugs Bunny Cartoon
Those of us brought up with logic-brain thinking and whose parents told us that we have an overactive imagination, will feel at odds with the interspecies music. On one hand, jamming with animals feels like an enchanted dream come true. On the other hand, we feel kind of silly taking our instruments to a city park to play duets with songbirds.
However, David Rothenberg who has jammed with whales and cicadas after first exploring wild bird jazz recommends taking our instruments to the animal kingdom. Why not play music at a zoo?
“It should be mandatory! Some zoos call such activities “enrichment” because they improve the lives of their captive animals,” says Rothenberg in a 2008 interview for Whole Music Experience.
And just like with any musical exchange, we need to follow protocol. “Go quietly, gently, and with respect. Leave plenty of space. Don’t just play your own stuff and expect the birds to care. Get ready to improvise with an open mind and open ear. Leave space for all the sounds of the world around to influence you: the wind on leaves, water, moving clouds, screeching cars, thrumming airplanes. They are all part of the grand composition that is this world.”
If any of this sounds outlandish or foolish, consider all the master indigenous musicians, maybe even some of your ancestors who sang, whistled, drummed, and danced with animals. Some of those ancestors even shape-shifted into animals to beats played on animal skin drums. Shepherds often played flutes, or sang to their sheep and probably not just out of loneliness or boredom. In fact, it is believed by some archaeologists that the first flutes were made and played by ancient shepherds, but what musical interludes were exchanged between bleating sheep and shepherd flute virtuosos, we’ll never know.
Animal Attraction & Other Musical Phenomenon
Saint Francis of Assisi believed that birds sang for the sheer joy of living upon the earth. However, modern science and biologists would call Francis’ observation anthropomorphizing and provide us with the rational argument that birds sing to attract mates and to defend territory. I laugh when I make the comparison between these biological birds and teenagers who also play music to attract mates and to defend territory.
Most likely, biologists would suggest that whales don’t sing for pleasure either and that the otherworldly songs of whales simply map out the direction for migration and attracting mates. But do whales sing lullabies to their offspring, in the way that humans do? Do mammals have special sounds, hums, whistles, or howling that goes beyond biological needs? Even prehistoric humans had to start somewhere which was probably along the lines of grunts, three-note chants and I would guess overtone singing (throat-singing) since that type of vocalization dates back to ancient times.
In the BBC documentary, Why Do Birds Sing based on David Rothenberg’s book of the same title, the author travels around the world, performing music with birds, and lecturing on the topic. Meanwhile, prominent ornithologists debate with Rothenberg, making the usual argument that birds sing for biological reasons, nothing more.
However, undeterred Rothenberg continued his interspecies music experiments. In an updated 2012 e-mail interview, Rothenberg shared his findings. “We still know next to nothing about the aesthetics of other species, and we need to spend more time with these creatures and their art forms to really figure out what we’re doing. Scientists are starting to collaborate with musicians, like what I’ve been doing with Ofer Tchernichovski (Psychology Professor at Hunter College who studies the behavior and vocalization of songbirds) and Tina Roeske (a postdoctoral associate at City University of New York who researches vocalization of songbirds).”
Over the years, Rothenberg has jammed with a lyre bird in Australia called George, and white-crested laughing thrush in an aviary, whales, and cicadas. So I asked the wild bird jazz musician which creatures possess musical talent.
“Humpbacks are by far the most musical, but belugas are fun too. White-crested laughing thrushes are the most interactive of birds I’ve met, but lyrebirds are pretty amazing too.”
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