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Songs of Wild Birds
Beatific in its own right birdsong often ‘springs the catch of memory’ - like dandelion clocks drifting in the air, catching the sun ... [a] timeless immersion within a ‘spirit of place’ ...
Mistle Thrush from the Churchyard Yew - the piper at the gates of dawn. Black swift screaming jet-like across a cloudless blue sky, the afterburn of their passing an echo in the still air - a fine fresh spring morning. The gentle purr of Turtle Dove from a nearby copse - lazy hazy summer afternoons. Or the ever present song of Yellowhammer, singing when all others have ceased - the hayfield in the early evening.
red skies -
from wind-tossed trees
in evenings glow
a yellowhammer sings
his simple refrain
Above all, listening to the song of birds ... the setting, performance, variety, and musical quality, awakens a deep desire to extend and perpetuate their performance ... to experience again the pure joy and freedom evident in the birds own ‘joy of singing’ Rothenberg.
There were two masters of the recording and interpretation of birdsong in the 20th Century both seminal in their production, in different ways, of the soundscape of birdsong in the countryside: Ludwig Koch and Olivier Messiaen.
The work of Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) is remarkable in that it represents a pioneering attempt to document the natural sound world using recording technology.
During his lifetime, Koch devoted himself to collecting the sound phenomena he heard in the world around him. When he arrived in England in 1936, Koch began to travel all over the British Isles, capturing birdsong and the sounds of natural environments on wax discs before transferring these to shellac. This was a long and laborious process, often requiring hours or even days of observation of a particular bird before beginning to record its voice.
Koch’s first British recordings were published as Songs of Wild Birds in 1936, in partnership with the ornithologist E.M. Nicholson. This was followed by More Songs of Wild Birds in 1937. These unique collections combine textual descriptions of the songs and habitats of a variety of species, illustrations of the birds themselves and excerpts of their recorded songs and calls. Koch described Songs of Wild Birds as ‘the first sound-book of British birdsong’ – an early multimedia document that combines text, image and audio.
Here is a rather crackly recording by Ludwig Koch from 1936.
It is a singularly extrovert warbler, bursting high above the hedgerow with a scratchy burst of song, before diving back into the shelter of the hedge. It's almost as if he is saying 'look at me - here I am'.
the only sound ...
bursting from the hedge
When I first heard his records I was immediately struck by the way in which they called up the natural environment of the singers. As the Nightingales voice escaped from its ebonite prison under the touch of the needle and the scientific magic of the sound-box, I felt myself transported to dusk in an April copsewood. The clear notes of the Cuckoo with their blend of clear spring feeling and irritating monotony, the Chaffinch's simple and cheerful strain, were equally evocative; and with the laugh of the Green Woodpecker (a triumph to have recorded this!), the yellowing July fields and darkening green of July woods were in the room.
So wrote Julian Huxley in his introduction to 'Songs of Wild Birds' by E M Nicholson and Ludwig Koch and published as a text with illustrations in the form of sound, by H.F.& G Witherby Ltd in 1936.
filling every room
the cuckoo’s call
What is remarkable about Koch’s recordings of birdsong is how skilfully he manages to isolate the songster within the recording, yet still captures elements of its surrounding environment - rather like a soloist performing to the backdrop of an orchestral accompaniment. This provides the listener with a clear sense of the habitat in which the featured bird lives: in other words, the recording presents a particular ‘soundscape’.
Birdsong fascinated Messiaen (1908 – 1992) a French composer, organist, and ornithologist, one of the major composers of the 20th century. His innovative use of colour, his conception of the relationship between time and music, and his use of birdsong are among the features that make Messiaen's music distinctive.
Olivier Messiaen, once described birds as “God’s greatest musicians”.
‘In my hours of gloom ... when I am suddenly aware of my own futility - what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music somewhere in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seashore, among the birds.’
Here is an early work from 1952 - ‘Le merle noir’ for flute and piano; the flute piece based entirely on the song of the blackbird.
In his later works his evocations of birdsong become increasingly sophisticated, and with Le réveil des oiseaux reached maturity, the whole piece being built from birdsong: in effect it is a dawn chorus for orchestra.
The pieces are not simple transcriptions; even the works with purely bird-inspired titles, such as Catalogue d'oiseaux and Fauvette des jardins, are tone poems evoking the landscape, its colours and atmosphere. They are like musical pictures: designed to document a particular scene almost as faithfully as the sound recordings from which they take their inspiration.
Paul Griffiths, a British music critic, novelist and librettist, observed that Messiaen was a more conscientious ornithologist than any previous composer, and a more musical observer of birdsong than any previous ornithologist.
Below is a playlist of some of my favourite memories of songs of wild birds ... Listen to them sing ...
The silvery descant of the first Willow Warbler and the joyful vibrant trilling tremolo of the Wood Warbler - a beechwood in early spring. The transcendent song of the Woodlark - more beautiful and harmonic to my mind than the Skylark - on the hillside of a wooded valley. Our very own garden flautist - the Blackbird - from the Maple shadowing the barn. The echoing voice-throwing call of the Cuckoo - from a copse across the fields. And a Nightingale in a canal-side wood at dimpsey.
The core content of this post, heavily edited and substantially revised, has been sourced from Wikipedia and the newspaper archives of the Guardian and Telegraph. Quoted references are cited in-line, except the two phrases - ‘springs the catch of memory’ and ‘the hayfield in the early evening’ - which were originally written in an essay called Character in Birdsong (1952-3) by Peter Adams and published by his daughter Jane Adams in her blog - used here within the terms of her stated use of copyright.
All the recordings of bird songs have been sourced from the archives of Xeno-Canto - a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world, and used here under the terms of the Creative Commons Licences. The copyright rests with the individual sound recordist.
... I was staying at a farmhouse in the New Forest, and on the side of the house where I slept there was a large arbor vitse in which a blackbird roosted every night on a level with my window. Now, every morning at half-past three this bird would begin to sing and go on repeating his song at short intervals for about half an hour. It was very silent at that time ; I could hear no other bird ; and the sound coming in at the open window from a distance of but five yards had such a marvellous beauty that I could have wished for no more blessed existence than to lie there, head on pillow, with the pale early light and the perfume of night-flowers in the room, listening to that divine sound.
Adventures with Birds - W H Hudson
To misquote W.H.Hudson - the bird’s song is “sunshine translated into sound”.