Animal and Bird Song

From page 69 of Quite by Chance:

Although I already knew of Olivier Messiaen’s passion for transcribing bird song, I was quite unprepared for the wonderful surprise I got as I started to notate the sounds of the New Zealand Bellbird, Korimako: it was exquisitely beautiful and it was unlike any music I had ever written down before. It was a totally new world obeying completely different rules, indeed it defied notation completely. And not only could this bird sing, it could cough and splutter and make what one would definitely call rude noises and yet these had the effect—for me at least—of making the total bellbird language much more interesting than if it had just consisted of “beautiful” sounds.
I have said that this music defied normal notation—this meant that what I finally notated was only a shadow of the real thing. Yet what I wrote was so fascinating that I felt I had written something quite original which of course was not true, since I had stolen it from the bellbird. When one considers, however, that it didn’t really sound like bellbird song, how then could it be stolen? What I had written, I dare to say, was as much like the bellbird as Messiaen’s bird music is like the real thing. This is not to belittle the great French master, it is just to say that there is a difference between transcription and art: birds and other animals can inspire us to find new musical languages.
Here then in the animal world is a world of inspiration: bats and warblers, crickets and frogs, crows and cows, whales and cicadas. And even if these inspirations suggest totally different sounds and a new music arises, then the study has been fruitful.
We do not judge Messiaen or Beethoven by whether their “bird-music” really sounds like the bird it was derived from, but by the way the music speaks to us personally. This can only happen after a further process (beyond the transcription) has taken place, one that turns inspiration into art. The artist has, consciously or not, put something of himself into the transcription. A Picasso dove does not have to look exactly like a dove, the main thing is that we respond to it artistically and that we recognise it as a work by Picasso.

Works using animal or bird song prominently:

  • Krähenalles
  • Flötenspieler und Fledermäuse
  • Amselbaum
  • After Babel
  • Der Wal
  • Whale Song
  • Koauau
  • Korimako
  • Korimako for Flute and Piano
  • Sextet
  • Concerto for Trombone and Tuba
  • Contrasts
  • Kapiti
  • Maui Cycle
  • Microzoic Piano Suite
  • Whale Fantasy
  • Kiln Tower Film Music