Sound & Song in the Natural World
Tobias Fischer and Lara Cory work together on the interview series 15 Questions, covering a wide range of musical genres and approaches. By contrast, their new book “Animal Music: Sound and Song in the Natural World” focuses on a single line of enquiry: specifically, the text sets out to explore the making and perception of sounds by non-human animals, and grapples with the thorny question of whether such sounds could ever be considered ‘music’. This quest is undertaken mainly through short, journalistic articles, though an interview with Chris Watson and a discussion with Slavek Kwi are also included, as are two articles by Kate Carr.
The book’s core premise appears to be based on a number of categorical distinctions that are referred to time and time again: distinctions between nature and culture; animals and humans; biological necessity and emotion; utilitarian communications and music; and so on. Propositions commonly take the following form: “What if an observed/heard behaviour thought to belong to category a in fact belongs to category b?”. Such propositions necessarily affirm the validity of the categorical distinctions they are based on. For example, Cory’s question “If humans make music for practical and emotional reasons, then is it such a stretch to think that animals might too?” (p.26) affirms the distinctions both between humans and animals and between biological necessity and emotion.
Defining the terms used to make these distinctions is not attempted until the very final article, the discussion between Fischer and Kwi; examining the evidential basis for the distinctions and the reasons for their use isn’t really attempted at all. How much of a problem this is depends on how much one is prepared to take as read; if the outcome of this judgement isn’t “a lot”, then things quickly start to look pretty shaky. How might it be thought, for example, that both animals and humans make music for both practical and emotional reasons, if no conceptual means of separating musical events into those made for practical reasons and those made for emotional ones, or beings into animals and humans, has been established?
Consider the following anecdote as a means of further elucidating this problem. I once took a class entitled ‘Music and Cognition’ convened by cognitive neuroscientist Henkjan Honing, who receives a citation in Fischer and Kwi’s discussion. During one session, Honing played a YouTube clip of a live performance by the R’n’B musician D’Angelo. The performance clearly demonstrated the difficulties in drawing any firm conclusions as to what this thing called ‘music’ is for: the artistry of D’Angelo and his accompanying musicians was evident, but so too was the excitement of the live concert experience, its operation as a social gathering, as well as the (undeniable) function of the performance as a display of masculine virility. Honing, in his role as neuroscientist and lecturer, played us the clip in order to make an intellectual point and demonstrate particular theoretical problems; however, it was also evident how much he enjoyed the music (while perhaps not being completely oblivious to the implications of a white man drawing out a connection between black music and mating calls in the name of science).
Where Animal Music reaffirms certain categories through acts of reclassification — principally, by reclassifying animal sounds as music — Honing’s YouTube clip dissolves them. Is D’Angelo’s music (or that of Taylor Swift, or Rolando Villazón, or any charismatic and celebrated performer) emotional expression or social facilitation? Entertainment or evolutionary adaptation? High art or marker of sexual prowess? Yes. No wonder, then, that Honing’s own research and that of many scientists working in similar fields focuses in on particular auditory attributes or capacities (for example beat perception) to see how widely distributed they are among beings. While Kwi argues that music “offers something completely different from science” that “defies the grasp of our intellectual faculties” — note another unmarked distinction, between the intellect and musical appreciation — Honing and his colleagues may simply be characterised as starting with the basics: define your terms.
If Fischer and Cory had set out to critically examine the conceptual framework governing what music and nature are assumed to be in the light of non-human uses and perceptions of sound, the result may have been more intriguing than it is. Instead, they seem content with an attempt to reorganise the existing terms within that framework. By re-ordering the cards to deal non-human animals a better hand in the transcendence stakes, they quietly underscore their privileged position as dealer. And there lies the rub: the aim of the game is to grant non-human beings access, not to music, but to transcendence — to the “secret life”, “the quest for wonder” for which music is assumed to be an emblem, without ever examining or justifying this assumption. Would a humpback whale or a Nashville warbler even want a “secret life”? How would we know?
The most striking part of the book is the response of sound artist and field recordist Chris Watson’s response to being asked about the possibility of inter-species communication: “I think we would be terrified if we could communicate with animals. It would all be over. I just can’t imagine it and find it quite disturbing.” His terror suggests an interesting question: what is it about animal sound that un-musics music?
Image from Field book of wild birds and their music by F. Schuyler Mathews, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library