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Everybody’s Heard About the Bird

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"Pigeon walk" by James V. Monaco. New York: Broadway Music Corp., 1915.
"Pigeon walk" by James V. Monaco. New York: Broadway Music Corp., 1915.

If you missed the news over on the Library of Congress Blog, the Library announced that they will digitally archive the public record of the latest iteration of the tin-can and wire:  Twitter. While we in the Music Division are still holding on to our telephone machines and pedalling to work on our velocipedes, this seems an opportune moment to consider the music of the birds.

Composers have found inspiration in the varieties of tweeting experience for centuries. Bird calls can be heard everywhere from Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” to jazz great Eric Dolphy’s 1963 performance of  “Jitterbug waltz” on flute  – not to mention the alto saxophonist who influenced Dolphy and so many others of his generation: Charlie “Bird” Parker.   There’s “Conference of the birds” by bassist Dave Holland, who graced the  Library’s Coolidge Auditorium in 2004; and last but possibly least, the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”, to which we pay homage in this blog post’s title.  If the famous “Papa ooma-mow- mow pama oo-mow-mow” seems to resemble no known feathered friend, that may be due to the song’s derivation from the Rivingtons’  “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” which also sounds like no Papa I’ve ever known.

Somewhere along this spectrum of man’s musical mimicry of nature lie the forgotten corners of American musical history that we like to highlight for our readers on In the Muse.  In the collection Historic Sheet Music, 1800-1922, part of this bird house that we call the Performing Arts Encyclopedia, the Robin Laments and the Pigeon Walks. The cuckoo is represented not only by her nest but by the galop and the polka, but is still not so versatile as the mockingbird, who would like to have the privilege of joining you in your choice of dances: the mazurka, the minuet, the polka,   the polonaise, or the waltz.

What is your favorite instance of art imitating bird song?

Comments (4)

  1. Harry Partch, Yankee Doodle Birds 🙂

  2. What vast and varied topic, even without mentioning Olivier Messiaen’s exhastive Catalogue des Oiseaux and Oiseaux Exotiques, and all of the Nightingales in Schumann and Stravinsky, and Listen to the Mockingbird (an American song that, like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” is a much deeper pool than one wold expects from the surface.

    But some favorites:

    “Circling Pigeons Waltz” John R. Baca’s Orchestra, from a disk of Czech moravioan music in Texas. Sounds more like that wheezy creak sound made when doves fly (than when Prince’s doves cry).

    The Ornithological Combat of Kings, by Anthony Phillip Heinrich (A.K.A. “The Beethoven of Kentucky,” which begs the question: Who is the Beethoven of Oklahoma?)

    Alvin Lucier’s “Bird And Person Dyning” (as in hetereodyning)

    And UR-Vogel, a great work that uses field guide recordings and draws its structure and material from birds that are named for the sounds they make.

  3. The CD ‘Birdhouse’ on FreeNote Records has some songs that are microtonal transcriptions of actual birdsong. Songs like ‘Baltimore Blues’ and ‘Wood Thrush’ use the microtonal intervals of the birds. The song ‘Hermit’ uses the chord progression of the Hermit Thrush.

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