Why Birds Sing

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

David Rothenberg has gained international fame in an unusual way: He is a composer and jazz clarinetist who improvises to the accompaniment of natural sounds. In 2000, he began to play live with singing birds, and his experiences prompted him to seek answers to many questions: What meanings can birdsong have? Why do some birds speak in simple peeps, while others give voice to complicated song motifs? Do birds sing merely mechanically, for finding mates and defending territory, or can they feel joy when they sing?

In Why Birds Sing, Rothenberg asks these questions repeatedly, tackling them in each chapter in different ways. If the book is read in a single sitting, the repetition of the questions can become wearying, as though Rothenberg thought the chapters might be read in isolation. The table of contents makes this unlikely, as the chapter titles are floridly metaphorical (“To Drink the Sound,” “The Opposite of Time”), diminishing their usefulness for keyword searching in library catalogs.

However, the repetitions amid the various approaches in all ten chapters may have been intentional, as Rothenberg more probably intended his writing to imitate music: He excels at analyzing the reiterations and improvisations within the simplest of bird songs and the most complex of human symphonies. His prose is jazzy and rhapsodical“I laugh, and the bird laughs some more. His laugh is a melody, a saxophone laugh, a Charlie Parker laugh”and his arrangement of themes may be equally intentional, only apparently unpremeditated.

One chapter, for instance, summarizes centuries of research and speculations into these questions, though further summaries appear throughout the rest of the volume, as though enhancements on later motifs felt more appropriate to Rothenberg than rigorous orderliness. Indeed, as a compendium of the literature on birdsong, the book is valuable and thorough. Rothenberg asserts that there is more nature writing on birds than on any other animals, and his evidence ranges from the Roman writer Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 94-55 b.c.e.) to philosophers Immanuel Kant and Henry David Thoreau to poets John Keats, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot to polymath George Meredith. In the ensuing chapter, Rothenberg looks at various theories, from the scientific studies of ornithologists to the populist, lyrical musings of nineteenth century naturalists, as to why birds sing.

Elsewhere, Rothenberg codifies birdsong from a professional musician’s point of view, and the black-and-white illustrations include reprints of the musical notations of many naturalists who tried to capture avian tunes via transcription. Rothenberg covers the history of sound recording equipment and of birdwatchers’ use of it to capture birdsong. Rothenberg rhapsodizes over the dadaist printouts of sonograms (graphs of sound spectrograms); he likes his science mixed with aesthetics. He describes the “playback experiments” of scientists such as Cambridge University zoologist W. H. Thorpe, who studied chaffinch songs for decades, and his student, University of California, Davis ornithologist Peter Marler, who would play all kinds of recorded bird songs to chaffinches in captivity and note their responses.

Rothenberg encapsulates neurobiological studies in which songbird brains and syrinxes are removed for examination. Studies of canary brains, for instance, disproved the long-held hypothesis that adult brains continue to develop new neurons, a discovery that has benefited medical science. In another chapter, he describes remarkable human compositions influenced by the music of birds: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Musikalischer Spass,” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Il Gardellino” (“The Goldfinch”), Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” and “Catalogue d’Oiseaux,” and those of more recent musicians who use state-of-the-art musical equipment to sample and mimic bird songs, such as Magnus Robb and Pamela Z.

Rothenberg is convinced that birds sing for joy and...

(The entire section is 1683 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 14 (March 15, 2005): 1253.

The Boston Globe, May 15, 2005, p. D6.

The Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2005, p. 1.

Discover 26, no. 7 (July, 2005): 76.

E Magazine: The Environmental Magazine 16, no. 3 (May/June, 2005): 62.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 3 (February 1, 2005): 170-171.

Library Journal 130, no. 4 (March 1, 2005): 109.

Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2005, p. F6.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 8 (February 21, 2005): 167.