Can a Piano Sing a Birdsong?

A parakeet named Punky perched on piano keys. A modified version of a photo by Amyra Moon, March 2011.

The present-day popularity of composers like John Luther Adams suggests a societal interest in contemporary depictions of nature in the arts. However, the idea of ecological music raises the question of what, exactly, is translated from nature to the manuscript page and then on to listeners’ ears? There are numerous instances within music history of composers who use birdsong, particularly, in their works, most notably Beethoven in his Pastoral Symphony. But in the 20th century, a new figure emerged who brought a scientific perspective to the representation of nature: French composer Olivier Messiaen. In Catalogue d’Oiseaux (“Catalog of Birds”), Messiaen used his own transcriptions of birdsongs from over 80 European bird species in a large-scale, multi-movement work for solo piano. It is often described as Messiaen’s most abstract work, but also his most literal, as every bit of musical material receives a label in the score. Thus, each page is littered with names of specific landmarks and animal species.

A headshot of musician Kyle Johnson.

Musician Kyle Johnson. Photo by Peter Jakubowski.

This past spring, I collaborated with a number of people in the Madison, Wisconsin, community to gain a deeper perspective of the Catalog of Birds, a work I began studying and performing in the fall of 2015. The result is a forthcoming podcast series, a preview of which I have prepared for Edge Effects. The guests in this episode are Todd Welbourne, a fellow pianist who developed a multimedia presentation around the Catalog; Mark Berres, an ornithologist and professor of animal studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison; and Steve Dembski, a composer who translated for Messiaen during the French composer’s American tour. Among the topics we discussed were the composition’s background, the scientific reception to artistic representations of birdsong, and possible measures of success for such a project.

Stream or download the episode here. A transcript follows.

KYLE JOHNSON: Imagine standing on the cliff of an island just a few miles from your homeland. You’re close enough to see a mass of land—the edge of an entire country, an entire continent—but you’re far enough away that when an enveloping fog rolls in each day, you’re left isolated—or so you think.

There’s movement in your peripheral—a small, feathery yellowish-brown body overtop a set of thin, gray and brown legs; a tousled head of smooth, dark feathers; a beak that’s long and curved like a sickle. You stare directly at this creature, and it stares back at you before it begins a long, intense song of ascending, repetitive glissando calls. As the cool ocean breeze changes to penetrating billows, the waves beneath you begin swirling and crashing more violently against the cliff’s edge. And as the evening fog quickly advances with the hour, you realize: the quality of that bird’s call perfectly encapsulates the experience of being in that place at that time. Somehow, those wild trills and siren-esque glissandos tragically express the desolation of place.

That’s a summary of place and bird—albeit a creative summary—that French composer Olivier Messiaen included before his work for solo piano entitled “The Curlew”—a curlew is the sea bird whose beak is long and curved, like a sickle. The location: Ushant Island, France.

A medium-sized bird, speckled with brown and white, with a very long, slender beak, walks across a green, mowed lawn.

A Eurasian curlew. Photo by Scott Butner, June 2008.

TODD WELBOURNE: That Island is desolate. I mean, I took a ferry out there.

JOHNSON: That’s the voice of Todd Welbourne, who visited the island as part of a research trip to document each of the natural inspirations found in Messiaen’s large-scale musical work for solo piano entitled the Catalog of Birds.

WELBOURNE: There are very few trees. It’s off the coast of Normandy, which is already a kind of rocky, desolate part of France. It very quickly becomes stormy, it’s often cloudy, often foggy.

JOHNSON: “The Curlew”—the musical work—falls at the end of the Catalog’s thirteen movements, which, in full, amounts to almost three hours of music. The curlew is a common bird found along European coastlines, especially in France and the United Kingdom, although the Irish Times reported in 2014 that the number of Eurasian curlews had declined nearly 80% since Messiaen’s evocative translation of the bird’s song to the piano in the 1950s. From their report: “The haunting cry of the bird is one of the most evocative sounds of the uplands. [Birdwatch Ireland] says action is needed to ensure it does not become a mere memory.”

In fact, as of November 2016, the group that’s mentioned in the article, Birdwatch Ireland, reported that only 130 pairs of bird remain. In light of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “near threatened to vulnerable” status on the curlew, the League for the Protection of Birds and the France Nature Environment organization called on their Minister of Ecology to reinstate a hunting ban that had been in place from 2008-2013. The ban was extended another five years, but breeding pairs continue to decline.

In a way, Messiaen’s decision to put the curlew movement at the end of the Catalog of Birds’ thirteen movements foreshadows the tragedy of the species’ decline. Many of Messiaen’s other works from the same era tend to end with light, hope, color, and even exuberance. Here’s the ending to his Turangalîla Symphony, which premiered in 1949—less than ten years before his completion of the Catalog of Birds. Even compared to the other movements within the Catalog, “The Curlew” is a dark and brooding depiction of place, as enhanced by the quality of its title bird.

A black and white portraite of the composer Olivier Messiaen, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and an oped-collar shirt with a dark sport coat, looking down to the right.

Olivier Messiaen in 1930. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

WELBOURNE: He picked places that he loved. Some where he grew up. But he was an avid ornithologist and he went to many different parts of France to see different birds. He came to the United States to Zion National Park, and then he wrote Exotic Birds (one of which is a cardinal, which in this country, we don’t consider exotic in the slightest, but to him that was an ‘exotic bird’). So, he went around the world just to look for the birds and I think the feeling of the birds is quite—yeah, he loved them and knew them well and was very interested in translating the love for them, let’s say. And I think in that case, of the final work, “The Curlew.”

JOHNSON: In the entire Catalog, Messiaen included music translations of birdcalls from over eighty species, as well as depictions of natural landmarks throughout France, all of which are labeled obsessively in the score. The order of thirteen movements cycles clockwise from the Eastern French Alps, to the Southern Spanish border, to the northern coast—the land of the curlew.

It’s in this movement, also, that the only man-made element in the entire Catalogue, a famous lighthouse, is featured. Considering the function of a lighthouse—to warn sailors of dangerous areas—and the fact that among Messiaen’s labels of the curlew’s call was “a siren,” the rather grim associations, indeed, recall that foreshadowing of an environmental degradation that he may or may not have been witness to, up to his death in the 1992. In hindsight and with a revisionist perspective, Messiaen’s composition, along with the voices of scientists, politicians, and fellow citizens, is a siren that alerts us of the possibility that among the endangered species is humanity itself.

Let’s take a step back, though, to get a new perspective on this intersection of ornithology and musical composition—both of which, in Messiaen’s case, inform the artistic representation of ecologies of place.

A small brown songbird with white stripes opens its beak and sings while perched in a tree with bright yellow flowers blooming.

A song sparrow. Photo by Nicole Beaulac, May 2017.

JOHNSON: Since the start of 20th century, there have been institutions devoted to the collection and study of birdsong, namely Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. Their website features the following description of the song sparrow’s song.

“A loud, clanking song of 2-6 phrases that typically starts with abrupt, well-spaced notes, and finishes with a trill. In between, the singer may add other trills with different tempo and quality.”

Definitions are only useful if they can use familiar language to describe the unfamiliar. I can’t help but notice that the Cornell Lab often draws on vocabulary that is most familiar to musicians. For example, using a word like “tempo” instead of “speed.” In fact, there are descriptors for other bird species’ songs that are thrown around frequently — “glissandi,” “slur,” “virtuosic.” For instance, the northern cardinal: a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles, often speeding up and ending in a slow trill. The lark sparrow: A melodious jumble of clear notes and trills.

Now listen to this musical account of a woodlark’s song, played at the piano, followed by a spoken description of the song: “slurred sequences of two- or three-note phrase descents.” The Eurasian curlew: “a flutish melody with repetitive tremolos and glissando calls.” Both of these descriptions were written by French composer Olivier Messiaen before he wrote music derived from both the woodlark’s and the curlew’s respective birdsongs in the wild. I can’t help but notice that the type of language used by Messiaen seems to match the type used by scientific institutions, like the Cornell Lab. There’s talk of phrases, of contours, of sound qualities. With this in mind, I wonder if a birder needs knowledge of musical terminology to identify song with species? If musical words are effective at describing, perhaps a person best positioned to birdsong identification is the musician. But my first guest is skeptical.

MARK BERRES: My name is Mark Berres. I, among other things, took over the ornithology courses and other avian physiology courses on campus and kind of kept in that capacity for about 10 years.

JOHNSON: In his role as an ornithology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Berres designed and taught courses devoted to birds of southern Wisconsin. In the past few years, he began developing a mobile app that allowed users to record live birdsong while the app created a visual representation of the sound called a spectrogram. Various problems arose during the design and rollout of the app, which caused Berres to shift his focus to a new project: a book devoted to a holistic understanding of birdsong production and identification. Whereas many books on the market now may feature brightly colored pages and CD inserts that focus on rote memorization, Berres’s explores the physiological elements of avian vocalizations. It also features detailed spectrograms to demonstrate how certain species achieve such characteristic sounds.

Since Berres has devoted so much time to the pedagogy of birdsong recognition, I spoke with him about the ways we describe birdsong; how both ornithological institutions and amateur birders so often resort to musical terms to describe many sonic characteristics. We also spoke about how Messiaen succeeds (or fails) at then translating these written language descriptions to music.

Mark Berres, with binoculars around his neck, stands in the forest looking up at the canopy while holding a smartphone affixed with a thin, black attachment plugged into the bottom.

Professor Mark Berres tests his birdsong recognition app. Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW–Madison CALS, 2011.

BERRES: Birdsongs do not really conform to our understanding of human music. And the whole idea of notes and phrases, while you see that very commonly in the avian literature, I just don’t buy it. No, just no. Not at all.

JOHNSON: But as a musician, I see a good way of describing bird sound as musical language; so you have words like “phrases” or “notes” or “trill” and “tempo,” which I’m sure a lot of non-musical people could understand.

BERRES: I have spoken with musicians before and they invariably talk in terms of a scale, in terms of octaves, often. But I don’t think that does much to help in terms of avian vocalization recognition. While English is a wonderful language, words just don’t exist to be able to capture the complexity of animal, specifically bird, vocalizations. Avian vocalizations can be so complicated, and being able to get the precise descriptions I think would be a lifelong challenge that would probably be unattainable.

There’s just too much variability in bird songs. The example that you gave from Cornell on the song sparrow—that is a very common bird in southern Wisconsin that actually causes a tremendous amount of audial identification difficulties. That’s because no two song sparrows sound the same. So, while I enjoy Cornell’s definition of this clankiness and then ending up with more of a trill…but then you saw in the middle there’s this big aspect of “melodic embellishment” that they have. But to an attuned ear, there’re these 6-7 notes that are kind of like a preamble to that trill. But that space in between is highly variable. So really when you think about song sparrows, there is room for embellishment in terms of the singer; but this idea of variation has got to be in terms of your understanding.

Messiaen holds a sheaf of papers and Prince Bernhard takes his arm and gestures for him to walk forward. Both men wear tuxedos and a film camera and crew capture the scene from behind.

Olivier Messiaen (left) receiving the Erasmus Prize from Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (right) on June 25, 1971. Photo by Rob Mieremet.

JOHNSON: Berres spoke a bit longer about the types of words people use to describe bird vocalizations. Since Messiaen, himself, resorted to words to describe every species found throughout the Catalog of Birds, how much of a parallel is there between his written language in the score versus the pitches and rhythms—the musical notation?

For much of music history, instructions in words usually only took the form of a tempo marking at the start of a piece. Composers didn’t necessarily have to think about notating elements of style, or what musicians call ‘performance practice,’ because the people performing those pieces were either the composer themselves, or simply lived in the time of a common style, understood by most. As a result, there has always been a discrepancy between the notated page and the performance. If computer software notated pitches and rhythms onto a staff while a great pianist played Chopin, certain understandings of style—little stretches of phrases or micro-fluctuations in pulse—would likely render a page of notation that would look completely different from Chopin’s actual score.

In the 20th century, however, there was a sense that composers tried to overcome the obstacle of notation—some, like John Cage, began giving less instructions in their scores, which perhaps provided more freedom to the performer and also gave rise to the role of silence in a musical experience. Another school did just the opposite—they began putting more and more instructions in their scores to the point where it almost seems there is more ink on the page than empty space.

So, how does Messiaen fit into these differing schools of thought? And where does that leave composers now?

STEVE DEMBSKI: My name is Steve Dembski and I’ve been composing music for public performance for about…close to 50 years now. I taught at the University of Wisconsin for 34 years from 1982 until last spring, at which point I quit to get back to work. And I’ve been, since then, getting back to work in a wonderful way.

JOHNSON: After studying in Paris around the time Messiaen’s seven volumes of the Catalog of Birds were published, Steve Dembski served as Messiaen’s translator for a few days during the composer’s travels in America. On a subsequent trip to France in the 1980s, Dembski attended a performance—potentially the premiere production—of Messiaen’s opera entitled St. Francis of Assisi. Fittingly, the St. Francis of Assisi opera details the life of the legendary Catholic saint who communicated with birds. Throughout the four-hour work, Messiaen used a large number of percussionists and woodwind players to achieve the kind of birdsong-cacophony effect that we’re hearing now.

JOHNSON: And do you remember what your reaction was to that?

DEMBSKI: The big reaction I had to St. Francis was this person who created this piece very strongly believed in this as an expression of religious devotion somehow and, perhaps, a door into a kind of mysticism around this. My impression of his when I was driving around in a car with him in 1972 was that this was an extremely serious and sober person. That everything he said was very very carefully articulated and he was not one of those people who would just talk without thinking, of whom now we know so many.

JOHNSON: As a composer, what do you notice about how he uses music to represent birds, both in Saint Francis of Assisi and also in the Catalog of Birds?

A white shallow-relief marble plaque, with Messiaen carved in profile, two doves, and a French inscription that reads "In Memory, Olivier Messiaen, 1908-1992, Organist of the organ of Sainte Trinite, 1931-1992"

A plaque honoring Olivier Messiaen that hangs in the Sainte-Trinité church in Paris, where Messiaen was organist for over six decades. Photo by Thomon, April 2016.

DEMBSKI: With the birds in particular, he’s made an attempt at transcribing these things. And of course, the attempt must fail. It can’t possibly succeed. He takes birdsong and he tries to transcribe it in a specialist, imperialist way. He something from another species and tries to translate it into, not only into the music of his species, but the music of his continent—you know, into a diatonic system, basically. And then he uses these things, in a sense, very much in the same way the birds use them. The birds, they don’t change them and he doesn’t change them either. He keeps them the same. And he occasionally truncates part of them or he adds the last two blublublups. And they’re not notes! You know, a bird doesn’t have a notion of notes. The bird’s saying his stuff, but he moves it into this intellectual conception of music made of notes.

He drew or seemed to draw intuitively from the structure of birdsong which is that repetition of a little figure. Messiaen does it in a radically pure and consistent way, and that to me is really profound. That is really…it’s much more profound than whatever the bird is. That way this phenomenon, whether it’s music or not—I don’t know if birdsong is music or not, ok?—but it’s a phenomenon that happens: audio that is produced by living things and is used for a kind of communication and it has a certain kind of standardization.

He really genuinely went as far as he could to transcribe these things—to represent them as closely as possible, given the means that he had. They’re audio artifacts of living beings that don’t break down into notes. It makes it a project even more likely to fail, to have an ornithologist who hears a failed transcription through a failed cognitive model that is notes; through media that are not designed to reproduce these things accurately, and employed for entirely different purposes, which are musical purposes.

BERRES: Where is there a measure of success?

JOHNSON: That’s ornithologist Mark Berres speaking again.

BERRES: So, I think the idea of success might be interpreted in a strict ornithological sense of recreation of this avian utterance, to be able to be recognized and to be structurally similar or nearly identical to that which you would see in the environment. On a piano? Good luck with that! That’s not going to happen. But, if it is an interpretation…if art really is the attempt at translation, no it’s not wrong, absolutely not. But maybe as a really strict ornithologist, who listens to it and goes, “No I don’t buy that at all. That is not it.” But was that really his intent? If it was his intent to really capture a perfect translation, I would say he kind of missed the boat on that. But, if the attempt was purely as an artistic interpretation of that translation of a very complicated, natural avian sound to an instrument made by humans, who’s to say he didn’t succeed?

A woman plays the flute while crouched beneath the propped cover a grand piano.

Iva Ugrcic accompanies the author in a performance of Messiaen’s “Le Merle Noir” (The Blackbird). Screenshot of a performance recorded by Dave Alcorn in 2017.

JOHNSON: Well, I’d like to thank Brian Grimm for doing all of the audio editing of my own playing—essentially every Messiaen work for piano that’s heard throughout the podcast. Additionally, thanks to Iva Ugrcic for collaborating on Messiaen’s flute/piano-duo piece Le Merle Noir (“The Black Bird”), and to Dave Alcorn for recording it for us. If you’d like to see a video of us playing Le Merle Noir, that’s available on YouTube. Original theme music that’s heard at the start of each episode was composed by Micah Behr. Much thanks goes out to him, not only for this, but for moral support and motivation. I’d also like to recognize the following people for giving me permission to use their recordings: Forrest Eimold for his recording of Xenakis’s piece for piano and violin, Dikhthas; and the recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat is of another wonderful pianist, my friend Vincent Ip. The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided all of the footage of birdsong audio. Specially, the recordists Randolph S. Little for the recording of the song sparrow; Julia Ferguson for the recording of the northern cardinal; Ed Pandolfino for the lark sparrow; Bob McGuire for the brown thrasher; and Linda Macaulay for the woodlark. I highly recommend exploring the Cornell Lab’s website, where you can play audio footage of any North American bird you can possibly think of.

Most of all, I’d like to thank my guests that were featured on this episode—Todd Welbourne, Steve Dembski, and Mark Berres. Throughout my investigation of the crazy music of Olivier Messiaen, it was the content of my contributors that kept me inspired. And thank you to whoever may be listening to this. If the material from today’s episode sparked any interest or further questions, don’t hesitate to be in contact with me. The music you’re hearing now is from the Catalog of Birds, Book 3 of 7—“L’Alouette Lulu”, or “Song of the Woodlark”. I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it, through the end.

Featured image: A parakeet named Punky perched on piano keys. A modified version of a photo by Amyra Moon, March 2011.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Kyle Johnson, a pianist since elementary school, has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. In 2015, he co-founded the contemporary music ensemble Sound Out Loud, which shortly thereafter received a New Arts Venture grant from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arts Institute. Website. Contact

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