The Marketplace of Environmental Sounds
Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery. Western music history is full of examples of composers inspired by the calls, songs, and sounds of the natural world. In Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (1808), for example, the composer used Western instruments to mimic three different species of birds: the nightingale, which he writes for flute; the quail, which he writes for oboe; and the cuckoo, which is translated to the clarinet. In the 20th century, technological advances allowed composers to use audio recordings of environmental sounds in their works for the first time. The use of “nature sound” recordings became—and still is—quite widespread in both popular and classical music.
Musician Kyle Johnson sat down with environmental historian and sound studies scholar Craig Eley to discuss the connections between recorded sound, music, and environmentalism—and how the seemingly innocent imitation of nonhuman sounds was not without problematic entanglements in racism, sexism, and imperialist nostalgia. From Beethoven to vaudeville whistlers to 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen, this conversation explores the art and the ethics of imitating, recording, and listening to the nonhuman world.
Editor’s Note: The following episode comes from a four-part podcast series on the “birdsong” music of French composer Olivier Messiaen, produced by Kyle Johnson. Johnson’s interest in Messiaen’s large-scale piano composition “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” (“Catalog of Birds”) led to the creation of the podcast Art Music Perspectives, which endeavors to engage with scholars outside of traditional musical circles and offers listeners broader frames for topics within 20th century music. Listeners can find all four episodes of this series—as well as complete transcripts and citations—on Johnson’s website. In July 2017, Edge Effects previewed the first episode. We’re excited to share another episode from this series with our listeners today.
Stream or download the conversation here. Interview highlights follow.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Kyle Johnson: You wrote a paper entitled “A Birdlike Act,” in which you use the term “performance whistling.” I find this kind of appropriate to discuss with Olivier Messiaen because when you think of imitating birdsong, you think of whistling. I wonder if you can tell us a bit more about the act of imitation of natural sounds and how that fits in to both recorded and live music?
Craig Eley: The desire to record the natural world or capture it into recording technology existed long before it was technically possible. What you find in the turn of the century—starting in the 1890s, really—is a lot of animal imitation. And I was surprised and kind of delighted when I found a lot of this stuff. It started with whistling, which was used in a kind of sound effect way into the 1930s and 40s, especially in animated films. But, imitation was actually part of a vaudeville tradition, in many ways. There were people who were imitators who could imitate a variety of animals with their mouths. That was sort of a complementary technique to people who did imitations of voices the way we think of comedic imitation today. Whistling developed out of that.
As these sort of vaudeville imitators faded from popularity, a new kind of whistling emerged, which was this musical whistling and also whistling that specifically included bird-like trill and rolls and flourishes. And again, that sort of starts like “we’re all sort of having a laugh here.” It’s popular; it’s a novelty, actually, is the way to think about it. It’s novelty music. But then as that sort of creeps up into the 1910s and 20s, there’s at least a handful of people—men and women—who really try to legitimatize performance whistling as a naturalist practice, if not an explicitly ornithological one. So, there are people who go on the Chautauqua lecture circuit who will show you a picture of a bird and then do an imitation of it. There are women who would define the bird, say it by name, and then whistle it.
KJ: And they were doing this because it was before they had the ability to actually record and playback the birdsong instead?
CE: Yeah, exactly. This was the analog recording era. No recordings of wild birds were possible so this was one way that people thought, we can bring some of this natural world into your living room. That was literally how these things were marketed. “You live in a city? Bring the natural world home with these collections of birdlike whistles.” Of course, the practice was complex. Besides coming out of this vaudeville tradition, it was also associated with coon song. There were racialized components of whistling. There were critiques of female whistlers as being “unladylike,” so there were these gendered associations with whistling. The way that performance whistlers overcame that stigma was to say, “What we’re doing is science. This is natural observation, it has educational value, we can also make it aesthetic and beautiful.” Often, whistlers would do some “straight imitations.” So they said, “Hey, this is a real thing here, take it seriously.” And a lot of people did. There is at least one whistler who is accepted into the American Ornithologists’ Union and gets a medal for his skills. A guy called Charles Crawford Gorst.
We have an important ethical role to play in how we represent the natural world through sound.
Ornithologists didn’t disagree. Many ornithologists themselves at this time also did imitation. I have an example of taxidermists who did imitation. People whose professional work was part of the intellectual project of natural history at this time were often animal imitators. It was part of knowing their subject was the ability to mimic its own vocalizations. By the time Olivier Messiaen is doing this, it almost harkens back to this earlier mimetic era of animal interpretation. So, in that way, it’s kind of a cool acknowledgment of these earlier embodied practices, which suggest an intimacy of knowledge that is in some ways lost, perhaps, by the purely visual readout of spectrographic data.
KJ: So, in a way it used to be information of the people and for the people, rather than information of and for scientists.
CE: Well, that’s not wrong. Whistling is, some might argue, one of the more democratic musical forms. You don’t even need an instrument. You don’t need any specialized training. This idea that some “more primitive” people at this time (like African Americans or children), or people who were believed in these racist formulations to be closer to nature in some way, were often believed to have an uncanny ability to whistle. Like it was part of their primitive nature, they had a deeper connection; they were mere conduits for this natural form of whistling to even emanate from their lips. So, obviously, we don’t want to recreate that kind of native romanticism.
KJ: So just in the instance of imitation, there are these problems that come up of gendering or racializing them. I’m wondering if somehow that could apply to the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven?
CE: I mean, what’s caught up in all of this, too, that we haven’t mentioned yet, is the inherently sort of imperialist or colonialist project of categorization itself. The work of natural history in the early 19th century is very much a cataloging process. You’ve got this Linnaean desire to get everything under the sun into a workable taxonomy. The Pastoral Symphony does that in parts too—it actually identifies species.
That process is inherently fraught, even in something as simple, perhaps, as saying this is the sound of a bird by a stream. But it’s especially fraught, I think, in the institutional ways that these activities were captured and promoted and promulgated. The work of capturing the sounds of birds was not unlike the work that was being done in ethnographic circles at that time to capture the voices of languages, of peoples all over the country. Native Americans, of course, but also all over the world.
Imperialist nostalgia, the fear that we’re losing this very thing we’re destroying, is lurking under the surface here.
The colonialist, racist legacy of that is absolutely part of this. There is language that is so similar as to be striking between capturing the voices of “dying peoples” and capturing the voices of “dying species.” The imperialist nostalgia, the fear that we’re losing this very thing that we’re destroying, is always, I think, lurking under the surface here. Sometimes it’s right on the surface. Sometimes it is foregrounded as the straight-up project, of going out into a foreign space to mingle with foreign bodies, to somehow capture and document their knowledge in some way, and to bring it back into an institutional context.
KJ: It sounds kind of silly to say we’re appropriating birdsong, but I don’t really know of a better way to say it. And it sounds like that’s kind of what you’re alluding to, as well.
CE: For lack of a better word, I think it is a kind of appropriation. To take this thing in the world that has its own culture and meaning that is independent of the meaning we associate with it. The work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and these early recordings are absolutely the starting point for things like proprietary sound effects libraries, for things like movies licensing sound effects. It creates a marketplace of environmental sounds.
And it’s a marketplace that they, themselves, benefited from. I mean, Cornell University Press, sometimes called Comstock Publishing—they had a record label. They put this stuff out and sold it to Walt Disney. I have this great letter that I’ve seen of Paul Kellogg, one of the ornithologists, sort of bragging to a friend like, “Hey, I just did this recording of an alligator that I sold to Walt Disney for $500 bucks.”
There’s this notion that you’re doing this sort of documentary work by just placing a microphone, often an expensive array of microphones in a sort exotic or otherwise sonically interesting locale, and then sharing them with people on social networks. Is that inherently environmentalist? I have doubts about that. But at the same time, I do think that there is an ethics of listening. I think there can be an ethics of recording. I think there can be an ethics of music that is environmental. We still have an important ethical role to play in how we represent the natural world through sound or how we think about listening.
KJ: To close out the episode, I’d like to feature some of Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir, which uses the flute to imitate the bird call and songs of a common blackbird. I included bits of this audio in previous episodes, but a video also exists on Youtube of Iva Ugrćič and myself performing the work. I’d like to thank Craig Eley again for his valuable insights on these expansive topics within Messiaen’s musical output and legacy. Transcripts and citations to this and every episode of Art Music Perspectives can be found on my website. Thanks for listening.
Featured image: A young man stands in front of a water landscape at sunset with a large microphone to record environmental sounds. Image from Pixabay.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Pianist Kyle Johnson recently received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in piano from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His performing experience ranges from solo and festival appearances throughout the U.S. and U.K., co-founding the Madison-based contemporary ensemble Sound Out Loud, and as a performance fellow in the Longitude Contemporary Ensemble in Boston, Massachusetts. His research interests strongly correlate to his interest in 20th century music, which he produces a podcast series around (Art Music Perspectives). While his eco-musical interest is ongoing, inclusive of living composers such as John Luther Adams, he is currently at work on a new miniseries abut trauma and pain in music. Website. Contact.