Birds, Sound Editors

Birdsong in contemporary music, using traditional instruments or computer

(excerpt from Atlantic Monthly online)

Birds, as Olivier Messiaen never tired of saying, were earth's first musicians, and to his ears the best. People have been mimicking birds in music since the dawn of time. Certainly the Western canon, from Rameau, Vivaldi, and Bach on to Wagner, Strauss, and Stravinsky, abounds with owls, nightingales, cuckoos, and larks, evoked in picturesque but simplistic approximations. Until Messiaen the challenge of catching the complexities of contour and timbre of any but the plainest birdsongs went unattempted.

For Messiaen the desire was there long before he had worked out the requisite technique. In his early prelude La Colombe (1929) he was already making the piano coo and gurgle, but still operating well within the sphere of impressionist precedent. In the years following, Messiaen -- music's Audubon -- devoted a scholar's zeal to transcribing whole choirs of birds, always in traditional notation, always in the field. Often his second wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod (whose performances of Messiaen's piano works, dedicated to her, remain unsurpassed), would tag along with a tape recorder, capturing backup material that proved invaluable later on. Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux (for piano), depicting birds of France, eventually grew to seven books plus the half-hour coda and summation La Fauvette des jardins (The Garden Warbler).

Sometimes Messiaen would present birds individually; sometimes he would place them among the fauna of their habitat, amid detailed sonic "scenery." Sometimes he went so far as to reflect biorhythms, stage-directing air traffic; sometimes he would juxtapose the songs of various birds without regard for where they came from, seduced by their vocalizations and perhaps also by the romance of their names (Australia's superb lyrebird or an elusive specimen, heard but unseen, whose mystique he preserved in the makeshift phrase "the bird of Persepolis").

Birds do not sing the way people write music, and transcribing them was like concocting algebra to reproduce calligraphy: it took creativity of no small order. Some two dozen relevant birdsongs taped in Europe and Israel, appended to Hans-Ola Ericsson's recording (on the BIS label) of Messiaen's last major organ cycle, Livre du Saint Sacrement, bring home the difficulty of the problem.

Birdsong moves faster than human fingers; the first thing to go when an instrumentalist mimics a bird is tempo. Also, Western melodies are strung together from notes, well-defined pitches neatly arrayed on scales. Birds sing microtones. They phrase in arabesques that swoop and glide. Their staccato "notes" are more like jagged shards than human musicians' points and beads of sound. The timbres and attacks are often energetic to the point of harshness, yet to our ears in the wild they may sound ineffably sweet. For the piano and for instruments of the orchestra Messiaen invented ways of clustering and combining notes to produce, often with uncanny verisimilitude, an impression of the real thing. Call it trompe-l'oreille.

At the same time, Messiaen took amazing liberties. He transposed certain songs deep into the registers of bassoon and bass clarinet, for instance. Real birds cannot make sounds that low. Boulez remembers joshing Messiaen about the incongruity: "No bird," he pointed out with Cartesian wit, "is gigantic enough." In the end Messiaen's birdsongs resemble his colors. "What he wrote," Boulez says, "was his imagination of birdsongs. If you analyze birdsong scientifically, you find none of the intervals Messiaen wrote. The starting point is in reality. The elaboration is very irreal."

(full article

Jonathan Harvey

Bird Concerto with Pianosong (c.f. recent performance

Indigo bunting, orchard oriole, golden crowned sparrow - these are some of the 40 colourful Californian birds whose songs and cries sparked the ignition of this work as I started it in the brilliant light of California. 'Real' birdsong was to be stretched seamlessly all the way to human proportions - resulting in giant birds - so that a contact between worlds is made. When I started to transpose them and slow them down to our natural speeds of perception they began to reveal level after level of ornamentation - baroque culicues and oriental arabesques. They were put on a triggering keyboard and combined in dialogue with instruments - particularly solo piano, who connects closely by playing birdsong samples and piano simultaneously, and so incorporated in the pitch and time of our own song-world. Birds embody not only the joy of endless singing but also the freedom of the body's flight. The orchestra, like the birds, would have to wing its way through the bright air. Birds also use quasi-electronic frequency modulation in their cries and songs. I took their hint and copied their tricks in the electronic modulations of the orchestra. If the songs and objects of the score can bring some inkling of how it might feel to be a human in the mind of a bird, or vice-versa, then I would be happy.

The Bird Concerto with Pianosong was written in response to a request from Joanna MacGregor, who plays both the piano and sampler/synthesiser keyboard, and commissioned by Sinfonia 21, with whom I have a happy association, together with GRAME/Ensemble Orchestrale Contemporain and the French
Ministere de Culture. The birdsongs were encoded in digital form by Bill Schottstaedt of CCRMA: my thanks to him, to Juan Pampin for help with programming, to Sound Intermedia (Ian Dearden and David Shephard) for their help with spatialisation, modulation and diffusion and to Oliver Rivers for his encouragement.

- Jonathan Harvey

The synthesis was mostly combining birdsongs chordally in parallel and in canon, and stretching and compressing in time. And cutting up and recombining. Also straightforward sampler keyboard transposition/speed change. Sometimes the SY77 would be added to the keyboard-action, and sometimes these sounds would be ring-modulated with bird samples and/or straight piano. The ensemble is intermittently ring-modulated also, often only a sub-group of the ensemble at a time. But the electronics on this recording are too timidly recorded (typical radio) and a lot is lost.

sndplay /usr/ccrma/snd/cc/220a/pianosong1.wav

Birdsong recordings

Patricio's bank of bird calls lives in /usr/ccrma/snd/pdelac/Birds

cp /usr/ccrma/snd/pdelac/Birds/LaBuflightsong.wav .

example online archives for your own exploration (-- lots more out there to be found with search engines)

Synthesis by signal model (Fourier techniques), Bill Schottstaedt

mkdir 220a

cp /user/c/cc/220a/birds48k.scm ~/220a/

cd 220a

snd &

[then when Snd has launched, in its menu, choose View: Show Listener and in the Listener window type]

(load "birds48k.scm")


[play, zoom, transform to sonogram, etc.]

mkdir Library/Web/220a

Synthesis by physical model, Tamara Smyth

Smyth, T., and J.O.Smith III. 2002. "The Sounds of the Avian Syrinx -- Are the Really Flute-like?", Proceedings of DAFX 2002, International Conference on Digital Audio Effects, Hamburg, Germany, September 2002. pdf / ps

Smyth, T., and J.O.Smith III. 2002. "The Syrinx: Nature's Hybrid Wind Instrument", CD-ROM Paper Collection, Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics 2002, Acoustical Society of America, Cancun, Mexico, December 2002. pdf / ps (award winner)

Analysis and Morphing by resonances, David Jaffe

bird human from Impossible Animals


UNIX commands

audio formats:

typical for 220a is .wav (also known in some software as RIFF), other possibles: .aiff (Mac), .au (Sun), .snd (NeXT)

typical is 16bit, 48kHz, others are: 44100kHz, 96kHz, 24bit

compression formats: Ogg Vorbis (encode / decode), mp3 (decode)

converting formats with sox: [type in a terminal, e.g., upsampling and adding channels from a mono, 22kHz file called oldsnd.wav]

sox oldsnd.wav -c2 -r48000 newsnd.wav

terminal-based help: [type in a terminal, for help on e.g., audacity, or info on Ogg Vorbis programs]

man audacity

apropos vorbis

checking audio, launching audacity, etc.: [type in a terminal]

envy24control &

audacity &

listing contents of course-related directories: [type in a terminal]

ls ~/220a

ls /usr/ccrma/snd/220a-2003/<your login>/

ls ~/Library/Web/220a