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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

by DAVID YEARSLEY

There is no substitute for live musical performance. It is not only that the human ear is still, and will probably always be, far more sophisticated and sensitive than the best microphones. Experiencing music delivered by living beings is always about much more than mere sound. As yet, no digital medium can even approximate stage presence. Here’s betting that Silicon Valley engineers will never master the metaphysical.

Real performance is not just to be marveled at in the concert hall, however. The natural world teaches us the lesson of the live far more forcefully. There is so much more to the Northern Cardinal’s song than the confidence of its fanfare opening and the seduction of its sliding second theme. The pitches and complex cadence of the bird’s music are richer and more powerful when performed at the top of a locust snag above a humid gorge with the rolling New York hills emerging from the dawn horizon! And what would the cardinal’s song be without its bright red plumage, its black face, its fat beak, and flexing crest? A recording of a bird’s song, however beautiful as abstracted music, is as much about the absence of the performer as it is about the beauty of the melody.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York is the most famous center for the study of birds and has the world’s largest collection of birdsong. Though birdsong has long fascinated musicians, Oliver Messiaen was the most assiduous student of avian sound. Birdsong is an essential symbolic and mystical feature of Messiaen’s oeuvre. An active transcriber in the field in his beret and holding a clipboard, Messiaen transcribed the songs taken up in his Oiseaux exotiques of 1956 not from nature, but from a set of six 78 rpm records put out in 1942 by Cornell.  When he came to Cornell in the 1980s for a series of concerts, he spent all the time he could at the Lab investigating its archive of birdsong, then still consisting of analog recordings.

It is not just the thousands of species represented in the lab’s catalog that astonish, but the range of individual performers and performances. There are 401 different recordings available on-line through the lab’s website of the Northern Cardinal. Although obvious as soon as one steps back and looks at the range of human speech and song, the individual variations to be heard within the unity that is a bird species’ language are inspiring. When a bird goes extinct so does a vast array of unique performances and the possibility of future individual expressions of a song.

Eight-hundred pound bronzes don’t sing, nor do extinct species.  At last night’s opening of a remarkable exhibition of the latest work of sculptor Todd McGrain, five human-scale bronzes of vanished birds huddled in the stone and glass entrance hall of the Cornell Lab’s new building. The dark warmth of their forms blunted the brittle, slightly muted light cast from above. Within earshot of the world’s greatest archive of birdsong, the silence of these five figures was overwhelming.

For his Lost Bird Project, McGrain has chosen four North American species and one of the North Atlantic and lower Arctic: the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen (an extinct subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken), the Carolina Parakeet, and the Great Auk. As far as I could find out, The Cornell Lab has no recordings of any of their voices. No aural trace of them remains.

The most famous of these birds, and the one whose extinction counts as the most infamous, was the Passenger Pigeon. “No mere bird, he was a biological storm,” wrote Aldo Leopold in his 1947 On a Monument to the Pigeon. Leopold’s is the most beautiful account of a bird and its demise:

“[The Passenger Pigeon] was the lightning that played between two biotic poles of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and his own zest for living.  Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a travelling blast of life.  Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity.  Once the pigeoners had subtracted from his numbers, and once the settlers had chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.”

The Passenger Pigeon once made up nearly half of the land-bird population of the North America, its numbers estimated to be between three and five billion; pigeons eclipsed the sun for hours as they migrated at sixty miles per hour. The species was the most sociable on earth, the size of its flocks second only to those of the desert locust. Such social cohesiveness coupled with the rapacity of the Europeans wiped out the species with horrible speed. Its cheap meat fed slavery and industrialization. The last wild bird was shot in 1914; the final pair lived in the Cincinnati Zoo, where the final survivor, Martha, died in 1918.

Europeans marveled at the near-deafening noise from the seemingly endless nesting colonies of pigeons. Only written accounts survive of the species’ vocal array, but these were done with of captive birds. Once taken from the wild, pigeons never mated. Thus their erotic vocalization—that most important discourse of any language, verbal or otherwise—was never “scientifically” described.

McGrain’s seven-foot tall Passenger is Pigeon is as colorless as it is mute. There is as little suggestion of its brilliant feathers as there is of its lost songs. Rather than perched on its circular base, the bird emerges from it. Wings cleaving to one side of that base and extending down to the floor, the body rises almost vertically, the beak pointed obliquely upward.  Unmoving, the sculpture is nonetheless full of a energy, as if the bird is about to stretch or contemplates flight or looks up at a flock of his kind already flying in masses above. Like Pygmalion’s Galatea the statue seems on the verge of lifeBut extinction is the final cessation of motion: one sees that in the stuffed specimens in the Lab’s nearby display cases.

In McGrain’s sculpture the absence of these birds’ most distinctive characteristics—their color and voice—are made all the more painful by the bronzes’ smooth, black surface and elegiac form. This is monumental sculpture in both senses: large and memorial, as much about presence is about loss. One paradoxically confronts the unretrievable.

Of all the five sculptures in the Cornell Lab exhibition the Passenger Pigeon reminded me most of Constantin Brancusi’s birds.  The Guggenheim’s Bird in Space from the 1930s abstracts the idea of flight from a winging bird. There is something of the great modernist’s slender, oblong shape in all of McGrain’s birds, but especially the pigeon. McGrain has found a compelling balance between sensuous contour and figural detail. Whereas Brancusi uses brilliantly polished brass to help convey the lightness of flight, McGrain brings his birds down to earth, and ultimately to death, with a bronze darkened to smooth perfection by grinding and the addition of four layers of patina: a first coat of brown, blue, then black, then blue again.

McGrain’s sculptures are richly waxed so that their onyx skin gleams in the indoor lightning. The contours and folds of the bronze will one day glint in the sun, when his Lost Bird Project finds funding to place each sculpture in the location where each species was last seen in the wild: from nearby Elmira, New York, in the case of the Labrador Duck, to Eldey Island off the coast of Iceland for the Great Auk .

Without the hint of the feathers’ texture or color, McGrain’s bronzes begin Brancusi’s process of abstraction, or, put another way reverse it, moving from the ideal part way towards real, from the destroyed to the made. They are symbolic without being denuded of life; these shapes are not the generic, though highly useful, forms of birders’ field guides.  If only by their nobility, each sculpture seems to embody both an individual and an absolute.

The most colorful and songful of the quintet of birds sculpted  by McGrain was the Carolina Parakeet, The only parrot species native to eastern North America, its range once extended from the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico.  It too was a social bird, and once swathes of its territory were converted to agriculture, it was shot as a nuisance because of its reliance on those new crops cultivated on its habitat. The birds’ extravagant plumage attracted not only mates but the lethal fancy of fashion designers and their numberless customers. There have been no confirmed sightings of the birds in more than sixty years. The last captive parakeet died in 1918 in that same Cincinnati zoo where the Passenger Pigeons had gone extinct four years earlier.

Although there are no recordings of the Carolina Parakeet’s vocal repertoire, the great nineteenth and early twentieth-century ornithologist Charles Johnson Maynard noted that they were among the greatest of dining conversationalists: “While feeding, the Parakeets are not absolutely noisy but will keep up a low continuous chattering among themselves, as if conversing in a social manner.  These notes are continued while the birds are assuming all kinds of positions, now reaching for some tempting morsel while they hang head downward, or climbing with great ability from twig to twig.  All of these feats are done without interrupting the flow of gossip.”

Where McGrain’s Passenger Pigeon, like his Great Auk, is vertical in orientation, his Carolina Parakeet is horizontal, its beak tucked backward into its neck, its long slender tail extending straight out as it descends gradually towards the floor. The shadow of a claw is visible on the plinth on which it roosts. There is no intimation of a branch or of the natural world. The bird has withdrawn from its vanished conversation partners and its vanished world into itself. Perhaps it is grooming or sleeping. The behavior reflected by the form is irrelevant: in its posture of obliviousness it recedes towards oblivion, even while it is massively and gracefully before us.

Maynard also noted the uncanny way in which large flocks of exuberant Carolina Parakeets “endeavor to excel the other in producing the most discordant yells when in the air” but then, on landing would suddenly become uncannily quiet: “So great had been the din but a second before that the comparative stillness is quite bewildering.”

Bewildering is the inward turning silence of these timeless and peerless bronzes.

Cornell Labor of Ornithology
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/

Lost Bird Project at:
http://www.toddmcgrain.com/

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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