May brings the breaking of buds on beeches clumped around the little heath known as The Whin. The scene is set and the drama of the weather plays out in one short act at a time. Between dark interludes of rain and vicious hail, shafts of sunlight pick out the colours of black and gold gorse, silver-leaved willows and pure white hawthorns one bush at a time. This is the nightingale’s haunt, the place the bird favours when it is time to begin to sing. I go to The Whin, to listen, whenever I can in May. I know exactly what I’m listening for and I know that I will hear it if it is there to hear.
Faintly, from the other side of The Whin, I catch two or three notes that stand out quite distinctly from the rest of the avian babel. They are enough to confirm that nightingales are present. The beginnings of the song lure me across the heath. I stop, stare intently, strain my hearing towards the source of the sound. The three nightingales who come to this place each spring are tuning up and I’m tuning in. The sounds lead me to focus first on a boulder-shaped gorse bush smothered in improbably yellow blossom, each of its flowers surmounted by a barbed collar of spiny black leaves. Attentive, I inhale the blossom’s strange perfume, a little like coconut laced with a splash of meths and a pinch of dry dust. This is the moment when I know that the most earnest and forceful song of the spring is about to begin. Arrestingly loud, pristine and clear, the song starts, seeming to issue straight from the perfumed heart of the ferociously thorned, shining golden bush. I concentrate, all my attention impaled on the sweet spike of the song.
Close by, two more nightingales respond to the first and begin their singing, one in a willow and the other in a sycamore, each of the three within hearing of one another. The song of each nightingale consists of both single, separate notes and sequences of musical trills which are punctuated by silences. It also contains many strange double sounds. Over and over, the bird emits a liquid note and a tiny high wheeze at exactly the same moment, as though it is pronouncing two distinctly different words in the same single mouthful of exhaled breath. Nightingales can do this because the two sounds are produced separately in the syrinx, a special vocal organ made up of two halves. Given that the song is sung to mark out territory, the double sounds suggest that the bird is not only saying two things at once, but perhaps also pretending to be two fiercely territorial birds at once, posing a more formidable double challenge to would-be trespassers. As I move around the heath to listen to each bird in turn, I notice how often the three nightingales all call at once, multi-tracking, speaking or singing right over one another. Each one is maintaining a protectively impenetrable sound barrier around its own patch of The Whin.
While listening to the nightingales’ repertoire of sweetly peculiar and peculiarly sweet sounds, I get a strong sense of the song as an almost tangible physical entity, a sonic barrier whose invisible fabric is constantly attended and maintained by the birds. To the nightingales the songs act as auditory walls, simultaneously joining and separating adjacent private territories, jealously guarded personal spaces. Each bird throws heart and soul into singing out a boundary, a barrier to thwart any other intruding male. And yet, the song is not only an expression of prohibition, but of intense passion too because it is a love song sung to attract the attention of females. Just as the bird can pronounce two sounds simultaneously, it can also invest the song with two apparently contradictory messages.
The songs remind me of the way that sound moves, outwards from a centre, like rings rippling away from a stone thrown into water. If they were each capable of creating a visual trace, the three nightingales’ songs would spread in three great discs across the landscape. I imagine how their invisible edges might overlap, just as the circumferences of circles juxtapose in a venn diagram. Doubting that the song demarcates a simple circular-shaped territory, I try to visualise the physical shapes that each bird’s song is describing on the landscape. The songs and their shapes have to be something more than flat two dimensional maps because each nightingale has high and low perches, as well as different singing points located at the centre and the extremities of its territory. Mentally, I try to trace the complex of border-lines that each complicated song enunciates. More than laying out a neatly demarcated ground plan, or simply identifying the territory’s outposts, the songs might also describe the dimension of height, the volume of air space and the directions of flight paths. If the sung territory maps were visible, they might appear as irregularly shaped hemispheres whose domes trace the intricate fractals of the trees’ crowns.
On The Whin, the songs of all three nightingales follow a similar template, but each of them uses the basic form in a highly individual way because every nightingale combines species-specific set pieces with its very own extemporisations. In technical terms, nightingale song is aleatory: in other words its form cannot be predicted (by the audience) prior to performance. The bird that sings in the gorse is the most impressive performer because it uses the greatest repertoire of single sounds, double sounds and connective phrases. Fluent and confident, this bird excels at varying its song’s intensity and volume: it expertly modulates a wide range of sounds from very low to very high, almost inaudible, pitch. Many of its phrases end with little ornamental flourishes of its own invention - just as some of Beethoven’s and Brahms’s cadenzas are left to the performer to devise. I do not know where the ‘beginning’ or the ‘end’ of the song occur, and although I can recognise certain phrases that superficially sound alike to me, the intense complexity of the ordering and re-ordering of phrases means that I cannot ever be sure if their repetitions are actually identically reproduced time after time or not.
Over 200 variants have been detected in the phrasing of the song, so between them the three birds on
The Whin might be singing several hundred song variants. No wonder it is so difficult for humans to ‘learn’
and reproduce the song. Its sounds are almost impossible to capture verbally, and harder still to express in
written text, yet many of those who hear the nightingale are inspired to try. Many writers’ efforts emphasise
only the repetitive chuck-chuck-chuck or jug-jug-jug sound, but a more ambitious attempt at phonic
reproduction is quoted in the idiosyncratic surrealist Encyclopaedia Acephalica. Under the entry for
Expression, Jean Baptiste de la Malle’s 1787 transcription reads as follows:
‘Tiuu, tiuu, tiuu, tiuu,
Lpay tiuu zqua,
Tio, tio, tio, tio, tix,
Qutio, qutio, qutio, qutio,
Zquo, zquo, zquo, zquo,
Zi, zi, zi, zi, zi, zi, zi,
Quorror tiuu zqua pipiqui.'
Perhaps not very expressive, but I can to see how de la Malle arrived at this because parts of the song sound very much as though the bird is patiently spelling out individual words from an alien language rather than pronouncing full sentences. He has captured something of the song, but its musicality eludes the page. Ultimately, this rendition only underscores the point that you need to have actually heard a nightingale for the phonetics to make any auditory sense.
Over time during the last three Mays, I have learned to recognise a particular song sequence which opens with four or five high-pitched diminuendo wheezes, followed by a harsher metallic cranking sound, then more wheezes. Another segment sounds like tiny wet stones being clinked together very rapidly, or perhaps it’s more like the ringing blows of a little hammer striking a miniature anvil. I am not sure. This sequence precedes a long chirring sound, burry edged, then more stone clinking. There is another passage that begins with a single, sweet, slow, sibilant creak which precedes seven or eight slow repetitions of a reedy-sounding took-took-took syllable. It is certainly true that one of the most frequent sounds is a chucking noise, a bit like a wren’s alarm call, but far stronger. Sometimes the chucks have a grating, pinging and slightly hollow, echoing quality that reminds me of the sound of an electronic space-gun toy. There are many runs of staccato trilling notes which are sounded with a tiny simultaneous wheeze that you can only detect if you are within a few feet of the singer. The song is always assured and insistent, highly persuasive: it makes you, and all the other nightingales, sit up and take notice. Its unfailingly urgent and forceful delivery seems like a ploy to out-talk and exclude the other birds, to prevent them from getting a word, or a wing, in edgeways through the singer’s impenetrable wall of protective sound.
I have found that I am very susceptible to the very highest pitched notes and the very quietest wheezes: these exert a strange and powerfully disruptive effect on my senses and perceptions. These subtle notes convince me that someone is twiddling the volume dial, playing with the levels on the nightingale decks. I experience the highly concentrated, mind-altering sound as though it is amplified and being fed directly into my brain through powerful head-phones.
Even when I can actually see the bird singing right beside me, the tiny needling sounds it makes often seem to come from somewhere very far off; a distant place at the outermost edge of perceptibility - somewhere on the brink of dream. But, absorbed in deep listening, I cannot always be certain if the nightingale is singing from near or far. The song plays sophisticated tricks on my sense of proximity and distance, as it follows up what I hear as faraway, half-imagined abstract sounds with full-powered and overtly musical chasers. In a split second, my perception of the song as something external to my body and very distant from me is overridden by the completely opposite sensation - the feeling that the bird and the sound it is making are some interior and integral fragment of me. It is easy to succumb to the idea that the bird is deliberately controlling my sensation of its supposed advance and retreat.
The longer I listen, the more powerful the illusion becomes: the song oscillates between the states of internality and externality. At times I begin to believe that the sound is actually being generated deep in the core of my own brain. Hypnotised, I cannot say whether the song is inside me, or whether I am inside the song, or both. Writing in 1927, Viscount Grey mentions something similar - the physical impact of notes of energy, force and domination. He too outlines the strange properties of the song, describing how ‘the best notes of other birds […] seem to reach and terminate at the listener’s ear; but the supreme notes of the nightingale envelop and surround us: so that we lose perception of the point whence they proceed: it is as if we were included and embraced in pervading sound.’ (1931:76-77)
The allure of nightingale song does not depend on sound alone, but also on its opposite - the articulation of profound silence. All music depends on the manipulation of intervals and pauses, but the way that nightingales use breaks imbues their song with a deeply compelling extra dimension. The song’s breaks hold the hearer in a delicious and irresistible state of suspense. Silence and sound co-exist in perfect symmetrical balance. The quality of imminence that silence brings is the truly magical ingredient in the nightingale’s spell.
The silences in the song have tempted more than one musician to attempt to duet with nightingales. The precedent was set in May 1924 when Beatrice Harrison took her cello into the garden and played as a nightingale sang. While writing this piece I found internet advertisements for an event that follows Harrison’s cue - Singing With Nightingales. Curated by the folk singer Sam Lee, the aim is to ‘experience what happens when bird and human virtuosi converge in musical collaboration.’ Whatever the intentions of virtuosi would-be duettists, Michael McCarthy has very astutely observed that the nightingale actually sings a duet with silence. If this is so, the song does not contain space for human intervention or augmentation. It does not need it. McCarthy’s idea that silence is the song’s background - what moulds it, what makes it perfect - is completely right.
For me, silence is the feature that evokes the most powerful psychological sensations. During pauses in the song, I feel myself concentrating as hard as I know how, waiting for the bird to sing the next phrase. I expend mental energy in willing it to sing on, not wanting any phrase to be the performance’s final one. Anticipation makes me sharpen and re-sharpen the focus of my senses. Because I want to hear the song so much, I imagine that I can hear it even when I know the bird is silent. In the grip of auditory hallucination, I am caught between anticipation and gratification, between the real and the imagined, the fictive and the phenomenal.
There is something about the nightingale’s manipulative control of the interplay between sound and silence that reminds me of the power dynamics between ‘the build up’, ‘the drop’ and ‘the breakdown’ which occur in electronic dance music. The build up is self-explanatory: the music passes through a phase during which energy is accumulated through the use of a strong unremitting beat, perhaps composed of simple clicks, taps, knocks, drum beats and / or short vocal samples. Pitch rises. Tension mounts. Gradually the sound gets bigger, louder, stronger. In the drop, the music surges into more complex rhythms and sounds and in a club or arena, it is the moment that propels the audience into their most energetic dance moves.
A seasoned frequenter of Fabric, Manumission and other Ibizan clubs explained the two parts of the drop in more detail like this: “Climb, climb, climax … then silence: drop! The increased speed and frequency of the parts of the track build and then … a split second of silence. It relents and then BOOM … the drop!” This description emphasises the split-second duration of the first element of the drop, namely silence. After the excitement of the drop’s second element - the boom of music - another build up begins: another sound, gathering momentum and force, leading on towards the next drop. The device has taken the place of the chorus or refrain. Repetitions of this musical pattern take the audience ever onwards and upwards through higher and higher levels of expectation and excitement. In this climactic technique, deferral and delay alternate with satisfaction and release.
Listening to, or through, a silence in nightingale song, actually inhabiting it, is rather like experiencing the dance track’s split-second drop or refrain described above. The difference is that the nightingale elongates and prolongs the stage of silent refrain. It pushes the drop, takes it right to the limit. The etymology of the word refrain shows that it derives from the Latin refringo - to break open, break off, break or check. If applied to nightingale song, the notion of the drop is ambiguous, double-edged: it could refer to a long-anticipated iteration of certain sounds, or equally, to the bird’s recurring silence, the inevitable break or breaking off, the very thing that, as McCarthy observes, shapes and substantiates the rest of the nightingale’s song. So, the silence is the drop, the long moment of drama that I know the bird’s song inevitably leads to. During this silent refrain, I’m caught, like a clubber marking time, waiting for the drop, but worrying about being dropped, wondering if the bird has actually flown.
But, when I listen hard enough, when I’m with the bird right inside the space of the long drop, silence itself starts to develop a pronounced internal pulse of its own. I cannot tell if it is being generated inside my own body by my heartbeat, my breathing, the throb of my blood in my temples, the electrical charging of neurones in my brain - or by the energy of some other far more mysterious natural force which the song brings me into contact with.
As I listen to the potent non-sound of silence and the sounds spontaneously generated by absence of
sound, silence begins to become, not a mere absence of song, or an empty void. It becomes instead a
recognisable physical place, somewhere out of the ordinary that I can only enter when I am in the
nightingale’s presence. Every May I go in search of the sounds that allow me access to this uniquely special
place. Yearly, at the time when the membrane of birdsong is stretched between the trees, I must hear and feel
the full gamut of effects produced by the nightingale’s multi-tracked song - the song that charms bluebells
from the earth and adders from their lairs. The haunt of the nightingale is not only out there, somewhere
actual and exterior, on The Whin, but also within, inside me - a place I re-discover, re-visit and find my
way back into every May, whenever I hear the haunting nightingales sing.
Kim Crowder. May 2018.
Grey, E. Viscount of Falloden. 1931, .The Charm of Birds, Chapter IV, pp. 76-77, London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited.
Lebel, L., Waldberg, I. (Eds.) 1995. Encyclopædia Acephalica Comprising the Critical Dictionary and Related Texts edited by Georges Bataille and the Encyclopædia Da Costa edited by Robert Lebel and Isabelle Waldberg, London: Atlas Press.
McCarthy, M. 2009. Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, pp.60-61. London: John Murray.
Seatter, R. The Cello and the Nightingale. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35861899 Accessed 12/5/18.
Drop_(music).https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drop_(music) Accessed 9/5/18.
https://www.singingwithnightingales.com/#singing-with-nightingales Accessed 12/5/18.
My thanks to Anna Reid for her input concerning the drop in dance music tracks.
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