Celestial Melody?, 2021

Text commissioned for the publication Songs of Place and Time: Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts

Edited by Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg, John Strachan
Published by Gaia Project in partnership with Art Editions North and Bath Spa University.

This short story follows a disillusioned man on his romantic pursuit of perfection and purity within the birdsong dawn chorus.

It is a tale of misplaced sentiment, personal projection and self realisation. It is loosely inspired by the author's experiences recording and listening to dawn chorus' in the wild and the stages of relating to this phenomena.

About the book

There is an established understanding that birdsong is rooted on the premise that each singing bird is only, or predominantly, concerned with intra-specific communication. Yet, on listening to the mass of birds singing at dawn we have intuitively described the phenomenon as a ‘chorus’. A close analysis of the whole auditory scene suggests inter- specific structure as well as intra-specific relationships, giving rise to the ‘chorus’ impression, rather than random cacophony.

This publication explores how the arts can represent bird song in general and the dawn chorus in particular through ways that underline each chorus’ specific nature of space and place, whilst avoiding the trap of projecting human phenomena onto the more-than-human world.

Transcriptions of birdsong date back to antiquity and imitations of it feature in every culture’s music. However, ‘hearing music in birdsong’ can be little more than a projection of human codes and conventions on to the natural world, avoiding the radical unknowability of this more- than-human world.

The creative work by 29 writers, artists, musicians and poets presented in this multidisciplinary volume reconfigures ways in which the more- than-human is spatially experienced and understood. Such an approach is crucial as we seek alternative narratives to urgently address our current ecological crisis.

1st Dawn

He takes his place, arms outstretched, ready to receive this phenomenon. The sky brightens…

The birds sing

‘This joyous song is like a light inside me. I am transcendent in its exultation. I am now truly awake, truly alive. I am lifted by this fanfare to the sun. I feel free, maybe for the first time. Pure and untouched, simple and innocent, here is clarity, uncontaminated. This is how I want to be, how I still could be, at one, attuned, in synchronicity. Your songs are new and clean, they are washing me. I can begin again, I am alive through you.’

The birds sing on

‘Somehow you know what I am thinking and know what I need to hear. This is a special connection I have with you. Everything I despise about my world is absent in yours.’

On leaving he wonders whether he could get more from these dawns, to go further than these ecstatic moments? To rise higher even? ‘I want to hold your songs in the palm of my hand, to know your essence.’

2nd Dawn

Encouraged by the empathy he has now fostered with the chorus he is keen to take his place in the performance. By being part of it, he figures, the chorus will reveal itself to him.

He stands motionless with his eyes closed. A dry dead twig is held delicately in one hand. Both hands rise up, pointing out into the semi darkness and on a cue known only to him, they jolt downwards, beginning a frenzy of impassioned and articulated movements. He is conducting his choir.

Anyone coming across him might think he is possessed. The songs are brought in one by one from the surrounding circle. Taking centre stage he shapes the ensemble. At first he struggles to predict and respond to the variety of songs, confused by their lack of structure and discipline. He sets out to do what he can, provide a focus for unity and provide order to this beautiful but chaotic performance.

‘Your melodic meanderings need guidance!’ he advises the blackbird and leads by example with exacting baton technique. ‘Accent and punctuate!’ He likes the instructional voice he has found, it is empowering and somehow liberating. ‘That’s better.’ Some encouragement for the blackbird. Scolding the song thrush he yells ‘Repeat! repeat! not once but five times! Do you not know your part!’ Flailing and spinning, he catches and directs songs coming at him from every angle. ‘Ah the chiffchaff, see how delicately I bring you in, keeping you to time so precisely.’ 

And indeed the chiffchaff continues to keep to time very accurately. He turns his attention across to some vibrant and sporadic phrasing ‘Ah, the liveliness of the robin, it’s always a challenge, you have to coax and…’ he breaks off to grapple with the irregularities of his wayward soprano ‘…and finesse these phrases, show her who’s in charge.’ He demonstrates his dominance with grand expansive gestures, cutting at the air, as if to break and bring definition to the robin’s liquid notes. A crude new voice is brought to his attention, his sixth sense for equilibrium is irked, the harmony he is working so hard to refine is being punctured. He intuitively swivels to home in on his culprit.

Without needing to see the bird he points his stick in the direction of what he instinctively knows is a wren. With a forefinger raised to his lips as a school teacher might and with his stick stroking the air downwards he employs a quiet authority to quell the misplaced eagerness of this song.

To help this tiny bird understand its own voice, he raises his voice above the chorus, ‘You need to learn when to use it and when to hold back, you have immense power, choose your moments wisely. Watch and wait for my cues.’ He is crafting this chorus at last.

The birds sing on

‘Everything here is in balance, I see the patterns of the universe in your song, I feel the energy in everything, you show me I belong!’

Exhausted, he steps back from his task and basks in his chorus. Applause ripples over him as the wind shakes the canopy. He looks to sit down and survey this eden in rest, but the woodland floor looks dirty.

‘Keep singing, practice makes perfect!’ is his departing remark.

The birds sing on

3rd Dawn

He wakes. ‘Here they are, before my thoughts, the first songs call me. My chorus is waiting.’ The cold early darkness is not welcoming and he’s slightly annoyed they have started without him. Rallying himself and spurred on by the thought of ‘Even better birdsong’ he ventures forth. Although how exactly it would improve on the previous morning he isn’t sure. He concludes that everything must strive to improve itself as he does, ‘Surely that is what drives us, provides us with fuel and purpose.’

He takes his place at the centre again. Listening with anticipation. ‘Give it time’, he tells himself. He moves on, towards a place where he expects the songs to be more intense. ‘More birds, more species, better birds, better songs.’

The birds sing on

A few times the perfect place shifts to just beyond him. When at last he finds an adequate sound a flock of rooks fly over, circle and shambolically occupy the trees overhead. ‘Such crude and primitive calls, so unmusical.’

He judges them too human in tone to merit his attention; they remind him of the world he had left behind. Deciding that his chorus has been compromised, he’s forced on, towards a cleaner, purer, soundscape he hopes will not be far away. He resents having to walk so far.

As the light and heat are turned up, more songs start up. The long tangled song of a blackcap in the distance hooks him. ‘At last some cultured song.’ With new purpose he perseveres through bramble thickets to get close enough. But it has already left without telling him. He forgives its elusiveness, seeing it as part of its artistry, the uncompromising temperament of a wonderful warbler.

The songs he most values are the rarest and the most complex. He has reserved a place in his mind for these truly talented singers, but they are not showing up.

The birds sing on

Amongst the many birds singing around him now, a robin sings especially close. ‘Sorry, not special enough.’ The robin, he expounds to himself, is very common, the Christmas card bird that everyone knows and loves. Popular, prosaic and abundant. What more could this song offer him that he hasn’t heard a thousand times. ‘Your song is cheap.’ He chuckles at his unintended wit.

He moves on, away from the usual suspects, seeking greener grass. ‘If only the birds knew the sacrifices I’d made to be here with them. Where are the songs that will take me beyond myself?’ He calls it a day, although it has barely begun, and returns empty-handed.

The birds sing on

4th Dawn

The songs that wake him now, don’t lie so easily with him. They make him feel more alone somehow. He steps out earlier than before, hoping to beat them at their game. He acknowledges to himself the endeavour of these birds, for this he almost admires them. Although their efforts now have a desperation about them. Indiscriminate, hopeful, futile and lonely, signalling out across the dark of dawn to no-one in particular and everyone at once. There is a pathos to it. He feels in reflection diminished by it, as if this singing were just a functional and artless strategy. He remembers being a teenager, dancing at a disco, watching his friends showing off and hoping a girl would notice him, but never really believing that was possible.

‘Who are you singing to?!!’.

The birds sing on

The songs and calls appear changed, uncultured and pedestrian. They are pulling away from his beautiful vision of them, indifferent to him and his desire for oneness. It strikes him as naive that he’s never seen their indifference before. That they really don’t care about him, or even consider him in any way is surprisingly shocking to him. All this attention he was giving to them, this was clearly undeserved. He stands, calm and motionless, for some time.

‘Aaaaagghhhhh!’ Screaming with arms flailing wildly he charges through the brambles, straight toward a singing dunnock he’s singled out. It takes flight, a blue tit does the same, just far enough to be outside his field of influence, which he notes they have the measure of. They continue with their business as if nothing had happened, mocking his wasted energy.

That they acknowledged and noticed him, even if it was in fear, gives him some satisfaction. Evidence, however fleeting, that he exists beyond the trampled path behind him.

The birds sing on

Still stewing, he feeds his feelings of abandonment enough to summon up another roar. It is less impressive this time, more self-conscious. It creates a moment when their songs cease, but they’re soon back to full power and motoring on regardless. Their single-minded purpose, whatever that is, doesn’t involve him. He tries to reconcile himself to the passive role forced upon him. ‘If they don’t care about me why should I care about them?’ As he mumbles this out loud it sounds like something a child might say, but he pursues its logic none the less. ‘Then I won’t’, addressing them directly.

He has given them his adoration, he has worshiped their ritual, now he looks foolish for believing in these songs.

5th Dawn

On waking he feels tired at the thought of going back into their lives. Has he developed a tolerance to this dawn chorus drug, whose first effects were so ecstatic? He reluctantly admits to himself he doesn’t have their stamina, they have beaten him at that game, he can’t be in life like them after all. The tireder he gets, the stronger, louder and more oppressive their songs become.

As he steps out they invite themselves in, setting up their stalls in his head. Sleep hasn’t brought the clean slate he’d hoped for. His own mind is feeding the birds against his will. Each song comes with a different claim for territory in his mind. Stuck in there, along with his thoughts and nowhere to go, issuing and repeating their proclamations, insisting on their importance. There is less and less room for himself in there.

The birds sing on

Overhead, like the leaves, the songs are closing in, a green mass of sound. With their sharp batons they prod and goad him. Their persistence is draining. ‘You’re just a mess of desperate voices!’ He shouts upwards to everyone and no-one in particular. Even before he reached centre stage this morning he knew he had lost the class. All shouting at once with their different grudges and bones to pick, each with their own technique of tormenting the teacher. As he feeds this image he can see the faces of kids he once knew, but whose names he has long forgotten. They are turning on him. Don’t they know he is one of them?

He covers his eyes with his hands, imagines himself in a quieter, darker, simpler, purer place, shielded from this savage confusion and force, where he can transcend the madness of this nature. He remembers how the birds must have seen him rise above them on that first day, he can hear their sarcastic encouragement to try that again.

The birds sing on

Exposed and surrounded, there is no place for him, not even in his own mind. They won’t let him think, now every room is taken. He wills the sun to rise faster. Distinct and individual, each song punishes in its own way. Each note and phrase has its way of cutting through. He is defenceless against their tactics and guises. The endurance grinds him down, the repetition maddens him, the melodies nauseate him, the complexity frustrates him and the mimicry deceives him. All of them supremely confident in their own potency.

The birds sing on

They fill every cavity. Insisting and repeating their slogans, over and over, like a politician’s campaign mantra. So familiar and embedded they sound like his thoughts. He has wandered into the birds’ minds and lost his own. He is more them than him. Thoughts, now notes, detached from their source, roll into and over each other. Still no quarter is given, grinding him down, downwards to the ground, away from the songs. Kneeling, he finds his face drawn to and eventually pressed against the ground, into the detritus, with a longing for the silence of a world of worms below. A respite of sorts, he leaves himself there.

The birds sing on

6th Dawn

Their intent, their stress and urgency are the only things he recognises of himself. The possessed outpouring of so many small throats shows no mercy. They sing as though their lives depend on it. He has no doubt now that they do. He knows the failures that await him: to find a mate, to build a nest, to find food, to raise young. He feels the ever-present threat of predation, of starvation, of exposure to the cold and wet. He scratches at his ticks, or are they lice, tormented by these phantom parasites.

The songs work together, tirelessly. The last remnants of him are herded into pockets of pressure that build upon themselves. With nowhere to go they begin erupting from him as bursts of vocal noise. Sporadically at first and then as a steady flow; guttural shrieks, clipped yelps, coughs, snorts, groans, chaks and ticks, all with their own will and alive in their own right, some subtle and some violent, some otherworldly, all without his design.

More sounds come, demanding to be heard, sounds that can’t be spelled, sounds that contort and shape him, sounds that have not been made by him or perhaps any person before.

He sings on

Author’s notes

1st Dawn — perfection, worship, alignment through projection and idealization, bliss.

2nd Dawn — order, impose, centre, orchestrate, seek connection through inclusivity, separation from mutuality, value judgments, disappointment in other.

3rd Dawn — progress, deeper separation, re-possession.

4th Dawn — lack of reciprocity, indifference, outside, rejection, perceived betrayal.

5th Dawn — escape, regression, submission, surrender, non self.

6th Dawn — empathy, embodiment, automatic, creativity, acceptance, belonging.

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