Thursday, April 24, 2008

From the birds

I should be working on tomorrow's Mahler lecture, but the sun is shining, the air is warm (for Finland), and my exercise-starved body, after weeks of work, illness and fouled-up scheduling, was screaming for some movement. So I took myself outside for an hour or so to participate in the curious local pastime of Nordic walking. It's ridiculous to behold from the outside, a formerly deeply held prejudice to which I admit shamefully. Since nothing I ever say seems to convince people of the worth of the activity, all I can offer in its defense is to swear that if you try it, you'll soon find yourself hooked. It's a quick, easy workout that can be done close to home and still leave time for other pursuits during the day.

It's made easier in my neighborhood by the close proximity of Helsinki's crown jewel, the Keskuspuisto, or Central Park, which should be more famous than its New World namesake, as far as I'm concerned. Helsinki may not be a breathtakingly lovely city in that cozy, Disney-ish way one expects European cities to be – indeed, it has more than its fair share of cookie-cutter suburban nightmare housing and high-rise Hell-on-earth. It may not be the most happening , vibrant place, either, but it is unpretentious and above all, it is a green city, with more trees, parks and wilderness areas than any city I've ever been to, perhaps more than any city in the world. The Finnish approach to residential building, by and large, is to leave as much existing green around buildings as possible, instead of cutting everything down, putting up houses and planting those funny little front yard trees that never seem to grow thereafter. "Park" is a misleading term as applied to Helsinki's: it's barely controlled wilderness with miles upon miles of bike paths and ski trails and public gardening plots, all of which are heavily used by the populace.

Spring is my favorite time to go there, what with ample signs of life, of the earth waking up. The tiny, colorful wildflowers that carpet the Nordic woodlands this time of year are starting to appear; the huge forest anthills are teeming with movement, which means I'll have to break out the bug spray to keep the critters from overrunning the house. (I'm all for sanctity of life, but it kind of goes out the window when you come home at 1 a.m. and find your studio crawling with hundreds of winged queen ants.) I even saw a bumblebee. Best of all, birds are singing again, or more species than the few that winter over in Finland. My absolute favorite, if not the most original, is the blackbird. Its song, more than any other, is the sound of spring. Hearing the first one is an irrefutable sign that winter is ending, and fills me with hope Рmercifully, after the non-winter we've had. Many other species are returning, including chaffinches, which are among the prettiest to look at and listen to Рalthough the hands-down winner in that category is the rarely seen, migratory Bohemian waxwing Рand will soon be followed by that virtuoso of the Nordic woods, the thrush nightingale. They're the familiar sounds of life here, and of changes in the seasons, so much so many of their songs found their way into the tape part of my choir piece Shiki last year Рbased on the stunning, crystal-clear field recordings of ornithologist and birdwatching tour guide Hannu Jännes, who provided the soundtracks used on the web page I linked to above.

Listening to birds always gets me thinking about music, natch. One of the pieces I come back to every year in my 20th-century analysis class is the first movement of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, "Liturgie de cristal". It's a fun exercise for students in analyzing independently structured parts, from the rigidly isorhythmic piano and cello parts, to the limited, recurrent motivic material of the violin, and the free, almost improvised clarinet. Once we get past that layer, it's always productive to talk about the relationship between the musical characters present in the movement. The most eye-catching one is, of course, the dialogue between the two "soloist" players, the violin and clarinet. There's a joyous cacophony to their interaction, one which I've always found attractive, but didn't fully understand until an experience in impromptu birdwatching a couple of years ago.

My wife and I were taking an evening walk near our old apartment when we witnessed something extraordinary: two male nightingales perched out in plain sight, both singing at top volume, unbelievably loud for such small creatures. (One nested next to our bedroom window in 2003, which is when we discovered that "nightingale" is not just a clever name. We got very little sleep that summer.) Nightingales are famously hard to sight. They're very nondescript-looking, small and grey, and blend in well with the tree canopies where they hide. They tend to start singing at twilight, and if you come within about twenty feet of them, they shut up, so seeing two of them out in the open is rare.

The thing about the nightingale's gorgeous, highly complex song is that it's a territorial marker. You never hear two of them singing within hearing distance of one another. You can often tell the relative age of a bird by how long, non-periodic and complex his song is. In this case, one of the birds was clearly older, and a much more experienced singer. It would pick up elements of the younger bird's much simpler song, incorporate them, riff on them, then vastly embellish them in long, cadenza-like phrases, interrupting his opponent brusquely and drowning him out. At one point, the older bird flew into a pile of underbrush left by city park managers a couple of weeks earlier. I thought he'd just been hiding from us, as we'd gotten very close at that point. But I realized after a moment that he was using the pile of dried branches as a makeshift resonator to amplify his song. It was a fascinating display of territorial competition. Sure enough, the older bird's song was the only one we heard after a couple of days of this. The younger one, clearly out of his league, had moved on.

It wasn't until months later, when working through the Messiaen again with my class that I figured out the fundamental quality of the relationship between the birdlike violin and clarinet parts: one of competition or territoriality. I'd been accustomed to thinking of chamber music as a participatory, communal activity, where all the parts contribute to a unified whole at one point or another. But that doesn't seem to be what Messiaen was aiming at in this movement. Not only are the parts structured according to four completely unrelated systems, it would seem that two of the characters aren't really cooperating at all, they're trying to outclass each other. It's a difference in conception that adds an extra psychological layer to the music, both as a listener and, I imagine as a performer. I'd be curious to find out whether performers of this piece conceive of it in this way, or if any research has been done into this type of relationship in Messiaen's music, other than just cataloging transcriptions of birdsong. With the Messiaen centenary in full swing, I may have just figured out what I'll be doing with my summer.

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