WHY BIRDS SING by David Rothenberg


A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song
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An intriguing exploration into the science and art of birdsong, from musician and professor Rothenberg (Philosophy/New Jersey Institute of Technology).

“The more science reveals nature’s wonders, the more we train ourselves to resist the old intuitions that used to guide human understanding of nature,” writes Rothenberg (Always the Mountains, 2002, etc.) in his well-mulled study. Science has given us some hard data to back what we may have already suspected: Birds sing, partially, to attract mates and protect home places from competitors. But what about those instances of birds singing when the imperatives are not at play? What about the starling tinkering with Mozart’s piano concerto or the blackbird’s song developing long after evolutionary needs are met? Where is the link—or is there a link—between rational and rhythmic, magic and meticulous, indifferent and essential? How about those marsh warblers, with their peaceful, off-duty singing, like an impromptu gospel group? Rothenberg conjectures whether a cross-species sensibility enables singing simply for the beauty of it: an idea, though maybe too anthropocentric, that speaks to Rothenberg’s observation that “science has not evolved to the point where it is able to calculate joy.” The author uses sonograms and musical notation (readers of music will have a foot up regarding much of this material) to address questions of rhythm, pitch and form, and he takes up aspects also of timbre and tone. He scours poetry to find influences of birdsong, and he delves into the complicated world of avian bioacoustics. He’s also thrilled by the opportunity to jam—fully appreciative that the characterization may be presumptuous—with a lyrebird in Australia, or with the whole choral body at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

Impressive and stimulating: an enticing exploration, from the artist’s perspective, into the largely unanalyzed subject of birdsong. (A CD will be available on the author’s Web site: http://www.whybirdssing.com.)

Pub Date: May 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-465-07135-X
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2005


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