Richard Mabey: The Glee Instinct

RICHARD Mabey is one of the stars of the East Neuk Festival’s new literary stand, and argues that birds, like humans, are driven to bond in joyful solidarity through song.

‘A song is anything that can walk by itself,” wrote Bob Dylan. But maybe not by itself for long.

Until 15 years ago I’d never seen wild cranes, let alone heard their songs. The fact that they’d been nesting in Norfolk since the early Eighties was one of the bird world’s best kept secrets. But the legend of their dances and wild trumpeting calls tugged at my imagination, and late one February I went with a few friends to look for them in the cork oak forests of central Spain. Fifty thousand cranes winter there, fattening up on acorns before their epic spring flights back to Scandinavia, and they spend the days ambling between the trees in little family parties.

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Very early one morning we went to a lake where huge numbers roosted overnight. They were already restless, dancing and murmuring, eager to be off, and we scrunched ourselves down as inconspicuously as we could in the scrub. When they flew up it wasn’t a sudden explosion, but a mounting torrent, a scrabble of dark silhouettes, stick-birds, barely visible in the dawn half-light. But they swept off to a tumultuous crescendo of brass, not just trumpets but Bach trumpets – shrill, echoic, almost percussive, the sound rippling across the sky like a peal of celestial bells.

Later that day, our Spanish host took us to a forest hut for lunch. It was built of stone, with a single manna-ash trunk holding up the roof. Slabs of dark Extremaduran ham dangled above an open fire. As we were finishing our meal, a group of men near us began to sing. It was almost imperceptible at first, like the staccato mutterings of barroom gossip. Then the five men, gipsy forest workers as it turned out, plunged into an electrifying outburst of flamenco. There were no guitars or clicking shoes, just those tense, plaintive, wavering lines of passion that seem to come from somewhere far behind the closed eyes. They took it in turns to sing, each one trying to outshine the one before. But every outrageous boast and extravagant quarter-tone flourish was cheered and clapped by the others. I suppose it was competitive in a playful way, but also a communal performance, a kind of musical relay. Unfortunately they then challenged us to sing. I can’t understand why we decided to do Greensleeves, except that the paucity of our vocal skills had become embarrassingly obvious to us. They listened to our harmonious but reedy 17th-century serenade with polite incomprehension, then clapped and bought us cider – one taste at least we shared.

It was only later that I realised these two disparate musical experiences had things in common. One was that neither of them needed translation. Maybe the cranes’ chorale had encrypted information comprehensible only to them. Head west. Ignore ungainly bipeds crouching in the bushes. But its chief meaning was as clear as day. It was a celebration of a new morning, a communal shout of solidarity. The flamenco undoubtedly had content, too, if only we’d known a bit more Spanish. My sight-reading of women is incomparable. My arpeggios are like serpents. Who knows. But what would have been understood by anyone on the planet (and maybe any crane) was its revelling in energy and camaraderie and the mischievousness of the voice.

One other realisation dawned on me. Singing is infectious. Willingly or not, you begin to join in, nod your head, form the shapes of sympathetic noises in the back of your throat. Singing occurs in all human cultures, and most of it is done in company. It suffuses the natural world, too. It may be semantically questionable to call all of it “music”, but I cannot see where you could draw a clear functional line between the mass chorusing of crickets, frogs, humpback whales, kids in playgrounds, the crowd at Anfield Road and the Last Night of the Proms. Group singing is the elixir of bonding, the dissolver of boundaries, a raiser of mood and generator of empathy.

I’d like to take you back to cranes for a moment. They have other calls besides their mass bugling, including an extraordinary, touching duet, performed by pairs at the nest-site. I heard it one April evening in the Norfolk Broads, and could not believe that this syncopated and perfectly segued phrasing was in fact two birds. I’ll play the airborne choir first and then its soloists.

Interestingly, the interval between the male and female notes is a minor third, the same as in a cuckoo’s song, and one of two dominant pitch-changes found in every musical culture on earth.

I’d learned something about the redemptive, bonding power of song when I was at my boys-only school. I was a shy and wincingly immature teenager, sagging under the routines of an over-specialised curriculum. But when I was in the sixth form, a new maths master arrived and set up an early-music choir – of both sexes. It was an audacious experiment, the first time pupils from the local boys’ and girls’ schools had been brought together collaboratively. Previously the only official contact had been the annual sixth form dance, always described as versus the girls’ school.

The experience of singing in this choir transformed my last years at school, and was an emotional revelation. To form a chord with another voice, a girl’s voice. To amble along a line of counterpoint, hand in hand, tongue-tied. To begin to glimpse how personality displayed itself in sound and posture, and how the sultriness of one desirable contralto suddenly became unfrightening when we swapped pouty vowels. I often left rehearsals red-faced and tingling – not just, I suspect, because those long Tudor phrasings made you hyperventilate.

Singing together is a physical business. One by-product of our school’s musical flowering was a skiffle group, in which I played thrash guitar and bawled out folk-songs from rural America. I loved the lilt and far-awayness of Appalachian music, blissfully unaware that most of the tunes were traditional English songs, taken over by the first settlers and slowly morphed into mountain music.

A couple of weeks ago I heard the real thing, Ira Bernstein and Riley Baugus performing on banjo and miked-up wooden floor. This is their version of a song our skiffle group picked up from a Lonnie Donegan disc in the late Fifties.

Bernstein’s leggy, crane-like step-dancing was absolutely “a song walking by itself”. But everybody joined in. When I looked round the audience I could see not just other feet tapping in sympathy, but jerking heads, twitching muscles, a kind of communal throb. A groove.

Something like this, anthropologists believe, is where our social communication evolved. A synergistic stew-pot of rhythmic noises, gestures, pitch-switching phrases they inelegantly call “musilanguage”, a process rooted in the songs and ritual movements of nature, from which human music and language developed along separate paths. You can still glimpse this proto-music in children’s play, and in their compulsion to chant and bob and mimic, and in adults’ talk to children, that modulated, rhythmic, high-pitched cooing in which the language spoken is irrelevant.

But I’m being reductionist. Singing is too rich an experience to be simply functional. Other rewards can come, even for the solitary performer. For a songbird, the first and occasionally the only listener is itself. How do conventional theories of birdsong take that into account? The ornithologist Charles Hartshorne has argued that maintaining territory isn’t a desperate, all-or-nothing affair like keeping possession of a meat-bone. He suggests that there is time and room – and probably a need – for the singer to be sustained by the interest of singing itself, as a sensory and physical experience, and doubtless a generator of pleasure-producing chemicals. There’s a rather melancholy confirmation of this in the recent discovery that nightingales with the most elaborate songs in late spring are not alpha males but the ones who have failed to find a mate.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 20 years listening to and thinking about nightingales, wondering how it is that their songs seem like such an inspired, constructed performance, and why, for at least 2,000 years, they have cast such a spell over listeners. They’re not usually ensemble singers, though if you hear two or more jousting together it is as thrilling as any flamenco duel. But, like all birds, they perform in sonic landscapes. They hear weather and the rackets of humanity and the songs of countless other animals – just as those creatures hear, in their own ways, the operatic recitals of nightingales. We can have no idea of the nature of their listening, what they attend to and what they ignore, how they emotionally respond to it all. Except that even the most solitary singer knows, somewhere deep in its inherited wisdom, that singing has evolved to be a communal, interactive business. A song is sung to be answered, or at least listened to.

Three years ago I was out searching for nightingales in the Suffolk heathlands. It was the May full moon, but very un-spring-like weather. At 11 o’ clock the car thermometer registered 3°C. There was the faintest sparkle of ice on the heather, just as in George Meredith’s bewitching nightingale poem “The Night of Frost in May”. But there was not a single bird singing. I felt troubled that the dispiriting decline of nightingales, for who knows what reasons, might have reached this ancient heartland. I walked to the end of the lane for one last try. At midnight, quite abruptly, one started up, in a dense clump of cottage-garden rhododendrons, a setting as incongruous as the temperature. It flung out a few icicle-sharp notes and then stopped. But it was a decisive statement. “I’m here, despite …” it sang, its terse, no-more-than-necessary statement seeming like a delegated bulletin on behalf of its silent – or absent – fellows.

George Meredith, out on just such a night, heard “a bubbled underbrew … a witch-wild spray” of notes, and called the nightingale “the lyre of earth”. The great biological essayist, Lewis Thomas, had a similar idea, when he fancifully imagined the totality of the earth’s songs as a “grand canonical ensemble”. He thought of the harmonics of midges hanging over summer meadows, the ticking of death watch beetles, the rhythmic drumming of leeches on underwater leaves and of gorillas on their own chests, the descants of sea-birds, the whale sonatas listened to by their performers as they come round again after circling the earth … and that if we were able to hear all these songs together the combined sound might lift us off our feet. But we are able to hear something of this great natural chorale. For a few months every spring we have the dawn chorus. Hundreds of different birds of dozens of different species, all within earshot of each other, begin the day with songs about their identity and mood and territorial loyalties. It’s like a symphony in its diversity of sound and narrative movement, except that it’s compulsive, improvised, and has, or so we like to believe, no collective purpose. It’s also like the performance of anthems before a sporting event – except that the physical contest never happens. The potential conflicts have been resolved by the singing. If, like Lewis Thomas, we step back and try to take in the whole soundscape, it might appear like a great ecological debate, the most directly sensual experience we can have of intricate negotiations of nature. I’m reminded of what happens as dawn breaks at the close of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck, the mischievous and highly vocal envoy of the wild, has restored order after the mayhem and uncertainty of the night, and offers this simple bargain to humanity: “If you pardon, we will mend.”