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Introduction In 1904, American naturalist Ferdinand Schuyler Mathews wrote that he heard a song sparrow perform “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s hit opera Rigoletto, complete with its own improvised cadenza.1 This seems like high praise for a bird, but maybe it was not. It turns out that Verdi’s aria was the kind of song critics loved to hate. One begged for the opera to be dead and buried; another thought the song embodied the “obvious and insipid” sound of mandolins in Italian restaurants.2 A nurse wrote in 1917 that it was the kind of tune she heard from the “ignorant peasants” she treated, farm laborers who had emigrated from Italy.3 To hear “La donna” in the song of a sparrow was to hear some or all of these references. Other listeners have heard different kinds of musicality in the song sparrow’s voice. Their comparisons are symptoms of a strange and expansive musical taxonomy . A few years after Mathews’s comparison, another naturalist compared the sparrow’s tunes to the songs of ancient Greeks and medieval monks, cultural icons that, like Verdi, were heard with a mixture of reverence and condescension.4 In the 1930s an ornithologist searching for a more objective standard compared the bird to the winter wren, instead of to human singers.5 And in 1951, a wellknown ornithologist named Aretas Saunders published the results of a study based on over eight hundred different examples of the bird’s song. His birds did not sing desiccated tunes from Rigoletto but the nineteenth-century American song “Reuben, I’ve Been Thinking.”6 Like “La donna,” “Reuben” was a melody of the mediocre, associated with lowbrow society and racial difference through its history of blackface minstrelsy and popular theater.7 Today, Verdi and blackface have been replaced with Beethoven in the sparrow’s taxonomy, for Wikipedia explains that the bird’s song resembles the opening of the Fifth Symphony.8 2 Animal Musicalities Figure I.1 Song sparrow singing “La donna è mobile.” Mathews, Field Book of Wild Birds. These strange appraisals of sparrow music span a century of birds, and over two thousand years of human music. To read these comparisons is to confront a host of questions. Who is valued when we evaluate musical difference? How are such evaluations performed? How are music’s categories conditioned by the broad divide between humans and other animals? What makes song sparrows, Verdi, medieval monks, and minstrelsy part of the same taxonomy? How are assumptions about race, gender, class, sexuality, and other forms of difference tied to assumptions about species? What particular histories of love and violence are needed to place the song sparrow in conversation with Beethoven in the early twenty-first century? My book Introduction 3 explores these questions through a history of the modern taxonomies of sonic knowledge that arise from the bodies and voices of animals. The central argument of this book is that modern sonic culture is unthinkable without the lives of animals. Comparisons of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nationality have shaped Western music’s taxonomies since at least the seventeenth century. Since the advent of biological evolutionism in the late 1800s, animals’ bodies and voices have epitomized notions of natural difference in music discourse, particularly in the realm of song. Musical differences of style, genre, and type have been imagined against and through the radically varying accounts of natural difference given in the past century by geneticists, natural history museums, social activists, environmentalists, and others. Amid these varying accounts, the songs and lives of animals have been a recurring benchmark against which musical difference is measured. I pick up these threads in the pages that follow to ask how animal lives have served to organize music, especially songs, in relation to broad notions of categorical difference. My story is set between the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man in 1871 and the present day, amid diverse studies of songs made by music scholars, biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. Their work took place in museums, laboratories, and the pages of scholarly publications located primarily in the United States and Europe. From these seemingly disparate points of origin, I trace a history in which music’s ordering has become entwined with attempts to categorize and classify songs in relation to animals. In the background of this story, the lives of animals emerge as a necessary condition for contemporary divisions between natural and cultural knowledge. My book threads those lives through...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780819578082
Related ISBN
9780819578068
MARC Record
OCLC
1027733446
Pages
264
Launched on MUSE
2018-05-15
Language
English
Open Access
No
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