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  • How Subtle Is the Bird
  • Clare Jones (bio)
Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound by David Rothenberg. University of Chicago Press, 2019. £20. ISBN 9 7802 2646 7184

A cousin of the nightingale, the tītipounamu is New Zealand's smallest bird. It weighs roughly 7 grams, the amount of yeast that leavens an ordinary loaf of bread. Tītipounamu have a song that aims high, with a frequency of about 20,000 hertz, around the upper limit of human hearing. I heard one once, and thought I was hearing a bird make something rather than say something; I assumed it was chiselling away at a bit of rock. The flint, it turned out, had feathers. Tītipounamu belong to an ancient endemic family of wrens, perching birds. As they perch, the little birds sing. Their song may be one of the earliest forms of language.

Language lies at the centre of Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound by David Rothenberg. The book could also be called 'sound beyond instinct', as Rothenberg–a professor of philosophy and music–travels to Berlin in order to engage very directly (as in: collaborate) with nightingales. He is spurred by the theory that whales, dolphins, songbirds, and humans can learn through sound, and that such vocal learning can be an exchange that goes both ways. The language of music may not be universal, but its magnetism proves irresistible.

A reader incredulous about a jazz musician taking cues from a bird might want to keep in mind that people have for a long time, and in all earnestness, done stranger things in the name of progress. Humans have been encouraging the nightingale to sing, rather than being content to let it do so freely and without interruption, for ages. Their approaches have been diverse, and have even included giving [End Page 408] nightingales pasta. Four centuries ago, one enthusiast of such innovative practices wrote:

It shall seem no miracle that with art one may bring the Nightingale to sing, either more than usual, or out of season. Thus in Winter giving it along with its Pasta some ground Pine-nuts, and its Drinking-trough a thread or two of SAFFRON, as these two things both heat and cheer it, so without any harmful effect this will induce it to sing. Also infinitely effective is the Sympathy that this little bird has with SYMPHONY and music. Therefore in the Room where it is kept, if you make a sweet Concert of sound or of voices, it will be wonderfully fired up to sing.1

Four centuries later, Rothenberg gives jazz a whirl. In the author's words, '[t]he song of the nightingale remains uncanny'. The book remains uncanny, too.

The uncanniness lies both in story and structure. Nightingales in Berlin is a blend of memoir and improvised investigation, and while the former is stronger than the latter, both are needed to make the journey work. With avuncular enthusiasm and infectious curiosity, Rothenberg weaves together music and winged dryads the way Peter Godfrey-Smith's persona weaves together consciousness and the eight-legged in Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2016). The book plays around with the definitions of music and musicality, exploring where learning might be happening between birds and humans. Rothenberg draws upon other natural music–from the songs of crickets to collapsing icebergs–to shed light on the nightingale's puzzling world.

Rothenberg solves the riddle of how to talk about sound in a book by working with visuals. Visuals come to his aid when words fail to capture what is going on. Some of what he discusses turns into pictures, which can be hard to interpret but offer another view into this complex world. The book is full of visualisation for what the ear cannot hear, with a gallery of colour plates of sonograms. In this way Rothenberg gives the reader a tour of visualisations of bird song, as scientists seek new ways to capture what human ears hear and what birds may be listening for. (Ironically, most of the people he meets have hearing...


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pp. 408-411
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