Wet your whistle

April 26, 2012

In thinking about our assignment to notate birdsong, I’ve become increasingly frustrated trying to do so graphically. And so, inspired by Marcus Coates’s Dawn Chorus, I decided to try mimicking the robins who sing outside my window every morning. After taking a recording, I slowed it down to human speed and did my best to imitate what I heard in two different ways and sped up the results back to their original pace.

1. Whistling. This seemed to work best, as the variability of the throat, in combination with lips and tongue, allowed the finest control over the subtle nuances contained therein. In addition, I whistled a second track in order to elicit the simultaneous effects possible only with a bird’s syrinx.

Whistle Robin

2. Soprano saxophone. This was a challenge. Despite the soprano saxophone’s high range, the limitations of my software allowed me neither to slow down the robin’s song nor speed up my recording to a sufficient pitch or speed, and so the results are about an octave lower than they should be. Nevertheless, one can hear the marked difference in timbre and articulation. As a relatively inexperienced saxophonist, I struggled in making smooth transitions between notes. In addition, because the saxophone has a single hollow body that does not constrict like a throat, I had to make due with embouchure adjustments and odd fingerings in order to get the nuances I desired. The results were not quite so satisfactory.

Soprano Saxophone Robin

Although both of these are renderings born of technological manipulation, the whistling version sounds more organic to my ears, while the soprano comes across as an electronic copy. This makes me wonder how the birds hear David Rothenberg’s fascinating attempts to jam with them. Does he come across as a lumbering blob of slow-motion riffs and delayed virtuosity, or is the speed secondary to the quality of the song? Perhaps those birds are singing because they are trying to teach him the proper way to join the conversation. -Tyran


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