Song of the Earth

I watched this documentary last night ( about the relationship between animal songs and human music. I’ve been thinking a lot about the continuity between humans and animals lately, but especially now that I’ve started reading Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson. One of the most interesting parts so far has been Bergson’s treatment of the difference between animals and plants. Though from a vague standpoint they seem like different, separate realms, when you look at all their connections there is only a tendency to diverge toward one or the other by degrees of complexification: the plant does not move, gets its energy source directly from the elements around it, while the animal moves and must find intermediary energy sources such as plants. Bergson even takes this further, talking about the function of microbes for plants, and I think it can extend in the other direction to explain the differences and similarities between humans and other animals, and how to see their continuity. 

In this documentary, there is a comparison between bird calls signaling a defense or attempted takeover of a territory, and birdsongs to attract mates. There is a clear distinction in their duration and complexity that I think directly correlates to the nature of the activity they signal. The territorial, defense/offense calls are short bursts, staccato, always separated without any kind of fluidity between notes. The songs to attract mates, however, are fluid and beautiful, like Debussy, spectral waves of color and pitch. For the territorial calls, all that is needed is a signal of power, aiming to repel - think of the soldier or police officer yelling - “halt!,” stop!,” or an angry lover, “out!” There is a curtness both in the activity and relations formed, and in the call emitted. In the case of the song to attract a mate, however, the activity is one of intense desire for union and closeness, it reflects an attempt to, in Deleuzian terms, become-molecular, and bend the musicality of its call away from the rigid shapes of defense, into something that can flow and merge with another bird. Think here of the way lovers talk; soft, breathy utterances enunciated seductively, “come over here, sexy,” etc. The territorial call, in contrast, has to stay rigid, a “molar” entity, in order to ward off a potentially dangerous combination of two elements, two male birds. 

Also interesting is the length and volume at which the call and song are performed. For the territorial call, there is a lot of volume, to display strength, but it is very short, an efficient repellent act, like a sucker punch, a gunshot. The song of attraction is also loud, and also to convey strength. It is not a repellent strength though, but an attractive strength. And, again, it becomes-molecule in its length, because it goes further than the molar punctuality of the territorial call: it winds and flows and cascades around into imperceptibility, flowing continuously. And while the pitch and melody are uniform in the territorial calls, they freely oscillate in the songs of attraction.

Deleuze and Guattari say, “Is the bird’s refrain necessarily territorial, or is it not already used for very subtle deterritorializations… It is the labor of the refrain: Does it remain territorial and territorializing or is it carried away in a moving block that draws a transversal across all coordinates - and all of the intermediaries between the two? Music is precisely the adventure of the refrain.” Clearly between the territorial call and the song of attraction, there is a great difference of labor, and a different kind of labor needed for each. 

Although they don’t really give as many examples of human music in the documentary, I feel like Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie is a perfect example. First, Messiaen was influenced by birds and natural sounds (D&G - “Of course, as Messiaen says music is not the privilege of human beings: the universe, the cosmos is made of refrains; the question in music is that of a power of deterritorialization permeating nature, animals, the elements, and deserts as much as human beings.”), and it is a love song (two of the parts are called “chant d’amour”). But it isn’t a love song in a purely human sense - there is as much that is loving in the human way as there is in the animal way. It’s enormous length and repetitiveness calls to mind the whale songs in the documentary, and the use of the onde martenot, with its surreal oscillating electronic sound, is like the becoming-molecular of a particularly lilting bird song.