BioMusic: The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music
Scientists discuss the Songs of Birds and Whales and Insects
Dr. Patricia Gray, Artistic Director of National Musical Arts, led the 14-year-long planning of the program, which took place February 19-21, 2000. It began with a public symposium at The National Zoo, which filled the Whittell Auditorium, followed by a second symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and then a concert at the National Academy of Sciences. The final event was a workshop for all the presenters and education experts in the fields of science and music for the purpose of developing education materials, specifically a CD-ROM and an interactive website, aimed initially at middle-school children.
National Musical Arts (NMA), the resident ensemble of the National Academy of Sciences, created and nurtured The BioMusic Program which was spawned from NMA's involvement in a Biodiversity conference co-hosted by The National Academy of Sciences and The Smithsonian Institution in 1986. From that momentous inception, The BioMusic Program grew to become a unique conduit between the sciences and arts, as it seeks to examine music in all species—human and non-human—and to explore and understand its powerful role in all living things.
The BioMusic Symposium presenters included: Dr. Roger Payne, President, Ocean Alliance and member of AWI's Scientific Committee; Dr. Bernie Krause, Wild Sanctuary, Inc.; Dr. Mark Jude Tramo, M.D., Ph.D., Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and Director, Institute for Music and Brain Science; Dr. Jelle Atema, Director, Boston University - Marine Biology Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA; Dr. Luis Baptista, Chair and Curator, Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy, California Academy of Sciences; and Dr. Carol Krumhansl, Professor of Psychology, Cornell University.
Roger Payne's presentation was titled "Whale Songs and Musicality," and stated in part that "The composing of music is a communal bond and a defining element for whales. Each season, the Humpback whales' songs are structured in phrases of balanced lengths which are presented in a specific order, are memorized by all of the group in the area, repeated exactly by all, and are retained after six months of the beginning point for the new season's compositions."
Bernard Krause, an award winning musician, has lived an adventurous life travelling throughout remote regions of the world to record specific sound environments. Using sophisticated audio technology, he theorizes that regions of the world are uniquely "tuned" by the musical sounds of its inhabitants and are readily identified by these musical sounds. He has named this phenomenon a "Biophony," a word created from "symphony" and "biology."
The concert performed by National Musical Arts (NMA) at The National Academy of Sciences featured works based on The BioMusic Symposium presentations. NMA performed Mozart's "Musical Joke" because recent research by Dr. Luis Baptista and Dr. Meredith West (Indiana University) and presented at the AAAS symposium demonstrated that Mozart's musical relationship with his pet starling was so powerful that this famous chamber music work was actually composed as a requiem to the bird and features exact musical quotations from the pet starling. George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" for electrified flute, electrified cello, and electrified piano concluded the concert. Crumb was so moved after hearing the recording, "The Songs of the Humpback Whale," that he worked with Roger Payne to create this chamber music classic. Recorded by hydrophones in the ocean depths, this famous recording captured the whales' own vocalizations and songs and became a best seller for months. This recording was also distributed by the National Geographic to all subscribers.
The Rhetorical Perspective for all of the BioMusic events addresses: "What is music? How are musical sounds used to communicate within and between species? Is music-making a biological function? Do musical sounds within the natural world reveal a profound bond between all living things?" It is these and related interfaces between art and science, humans and other species that The BioMusic Program cultivates.
The interest in the symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was overwhelming as demonstrated by the standing room only crowds which spilled into the adjoining halls.
The media's response was equally enthusiastic and wide ranging. Television and radio coverage included the CBC, Chilean Public Television, Dutch National Radio and Television, NPR, and the BBC. Internet coverage included, among many others, ABCOnline, Discovery Channel.com, and EarthEar.org. Feature articles appeared in newspapers in Russia, Germany, and Poland. Science News made BioMusic its cover story for its April 15th edition and two "Perspective" articles will appear soon in Science Magazine. On May 6th, The New York Times published a most interesting follow-up interview titled "Conversation with Luis F. Baptista" by Claudia Dreifus. Baptista, one of the world's leading experts on bird song, dialect, and language, was asked "What are the parallels between human and bird music?" Baptista replied: "I know of birds who have voices with tonal qualities that sound like real instruments. The strawberry finch has beautiful single notes that come down the scale and sound just like a flute. There is another bird, the diamond firetail from Australia, whose voice sounds like some kind of woodwind, an oboe perhaps. Then, in Costa Rica, I've encountered a wonderful night bird, and it sings four notes coming down the scale, and the quality of its voice is just like bassoon.
"Then, if you look at pitch, scholars have found that certain birds use the same musical scales as human cultures. One scholar has found that the hermit thrush actually sings in the pentatonic scale used in Far Eastern music. One of the most incredible cases is the canyon wren, who sings in the chromatic scale, and his song reminds me of the introduction and finale of Chopin's Revolutionary Etude."