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SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality


SoundEagle in Animal Artistry & Musicality

Can Animals Make Art and Music?

… a roundtable on humor writing, featuring some of your favorite funny bloggers … revealed the critical gem that a monkey riding a dog is always funny …

A monkey riding a dog or vice versa may be the fodder of some circus act to titillate spectators expecting comical or quaint juxtapositions of unusual animal behaviours. How much more funny (or serious) could the act be if those animals were to display creativity involving certain artistic elements beyond just technical executions?

SoundEagle with Sun, Kangaroo, Bear, Monkey and Dog on Trampoline
According to the musician David Cope who coined the term ‘Biomusic’ in 1971, animal composition represents an example of this experimental musical genre, and is realised by “simply listening to animals create music” as if it is a “natural theatre” event being broadcast live with or without amplification and electronic modification.[1] This definition can be rather problematic because it implies that the act of listening to animals alone can sufficiently constitute the basis of a piece of animal composition without further contextual underpinnings. The saving grace of such an approach nevertheless lies in its potential for broadening the listening experience in the Cagean sense of sonic “happenings”. However, lurking in the same definition is the one-sided perspective that the mental product or experience of animal composition, whether musical or not, is for the sole consumption of the human being, who until recently, was deemed to be the only species on Earth capable of conceiving and appreciating art. This perspective also assumes that music as an artistic composition must pass the criterion of intentionality, under which all music signifies “an act of intentional construction, in other words, an act of creation that actualizes an intention”.[2] Such an epistemic position ultimately degrades animals if it espouses the view that most, if not all, animal species are largely instinctive automata or hardwired agencies devoid of intentions, inspirations, spontaneity and developmental potential. Furthermore, if music must have a “purpose and finality to it, shared between the creators of the music and members of their culture, through which they confirm their common identity”,[3] then the double criteria of having a purpose and intra-cultural identity will lead to the woeful conclusion that the validity and importance of animal sounds and compositions can be decided by how closely related genetically and ‘culturally’ the animal species in question is from Homo sapiens — back to the slippery slope of anthropocentrism!

Another careful reflection on this straightforward definition of animal composition as simply listening to animals in the act of creating music reveals a possible impasse between the perfectionist impressions of nonhuman sound, and the instincts or desires of the human composer or artist to have some measure of involvement. On the one hand, purists defending the right and purity of animal speech will always contend that a true animal composition is that which is performed in a natural habitat away from, or (relatively) undisturbed by, human influence and activity. Unfortunately, the physical world is already so occupied with human presence and affairs that the puritanical will hardly be satisfied by what they encounter as “unadulterated” animal music. To purists’ dismay or abhorrence, mockingbirds and starlings in the northern hemisphere and lyrebirds in the southern have unhesitantly appropriated into their repertoires the sounds of machine guns, excited monkeys, barking dogs, mating cats, toilet flushing, police sirens, mobile phones and computer games. Purists of animal cries must also pardon or endure the cross-species psychobabbles of spiritually possessed, self-humanising or auto-civilising ravens, parrots, cockatoos, galahs, parakeets, rosellas, macaws and budgerigars, and especially the Tweety bird who Tawt it Taw a Puddy Tat. After a brief recovery from being exposed reluctantly to the communicative altered states in which animals incorporate human sounds and speeches, those purists, now already teetering on forming a new epistemic truce with their own sonic preconceptions, find themselves further jolted by some animals’ uncanny ability to be receptive towards human music, as the following two examples reveal:

There are stories of dogs who hide under the couch for piano works by atonal composers but not for those by, say, Mozart. One music teacher told [the renowned primatologist Frans de Waal] that her dog would heave an audible sigh of relief if she stopped playing complex, fast-moving pieces by Franz Liszt and proceeded to something calmer. And there are reports of cows that produce more milk listening to Beethoven (although, if this is true, shouldn’t one hear more classical music on farms?).[4]

When I practise the piano my four-month-old white budgerigar, Blanco, sits on a tiny stool at an eighteenth-century enamel and gilt grand piano only four and a half inches long and taps it with his beak. Snowy, an older bird, sits on the music-rest and sways to the music.[5]

On the other hand, if the strict criterion imposed on animal composition by the purists can be overlooked so as to allow some degree of human involvement, intervention or bonding, then the simplest and most direct form of animal performance can often be found in circus animal acts, or in animals kept for behavioural and cognitive research. Animal behaviours and communications have been found to be far more flexible and complex than previously thought. Many taken-for-granted beliefs or erroneous assumptions about the nature and limits of animals have been challenged by research contexts involving not only observations and experiments that incorporate ecological validity but also environmental enrichments that permit ongoing learning and interactions between carers or researchers and the animals involved. Such a close association becomes an integral part of the research, a journey simultaneously blurring the distinctions between laboratory and playschool, between experimentation and domestication, and between observation and participation. These researches are platforms whose structural elements and interactive processes reveal the interplay between natural inheritance and environmental nurture. Their outcomes are highly dependent on the dedication and ingenuity of the researchers, and also on the opportunities, resources and situations presented to the animal subjects. Arguably, the elevated cultural enmeshment and human identification may be another source of objection for purists who prefer to uphold research objectivity and emotional detachment. Nevertheless, the hands-on experiences and findings afforded by these researches have challenged and revised the definitions of intelligence and culture.

For example, at the Language Centre associated with Georgia State University in Atlanta, a twenty year-old bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee) named Kanzi (meaning “hidden treasure” in Swahili) not only has a 2,000-word vocabulary and understands spoken English, but is also talented at “playing the drums, xylophone, keyboard and harmonica. Sitting on the floor, this huge ape unzips the xylophone bag and, with great care, sets the xylophone down beside him. Pausing for a moment, he holds his sticks in the air. He nods curtly at his audience, then plays a fast and melodic series of notes”.[6] Accompanied by an animal trainer at the helm, a chimpanzee will effortlessly perform in front of a piano and a score in which the musical notes consist of its own fingerprints — thus resulting in a wonderfully comprehensive exemplar of an animal playing animal music based on animal graphic notation! At the risk of committing another act of objectifying or anthropomorphising under the complicity of music and art making, such a performance situation, whether intentional or incidental, leads to a realistic conclusion that the chimpanzee has literally become a live “animal instrument”, not only in vocalising or singing to its own playing on a musical instrument but also in “sight-reading” its own creation of animal art in graphical notation. Faced with new possibilities, is the human world patient, bold, curious and yet humble enough for a well rendered Concerto for Amplified Chimpanzee and Chamber Orchestra; or a charming Mr Holland’s Opus no. 2 for the Deaf and Four-Legged, the father and music teacher honouring his hearing-impaired son who has been deprived of paternal love and undergoing animal-assisted therapy; or the next brilliant film sequel and interspecies blockbuster Babe Joins the Boston Pop Orchestra; or a new season of faithful subscriptions to the Animal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the indomitable Dr Doolittle and sponsored by the charitable RSPCA? These scenarios are not that far-fetched at all given that scientists had considered the dog and the chimpanzee smart enough to be sent into space! For artists and composers contemplating to outshine those memorable scientific achievements, the vital ingredients, beside unwavering confidence, perseverance and funding, are the pragmatic confluence of anti-anthropocentrism to dissolve human-animal class divisions, anthrozoology to foster human-animal interactions, biomusicology to arbitrate between anthropomusicology and zoomusicology, postmodernism to destigmatise playfulness and sociomusical deviance, a fair touch of neo-Dadaism to deflect any vilification, controversy, derision and disbelief, as well as an episode or two in Dr Harry Cooper or Rolf Harris’ television programme.

Aside from inventive, norm-bending animal antics, non-intrusive artists of less progressive persuasion and more passive approach may settle comfortably with taking field trips to carry out a sound-hunting mission, with the intention to capture, store and manipulate the recorded sounds later. Avid collectors of natural sounds usually rely on direct amplification of animal(s) with a pickup microphone in their natural surroundings — a practice that will still ruffle the feathers of some purists who insist that the deployment of any sound technology dilutes the immediacy, authenticity and discovery of an aural or musical experience (even as one speaks to an audience through a microphone). However, any logistical fury from the purist can hardly dent the glee of an animal soundaholic encountering or approaching wild creatures in hives, cocoons, burrows, caves or other secluded places. From them, many secret sounds are discovered, explored and admired in nature documentaries, concert halls, recordings, relaxation music, or the adventure of Milo and Otis. Dudley Moore, or far better still, Dr Doolittle, could be enlisted to supply the subtitles or translations. To the extent that nonhuman sounds can be stored, digitized, electronically controlled and algorithmically manipulated, the zoological privileging and postmodern resignification of A Chorus Line by Stephen Sondheim or Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev can be reproduced with the sonic equivalent of animatronics. Indeed, digital sampling technology has come very close to realising a virtual Animal Philharmonic Orchestra for the RSPCA advertisement entitled “All Creatures Great and Small”, in which animal vocalisations are melodically transposed and synchronised to a catchy tune in such a fashion that no audience will ever overestimate the human composer’s musical intelligence and underestimate the creatures’ penchant for singing and stardom.

The Newest Sound Around
The Strangest Sound That You Have Ever Heard
Not Like a Wild Boar or a Jungle Lion’s Roar
It Isn’t Like the Cry of Any Bird
But There’s a New Sound
And It’s Deep Down in the Ground
Any Everyone Who Listens to it Squirms
Because This New Sound, So Deep Down in the Ground
Is the Sound That’s Made by Worms

― Tony Burello and Tom Murray

The lines above constitute a set of spoken lyrics for a song titled There’s a New Sound composed by the songwriter and jazz pianist Tony Burello, and his colleague, Tom Murray. The song was released in 1952 on their own Horrible label, which declared that “If It’s Really a Horrible Record — It’s Bound to be a Hit”. It was indeed selling well over six figures by the spring of 1953.[7] Without actually recording the real sound made by worms moving underground, the song periodically featured an imaginary equivalent of the sound of worms rendered with a human voice uttering “WHEEZ-A WACK, WHEEZ-A WACK” under layers of the latest sound effects and reverberations — hence the claim of the “Newest Sound”. The song was sold to the public as a source of novelty and pleasure through comic showcase, parody and histrionics without appreciable concern about the ramifications of substituting, distorting, fabricating or misrepresenting the sound of ‘low lives’, with whom humans are on less intimate terms.

SoundEagle and the Sound That’s Made by Worms

Conclusions

The sounds and languages found in Nature, and the associations between humans and animals couched in expressive forms of composition, narrative, performance art, popular culture and science, often challenge conventional expectations or entrenched assumptions not only about animals, their individuality, intelligence and social roles, but also about art and music, as well as the procedures, contexts and interpretations involved.


[1] David Cope, New Music Composition (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977), 297-8.
[2] Simha Arom, “Prolegomena to a Biomusicology”, in The Origins of Music, ed. Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker and Steven Brown (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 27.
[3] Ibid.
[4] de Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master (2001), 153-4.
[5] A letter to a newspaper; quoted in Leslie, Ayre, ed, The Wit of Music, with an Introduction by Sir John Barbirolli (London: Leslie Frewin, 1966), 92.
[6] Julie Cohen, “When Animals Talk”, in Reader’s Digest (February 2002): 68.
[7] Tim Jay Anderson, “Lost in Sound: Cultural-Material Issues in American Recorded Music and Sound, 1948-1964”, PhD Diss., Northwestern University, 1998. Vol. 1 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, 1998), 1-4.

Submitted as a response to Weekly Writing Challenge: The Best Medicine.

64 comments on “SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality

  1. All nature is art and music…

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    • Hi Michael, thank you for your comment. You seem to have a very poetic view or art-centric conception of Nature, whilst also possessing the sensitivity to perceive art and music through and in Nature. Here’s a book that might be of great interest and relevance to you: John D Barrow’s “The Artful Universe: The Cosmic Source of Human Creativity“. Happy reading!

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  2. To the extent that any art is a creation that should take the recipient on an emotional journey, or elicit an emotional response, animal art – which to me includes painting, music and so forth – has valid function for humans. But the question, I guess, is whether the animal producing the material perceives it as we do. That is unanswerable, but to pose it – and attempt to answer – becomes a useful tool for insight into our own thought processes and perception.

    My take is that the animal probably doesn’t see the material as we do; they perceive it in their own way. It will not be ours – from which flows the question; why do we interpret the animal’s creation in our own terms? There is also a related question; all this art reflects the imposition of human concepts across animal behaviour. Do animals create anything, themselves, that constitutes art? A much wider philosophical issue, I think.I speculate, entirely without any evidence, that aspects of whale music may well constitute such for them.

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    • Thank you, Matthew, for your astute observation and post-mortem pondering. Whilst differences in how humans and animals behave and perceive are apparent, many animals, especially mammals, do share a great deal of genetic similarities with humans, and therefore similarities do exist in spite of those apparent differences.

      Interspecies interactions and communications have illuminated the extent of overlapping in perception, which can be similar and also different both between and within species. For example, many parrots can speak, even sing, and also solve problems and answer questions post by their human companions. Some believe that certain animals (other than parrots) could have articulated if they had been endowed with the vocalizing apparatus that humans possess.

      That both humans and nonhumans share some perceptual similarities could be ascertained to the extent that animal psychologists and behavioural scientists have been able to use similar tests designed for humans to uncover nonhuman behaviours, and to teach sign language to some nonhuman species with great success.

      As for your question “why do we interpret the animal’s creation in our own terms?” and your related question “all this art reflects the imposition of human concepts across animal behaviour. Do animals create anything, themselves, that constitutes art?”, there are at least two important factors to consider in answering it. The first is that humans are bound by their languages and communicative devices as much as they are by their tools, toys, terminologies and technologies. Humans are also still in the early phase of systematically and scientifically decoding nonhuman “speeches” and behaviours, and are thus still limited in the means of investigation and interaction via which artistic creations of animals can be properly elicited, facilitated, identified and/or interpreted. In other words, until humans have the means to sufficiently understand how and what animals communicate, there is no way to properly and adequately determine whether animals have been and can be creative in their speeches and actions. However, humans can readily identify and conclude with certainty about the quality of nonhuman creativity when some animals perform certain human activities such as talking, singing, signing, painting, solving puzzles and doing arithmetic.

      Whilst the first factor relates to finding some common communicative grounds or means whereby one species can detect and understand the creativity of another and vice versa, the second factor concerns interspecies discovery, learning, exchange, enrichment, empowerment and co-evolution. Whilst some may argue that it is unnatural or unnecessary for elephants or dolphins to draw, one can do very well to remind oneself that human ancestors were not doing a great deal of what modern citizens are excelling in and finding indispensable every day, including driving cars and using computers. There are yet more undiscovered ingenious ways to elicit, facilitate, identify and interpret creative animal behaviours. The quantum leap in recognizing and capturing animal intelligence and creativity in the future could be as great as the portentous outcome of discovering extra-terrestrial intelligence or encountering some interstellar civilization(s), whose vastly superior wisdoms and advanced technologies could amplify human intellect and achievement manifoldly.

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  3. no intelligent response from me just a grin…umm Perhaps there is a mystical music the resonates throughout nature; some songs are audible to human ears, others are not. Perhaps nature, animals, humans, the Spirit in nature and for me God, are all intricatly connected in a divine dance of harmony. As for art, simply another expression of creativity that is the root of all of creation.

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  4. have nominated you for the ABC Award-AWESOME BLOG CONTENT:if you don’t do awards, it is still yours

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  5. Impressed by your research and videos – also inspired by the sounds of nature, heard or felt – ever constant crows fill my days with constant craving….

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  6. […] SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality (soundeagle.wordpress.com) […]

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  7. Interesting post! I know my own cats have preferences in music, although their preference is generally for something that lulls them to sleep.

    And did you know that there are fashions in whale song? Apparently their songs are not just random: they change, sometimes gradually, and sometimes drastically, and a new song takes about 2 years to get around the world. Here’s a link to the research: http://www.uq.edu.au/grad-school/news-whale-research

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    • Indeed! SoundEagle has realized for many years that cetaceans have not just “fashions” but also “sound change”, “dialects” and “subcultures”, to use the terms in sociolinguistics. Thank you for sharing the link, Alison! May you have a great weekend and hopefully, you will become a subscriber so that we can have meaningful exchanges from time to time as new posts appear.

      Meanwhile, feel free to click SoundEagle’s Favourite Books to see a small fraction of SoundEagle‘s favourite books, many of which inform SoundEagle‘s worldview and values towards life.

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    • Judging from your gravatar, you must have been a great devotee to your cats, which seem to have learnt to choose, identify and like certain music as lullabies or relaxation tunes. One wonders which tunes they prefer, and which they dislike.

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  8. In my teens I knew a keen and accomplished musician with a singing dog! Sue

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  9. […] Can Animals Make Art and Music? … a roundtable on humor writing, featuring some of your favorite funny bloggers … revealed the critical gem that a monkey riding a dog is always funny … A monkey rid…  […]

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  10. This offers such a good mental floss! I thoroughly enjoyed reading the post! Your identification with music is very clear. I love the way you have chosen to write this post!

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  11. […] SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality […]

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