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?
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 realized 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. 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”. 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”, 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 to 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-humanizing or auto-civilizing ravens, parrots, cockatoos, cockatiels, 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?).
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.
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”. 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 vocalizing 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 has undergone 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 outshining 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 realizing a virtual Animal Philharmonic Orchestra for the RSPCA advertisement entitled “All Creatures Great and Small”, in which animal vocalizations are melodically transposed and synchronized 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 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. 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.
The domestication of animals and plants has in turn domesticated the human species, so much so that we have come to be critically dependent on many floras and faunas not only as food and produce but also as food for the mind, to the extent that they have come to be surrogates, representations and caricatures for our own characters and behaviours, as well as for our need to have companions, to reach out to the other kinds not possessing our language and form, but nonetheless is still able to respond to each other with some common grounds and mutually beneficial interactions, coexisting and co-depending. Just as humans have studied, mimicked, appropriated and even inherited the calls, dances, movements and anatomies of some animal species, many animals have also evolved and learnt to read our emotions, gestures and commands, perform various tasks on cues, detect smells, drugs, dangers, diseases or missing persons, guard against loneliness, accidents or intrusions, and look out for the sick, injured or disabled. One wonders whether the autonomy and sanctity of animals, in the sense of their ultimate importance and inviolability, and of their inalienable status as sentient beings, must be so categorically measured against what has so characteristically defined us as humans, especially when both humans and nonhumans still have so much to learn from each other, the outstanding language barrier notwithstanding.
As discussed in the post entitled 🎧 Facing the Noise & Music: Grey Barriers and Green Frontiers of Sound, Society and Environment 🔊🏡🏞, there are compelling reasons to continue to question our complicity with the Instrumental perspective, which values animals (as well as plants and the natural world) in means-end rationales and anthropocentric terms. These reasons can serve to problematize and scrutinize the concepts of, and the relationships between, artistic expression and interspecies communication. The Instrumental perspective is in diametrical contrast with the Spiritual perspective: the latter attaches importance to deep empathy and identification with animals (as well as plants and Nature), whereas the former is often framed in rights, privileges, access, consumption and quality of life with respect to amenity and recreational opportunity. In the current climate of mounting anthropogenic forces and ecological issues, there is a much belated need to align ourselves more to the Spiritual perspective so as to encourage outlooks that seek to identify and empathize with animals through the world of environmental sound, music and art. Spiritually oriented sound making and listening are firmly and enchantingly grounded in the holistic experience and acoustic connection with fauna, flora and biosphere, opening and maintaining communicative channels essential for preserving identity, intimacy and integrity of a sentient world and its inhabitants. An exemplar of such an approach that both challenges and transcends traditional concepts, mainstream ideas and dominant practices of art and music is given its due or debut in a special post entitled 🦅 SoundEagle in Art, Aphorism and Paramusic 🏝.
One may also question the necessity or relevance of animals painting on canvases or playing musical instruments, and whether these are rather clumsy, ill-conceived or anthropocentric attempts at amusing ourselves at the expense of animals. Indeed, we as humans have had hundreds if not thousands of years to adapt and tailor our art-creating devices to suit our anatomy and ergonomics, whilst animals, regardless of their sizes, forms and postures, have had to make do with whatever tools handed or available to them, whether or not they can appropriately handle those tools with their limbs or appendages. Just as humans are beginning to design smart devices, implants and prostheses to enhance or augment the senses, movements, functions and enjoyments of regular folks as well as individuals who are physically or mentally compromised, perhaps there will be a day when animals can be given their own tailor-made paintbrushes, musical toys, creative playthings and art-making gadgets, which will much better complement and draw out their native talents, inventive impulses and gamesome curiosities, especially if humans have had sufficient time and resources to systematically and scientifically decode nonhuman “speeches” and behaviours, so that artistic creations of animals can be properly elicited, facilitated, identified and/or interpreted. Whilst some may still argue that it is unnatural or unnecessary for parrots, monkeys, elephants or dolphins to draw, paint, dance, create art or make music, 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. By the same token, 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.
As further food for thought, SoundEagle is offering you an extract from Canadian cultural theorist and philosopher, Erin Manning, who holds a University Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada:
What autistic perception teaches us is that things are not necessarily as they seem. Just because something can be categorized as an object or a subject does not necessarily mean [that] they are more vital than other modes of welling experience. What is needed are not more categories but more sensitivity to difference and a more acute attunement to qualities of experience. This would allow us to see that knowledge circulates and it is through this circulation that learning happens: language and other forms of expression move through us and it is through this movement that we learn.…
In The Minor Gesture, I proposed the concept of artfulness to allow us to move away from the concept of art-as-object. Even with the proliferation, for at least the last half century, of more ephemeral works of art (including performance, installation, et cetera), there tends to remain a very strong association of art with an object, and thus with form. If you add to that the current tendency to canalize art toward a set of concerns or issues (as advanced by the now ubiquitous artist statement), what we have is too strong a tendency, I believe, to connect art to communication, and by extension to the order-word. I am much more interested in the force of art for the invention of free indirect modes of discourse. This is where the concept of the artful comes in — a notion that what creates a shift or an opening in experience carries with it the quality of artfulness. This can include an artwork but is not limited to it. Nor is it limited to the human.…
Creation as resistance begins here, I would say, where artfulness cleaves experience to produce not a recognizable set of frameworks, but new modes of knowing, of feeling, of acting. There is no question that neurodiversity opens the way to such practices, even if only by unsettling the norms through which objects and subjects come to be differentiated and “known.”
This doesn’t mean that resistance is a given within the field of neurodiversity, however. Resistance is always to be crafted. The work must do its work, and for that, the conditions of experience have to be recalibrated each time anew in relation to the ecologies of practices with which they composes [sic]. In Deleuze’s vocabulary, artfulness always calls forth a people to come.
Cultural acceptance or rejection of the behavioural patterns and interpersonal qualities manifesting in certain mental conditions can be very significant to the public receptions and overall social outcomes of those individuals saddled with neurodevelopmental or neurodegenerative issues affecting emotion, memory, self-control and learning ability as well as socialization and communication. Such individuals have been labelled as (mentally challenged) sufferers, patients or victims whose behaviours and “disorders” need to be corrected or moderated with therapies and medications. Nevertheless, a permitting culture or an enabling environment will promote understanding and allow those individuals exhibiting such mental conditions to have a better chance of finding acceptance, empathy, dignity, autonomy, acknowledgement and meaningful social role. In these cases, what necessitates the need for correction or (re)assessment is not so much the mental conditions, psychological problems and behavioural issues as the cultural biases and social blinkers leading to denigration, prejudice, ignorance, exclusion, isolation or abandonment. Similarly, what obligates the need for rectification or (re)adjustment with respect to animal artistry and musicality is not so much the scope, definition, differentiation and delineation of animal mind, behaviour and culture in comparison with their human counterparts as the 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, so that we can have a far better understanding of, and a much improved engagement with, 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.
In an age when the ideas of neuroplasticity and neurodiversity are beginning to catch up to, and align with, the now familiar concepts of, and desirable allowances for, multiculturalism and biodiversity, we can better guard against the pitfalls of overly normalizing, regimenting or pathologizing human behaviours, gender identities, sexualities, appearances, comportments, etiquettes, lifestyles, career aspirations, work-life balances, interpersonal communications, body politics and cultural expressions, as they begin to enter the public awareness and discourse in greater frequency and magnitude, especially with respect to bigotry, conformity, integration, inequality, segregation, criminalization, discrimination, marginalization, ostracization and stigmatization. Ostensibly, what was once woefully misunderstood and regrettably deemed as hopeless, intractable or undesirable, including neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, has been gradually seen in a different light, insofar as certain peculiar modes of perception or idiosyncratic facets of cognition are observed to be responsible for breeding savants, including artists and animal whisperers possessing astounding or unusual abilities. Set against our normality, the apparent otherness of such people can nonetheless allow them to excel in what they do, often single-mindedly in precious, unexpected and admirable circumstances. Accordingly, we may indeed have even more compelling grounds to cherish the fascinating encounters or engagements with certain animal (cap)abilities, for despite their much greater otherness with respect to their human counterparts, whether neural or otherwise, innate or cultivated, some animals have consistently exhibited uncanny sameness to human beings in these skills in which they excel, not the least in the almost ritual-like practice and precision of the bowerbird in designing, the lyrebird in mimicking, the bird-of-paradise in dancing, the nightingale in singing, the cockatiel in talking, the peacock in dazzling, and the crow in problem-solving, never mind that these creatures are not bothered with (re)producing or communicating from architectural blueprints, artistic sketches, original manuscripts or compositional scores as definitive proofs of concepts, or as aesthetic statements of intents, visions and missions. Therefore, in the greater spirit of openness and empathy, in the increasing acknowledgement of plurality and multiplicity, and in the essential rebalancing of the Instrumental perspective with the Spiritual perspective, instead of always so exclusively or anthropocentrically admiring and celebrating the supposedly towering human achievements, human beings can finally be free to reflect on their hubris and their disconnect with Nature in order to truly appreciate their closeness and kinship with other animal species: the nonhumans and all their neuroplasticity and neurodiversity, waiting to be fully uncovered, recognized and engaged. Overall, the discussions here have yielded significant glimpses of animal artistry and musicality to provide the impetus or catalyst for future debates and discoveries.
- 🦅 SoundEagle in Art, Aphorism and Paramusic 🏝 (soundeagle.wordpress.com)
- 🦅 SoundEagle in Earth Day 🌍🌎🌏 (soundeagle.wordpress.com)
- Do Animals Have an Innate Sense of Music? (news.nationalgeographic.com)
- Sonata for Humans, Birds and Humpback Whales (nytimes.com)
- The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music (sciencemag.org)
- Brain Imaging Shows the Language of Music (livescience.com)
- ‘Moosic Study’ Reveals Way of Increasing Milk Yields (le.ac.uk)
- Moo-d Music: Do Cows Really Prefer Slow Jams? (npr.org)
- Funktionslust, Birdsong and Beauty (thinkingonmusic.wordpress.com)
- Experts Claim ‘Humans not smarter than animals’ (planet.infowars.com)
- Are animals as smart, or as dumb, as we think they are? (phys.org)
- Elephants know what it means to point, no training required (phys.org)
- Research reveals how elephants ‘see’ the world (phys.org)
- We’ve been looking at ant intelligence the wrong way (phys.org)
- Social animals have more social smarts (phys.org)
- Crows do not plan their clever tricks (phys.org)
- Thinking like a hungry crow and other intelligence tests (sqwabb.wordpress.com)
- Crows Go to the Head of the Class (sciencemag.org)
- Crows are smarter than you think (now.uiowa.edu)
- Crows Understand Analogies (scientificamerican.com)
- Why Neuroscientists Need to Study the Crow (nautil.us)
- The Raven (poetryfoundation.org)
- Trapped in our humanity? (ethicsblog.crb.uu.se)
- Being Humans When We Are Animals (nordicwittgensteinreview.com) SEGERDAHL, Pär. Being Humans When We Are Animals. Nordic Wittgenstein Review, [S.l.], p. 125-149, dec. 2014. ISSN 2242-248X. Available at http://www.nordicwittgensteinreview.com/article/view/2270. Date accessed: 11 Oct 2017
- Are humans “more advanced” than other organisms? (forthesakeofscience.com)
- In solving social dilemmas, vervet monkeys get by with a little patience (phys.org)
- Animal Rites: What Animal Behavior Teaches Us About Bullying (psychologytoday.com)
- “Neutral Signifier” (jazzyisrad.wordpress.com)
- THURSDAY: What Do the Birds Think? (marklgrossmann.wordpress.com)
- British Zoo Bans Animal Print Clothing (entertainmentslapblog.wordpress.com)
- Do zoos do more harm than good? (taby23cat.wordpress.com)
- Cute Animal Photo Book Celebrating Family (sweeptight.com)
- 22 Bizarre Animals You Probably Didn’t Know Exist (whydontyoutrythis.com)
- Video: 4 Minutes That Will Change Your Life (thegeneralist.me)
- Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation (plosone.org)
- Music of the Hemispheres (sciencemag.org)
- My, what big teeth you’ve got…: Domestication knowledge from animals may rapidly deliver some useful benefits for crop breeding (andylowe.org)
- My thoughts on animal cruelty (bethanykays.com)