The announcer on the BBC World Service told us what was coming up in the programme; “And we shall hear how birds are producing sweet music from both ends”. Tantalising stuff, explained further by the reporter who began by telling us that there was “A new piece of Classical Music created from bird droppings”.
What this was, he went on to tell us, was an experiment in which very large sheets of black manuscript paper had been placed under trees where birds flocked. The birds’ droppings landed on the paper, which was then collected and the shape and location of the droppings on each sheet transcribed into musical notation. And thus was born a new musical work. (It calls to mind that glorious joke of Humphrey Lyttleton’s in which he described how Mexicans expressed their dislike of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “sheet music” – you have to say that with a Mexican accent to get the gist!) The artist Kerry Morrison had the idea because, we are told, “she thought it would be fun”; but the joke landed on the Arts’ Council, who then decided to finance it, commission composer Jonathan Herring to formalise it into a readable orchestral score and pay for his orchestra to perform it at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool. (To read more, here’s the link - www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21082873.)This is hardly an original idea, even if nobody seems to have done it with bird droppings before. There were experiments in which cats walked through a puddle of ink and then over some manuscript paper, and I even recall an experiment in which elephants squirted a dye on a wall covered with manuscript paper. All good - not very clean - fun, but certainly resulting in nothing serious musically (even if Morrison feels it might encourage people to look at “detritus and waste” in a wholly new way).
It does prompt me, however, to look again at the question of what we mean by “music”. True, birds singing make a musical noise, but is it music? I have always believed that the defining feature of what we call “classical music” is that it is premeditated. Organised thoughts have to be written down in order for them to be disseminated by those with no direct connection with the music’s creator or even the culture from which the music originates; hence the cliché about music being an “international language”. Birds and animals have made music only by their calls being codified and transliterated into musical notation by a composer, who then uses them as the basis, but not the sole content, of a musical work. Messiaen spent years painstakingly notating the calls of birds and incorporating those calls into his work. His music was birdsong inspired; the birdsong itself, however, was not music.Of course, aleatory music – where the composer gives free rein for unprepared sounds to be brought into a work of music – has existed for over a century. Grove defines it as “A term applied to music whose composition and/or performance is, to a greater or lesser extent, undetermined by the composer”, and goes on to argue that any piece of music is, to an extent, aleatory since the composer can have no absolute control over the vagaries of performance. But in truth, it only became a quantifiable element in music with the American Charles Ives (1874-1954) and it was his followers, most notably John Cage, who made it fashionable. It is one result of the often grotesque experiments of mid-20th century composers which has survived and is still common currency in works being written today. But in every case aleatory music is created within a fixed time; even the ultimate aleatory work, Cage’s 4’33” has a defined beginning and end. In the case of our bird excrement, the length of the finished work was largely governed by the material collected rather than a pre-determined time frame from the composer.
The Tate’s publicity describes the works as “A collaborative musical composition that curiously captures avian activity, creating a piece of music celebrating our feathered friends”. But while the goodly folk of Liverpool will certainly be hearing a “musical composition”, in so far that it is a composition which generates musical sounds, it cannot be described truthfully as “a piece of music”; unless, that is. Herring (and I would love to think that the birds involved were seagulls) has added rather more to the score than second-hand excrement.