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Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song

Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song

by David Rothenberg

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A beautiful and surprising exploration of a phenomenon that’s at once familiar and baffling: the mystery of why birds sing


A beautiful and surprising exploration of a phenomenon that’s at once familiar and baffling: the mystery of why birds sing

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As science explores the frontiers of the measurable, it begins to intrude into the realm of art, and this book occupies that uneasy zone. Rothenberg, a musician and philosopher, became fascinated with the similarities between human music and birds' songs. His investigations into these matters led him to zoos and forests, where he played his clarinet along with virtuoso lyrebirds and thrushes. His goal: to find out why birds sing by using "the whole toolbox of human talents," rather than just the theories and experiments of reductionist Darwinism. "Just because science demonstrates that a song has a specific territorial or sexual purpose doesn't mean that birds aren't singing because they love to," he writes. Assuming we can know what a bird loves to do is quite a bit of anthropomorphic conjecture, of course. "It may be impossible to escape the human perspective," Rothenberg writes, and then he joyfully acknowledges what he feels to be the truth: birds make music as surely as Charlie "Bird" Parker ever did. Rothenberg delves heartily into the lovely and strange structures of bird songs and finds enough syllables, rhythms and syncopations to fill a jazz encyclopedia. Illus. Agent, Kathleen Anderson. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Why do birds sing? This delightfully odd little book is musician Rothenberg's (Sudden Music) attempt to solve a most perplexing question. It all begins with his going to an aviary to play music with a bird. That creature-a White-crested Laughing Thrush-surprises him, changes his music, and sets him to work on this survey. The text's oddity derives from humankind's efforts to get birds' alien music onto the page, and so the reader will encounter Dadaesque mnemonic language, squiggles, sonographs, and musical notation; in fact, those who do not read music may well be lost at several points. Rothenberg applies the "whole toolbox of human talents"-poetry, music, science-and yet, it seems the mystery of why birds sing still resists human intelligence. We meet many interesting characters in these pages: the birds, of course, from song sparrow to mockingbird, and the people, from poets John Clare and Walt Whitman to the composer Olivier Messiaen and many contemporary researchers in diverse, arcane fields. Readers will not shrug off mere starling songs again. A good choice for larger public or special ornithology collections. [Also coming in April from Houghton Mifflin is Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.-Ed.]-Robert Eagan, Windsor P.L., Ont. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An intriguing exploration into the science and art of birdsong, from musician and professor Rothenberg (Philosophy/New Jersey Institute of Technology). "The more science reveals nature's wonders, the more we train ourselves to resist the old intuitions that used to guide human understanding of nature," writes Rothenberg (Always the Mountains, 2002, etc.) in his well-mulled study. Science has given us some hard data to back what we may have already suspected: Birds sing, partially, to attract mates and protect home places from competitors. But what about those instances of birds singing when the imperatives are not at play? What about the starling tinkering with Mozart's piano concerto or the blackbird's song developing long after evolutionary needs are met? Where is the link-or is there a link-between rational and rhythmic, magic and meticulous, indifferent and essential? How about those marsh warblers, with their peaceful, off-duty singing, like an impromptu gospel group? Rothenberg conjectures whether a cross-species sensibility enables singing simply for the beauty of it: an idea, though maybe too anthropocentric, that speaks to Rothenberg's observation that "science has not evolved to the point where it is able to calculate joy." The author uses sonograms and musical notation (readers of music will have a foot up regarding much of this material) to address questions of rhythm, pitch and form, and he takes up aspects also of timbre and tone. He scours poetry to find influences of birdsong, and he delves into the complicated world of avian bioacoustics. He's also thrilled by the opportunity to jam-fully appreciative that the characterization may be presumptuous-with a lyrebird inAustralia, or with the whole choral body at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. Impressive and stimulating: an enticing exploration, from the artist's perspective, into the largely unanalyzed subject of birdsong. First serial to Vanity Fair

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

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Meet the Author

David Rothenberg-philosopher and musician-is the author of Why Birds Sing, which has been published in six languages and turned into a TV documentary by the BBC; Sudden Music; Hand's End; and Always the Mountains. His articles have appeared in Parabola, Orion, The Nation, Wired, Dwell, Kyoto Journal, and Sierra. He is the founding editor of the Terra Nova journal and book series. Rothenberg is also a composer and jazz clarinetist who has released seven CDs, one of which, On the Cliffs of the Heart, was named one of the top ten releases of 1995 by Jazziz Magazine. He lives in Cold Spring, New York.

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