by Katrina Lezaic
Musician and zoomusicologist Dr Hollis Taylor has spent every spring for the last eight years living the life of a nomad in pursuit of the melodious song of the Australian Pied Butcherbird.
These mid-sized black and white songbirds, which are found across much of the Australian mainland, are a source of inspiration for Dr Taylor, who spends four months of the year sleeping in her car while observing and recording their vocalisations before re-composing the intricate melodies for her own musical performances.
Following a 30-year career as a string musician, Dr Taylor now performs her re-compositions on violin against a backdrop of original field-recordings featuring various birds, insects and mammals – including people – to create an authentic experience of the musicality of the Australian bush.
Her concert, ‘The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music’ which premiered at Violinale 2009 in Berlin, aims to celebrate birdsong in its most original form, free of interpretation.
“I am often dissatisfied when I try to put my creative hand in it too much,” Dr Taylor says. “I go back and listen to the birds and think, you know, they work with the material all year round. They know exactly what to do with it and they are already improvising with it. They’re like minimalist composers snapping together and recombining phrases in all kinds of fascinating ways. So for me to try and get clever is usually to fail.”
As a zoomusicologist, Dr Taylor uses her musical background to analyse the functionality of these complex songs, which she believes transcend biological requirements to bring into question the presence of an aesthetic awareness in animals.
“I had this epiphany in 2001 when I was in the outback in WA and I heard three Pied Butcherbirds singing a trio, and I didn’t know birds sang trios,” Dr Taylor says.
“It was such a glorious, clear flute-like sound and I was really enchanted. I knew there was something there and it wasn’t just to do with tone. I realised that these birds have a musical mind.”
According to ornithologist and member of Follow That Bird, Tiffany Mason, the Pied Butcherbird is a fantastic mimic and changes its song almost on a yearly basis.
“A lot of people think it’s the most beautiful of all the Australian bird calls,” Ms Mason says. “Its song is a bit like a more refined version of the magpie’s.”
Through her close observations, Dr Taylor has discovered that no two Pied Butcherbirds sing entirely the same phrases. This richness and variety, which is both innate and learnt, is akin to musical invention and blurs the line between animal and human expression in sound.
“Over time I grew to learn that their song changes, which shocked me, and yes, they always pose more questions than I can keep up with,” Dr Taylor says.
For an avid birdwatcher like Ms Mason, aesthetic awareness in songbirds like the Pied Butcherbird is a given.
“I think the birds that do sing beautifully, especially those that mimic, have a great time doing it,” she says. “It’s a very answerable thing. They must get enjoyment out of it.”
Despite their beauty, mystery still surrounds what bird calls are actually used for, apart from the functionality of attracting a mate or defining a territory, for example.
“We still don’t even know what the dawn chorus is all about,” Ms Mason says. “I mean, do they wake up first thing in the morning and start singing just to let everybody else know that they’re still alive?”
According to Dr Rafael Freire, from Charles Sturt University’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, birdsong is an opportunity for strong successful birds to show how fit they are.
“Most bird songs are very energy consuming and done in the morning when energy levels are lowest, so they allow fit strong birds to show off,” Dr Freire says.
David Watson, Associate Professor of Ecology at Charles Sturt University, agrees that birdsong is information rich but says there is no evidence to prove it is anything more than a functional necessity and argues for the human tendency towards anthropomorphism.
“Aesthetics is a human construct,” Professor Watson says. “I think birds use song in all sorts of complicated ways and in a bunch of different contexts. They are not simple binary messages either, but I would hesitate to say birds enjoy singing. There is no scientific evidence to prove that.”
Dr Taylor, who argues that function and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive, believes the Pied Butcherbird is one of our preeminent musicians.
“A lot of human music has a function as well, while the complexities of the Pied Butcherbird’s vocalisations go beyond pure functionality by transcending their biological requirements,” Dr Taylor says. “I consider them colleagues and contemporaries. I believe it is music.”