About the Conference | Read Papers | Interactive Conference | Musics and Cultures Research Group

Investigating inter-cultural music perception: Messiaen's "Le Loriot" and Afghan reception of birdsong
John Baily, Goldsmiths College, University of London

1. Some theoretical issues

2. Revisiting Afghanistan in 1994

3. Reactions to "Le Loriot"

4. Reactions to a recording of nightingale song

5. Conclusions

Notes

References


1. Some theoretical issues

Inter-cultural studies of music perception are almost entirely lacking.(1) What is it that we get out of listening to other people's music? We do not usually listen to recordings of people speaking other languages but we do listen to their music. This is the phenomenon on which the entire world music industry is based.

Even the most basic differences in meaning in Western perceptions of major and minor scales have hardly begun to be explored. Deryck Cooke argued that the minor chord is perceived as melancholic because the 3rd is literally "depressed" (1959). But there is no evidence to show that people from other cultural backgrounds perceive this difference in the same way that Westerners are supposed to.

There are many ways to approach the issue of inter-cultural music perception. In this communication I offer some preliminary findings from an approach that involves three factors: Afghan musical preferences, birdsong, and Western music that incorporates the creative treatment of birdsong.


2. Revisiting Afghanistan in 1994

In 1994 I had the opportunity to revisit Herat, the city in western Afghanistan where I lived for two years in the 1970s and conducted in-depth ethnomusicological research. Here, and in Peshawar in Pakistan where many Afghan musicians live in exile, I carried out research into their perception of birdsong and of music based on birdsong. Wanting to investigate this love of birdsong further, I took with me a recording of Olivier Messiaen's piano piece "Le Loriot", which is based on birdsong (2), a tape of the actual songs of birds imitated in "Le Loriot", and an hour of nightingale song.

I knew, from my earlier fieldwork, about the Afghan love of birdsong. Of all the birds known to the Afghans the nightingale is the most highly praised. It is the bird of hazar dastan, "a thousand stories", it sings rad ba rad, "turn by turn", varying its song. It is recognised by Afghans that songbirds are stimulated to sing by hearing music, and sometimes caged birds are brought to music performances. The resulting symphony, the sounds of music with the sounds of birdsong added to it, constitutes the acme of Afghan musical enjoyment. It is truly gol o bolbol, "rose and nightingale"; the flowers in the garden of music evoking the song of the nightingales (Baily 1996).


3. Reactions to "Le Loriot"

I administered the recording of "Le Loriot" as a test-piece on several occasions, and perhaps the most interesting responses came from three refugee Afghan musicians living in Pakistan. They were Aref, a virtuoso tabla player from a hereditary musician family of Kabul; Sharif, a classical singer, also from an eminent Kabuli musician family; and Amir, a rubâb player from Herat, and the main character in my film Amir (Baily 1985). First I played a recording of "Le Loriot", telling them it was by a famous French composer and that he was copying the sounds of songbirds. They listened to it with interest and enthusiasm, with admiration for the technical virtuosity of the pianist. They spoke of experiencing being in a wonderful place, with the first rays of the sun at dawn, and so on. They heard Messiaen's imitations as birdsong, and admired them as such. Aref especially was appreciative of the various bird calls, and started giving his impressions of them using what sounded very like tabla mnemonics (bols).


4. Reactions to a recording of nightingale song

I then put on a recording of real nightingale song, and they gave this a very positive response. They found it much more enjoyable to listen to than Messiaen's "Le Loriot". Aref responded to the bird with extended strings of verbalised tabla bols. [Play audio example - RealAudio file (234 KB) or (48 KB)] He then found that the bird's song could be fitted into Tintâl (the 16 beat metrical cycle), and started clapping the tâl. [Play audio example - (287 KB) or (58 KB)] This shows, I think, that when Aref hears the song of the nightingale he hears it from the point of view of a tabla player. For him, bird calls are structured like drum patterns. Aref then got out his tabla drums and started playing his imitations, to the intense enjoyment of his friends. [Play audio example - (1059 KB) or (212 KB)]

Then Amir started playing a composition on the rubâb in Tintâl. Something very interesting happened at this point. Aref accompanied Amir in the 16 beat cycle while at the same time responding to the nightingale and incorporating its song into his tabla accompaniment. [Play audio example - (917 KB) or (367 KB)] In some ways Aref was doing what Messiaen had done. He was listening to the sounds of birdsong, which in this case were recorded, but could equally well have been live. These were heard as sounds which could be immediately verbalised as drum mnemonics. It was also possible to play them on the tabla drums. And they could be integrated into a larger composition, in this case a composition in Tintâl. Messiaen had transcribed birdsong in staff notation and used these transcriptions in writing his score for "Le Loriot", embedding his songbird quotations in chord sequences expressing time and place. Aref, who had no idea what was coming when I presented him with these materials, made an immediate "oral notation" of the bird sounds and embedded them in what had become a tabla solo. It was a brilliant and highly sophisticated extempore piece of music making.


5. Conclusions

I am aware that I have not fully addressed in a systematic way the essential theoretical issue here, which is how inter-cultural studies of the perception of musical sound can help us to understand how cultural knowledge structures what we hear. Nevertheless, I have learned something more about how Afghans regard birdsong.

(a) The most significant conclusion is that for the Afghans birdsong is in itself "another music culture". Just as we do in English, they term bird sounds "song": they use the term khandan, a word with a complex semantic field (Baily 1988, 1996) but which here clearly means "song". It is a music culture they have been in contact with for many centuries and which is deeply enshrined in their mystical literature, in the metaphor of gol o bolbol, rose and nightingale.

(b) I was told that birdsong is a form of language in which birds sing the many Names of God, each species in its own way. One species sings "Ya Karim", another "Qader Allah", and so on. The different calls correspond to different words, but many are the names of God. Birdsong is regarded as a form of zikr, the Recollection of God, as practised by Sufis (Muslim mystics). So the audible world of nature with songbirds in it forms a soundscape which is constantly reaffirming the pre-eminence of God, a symphonic song with many individual strands in praise of The Almighty.

(c) Faced with "Le Loriot", a foreign music that explicitly utilises birdsong, I find that Afghans appreciate the piece, and appreciate the skills of the composer and the pianist. I think they hear it as birdsong, and admire it as such. Yet, a recording of real bird sounds is for them much more enjoyable to listen to. It is perhaps not surprising that the Afghans are more responsive to the sounds of real birdsong than to a European composer's transcriptions of birdsong on the piano. Does it also follow that whatever it is about birdsong that Afghans appreciate has not been captured by Messiaen?

(d) One brings one's own music culture to bear when confronted with another one. This is how culture structures perception. When Aref hears the song of the nightingale he hears it from the point of view of a tabla player. For him, bird calls are evidently structured like drum patterns. His imitations sound like tabla mnemonics (bols), and he loses no time in fitting the birdsong into a metrical framework commonly used in his own music culture.


Notes

1. A longer version of this paper will be published in World of Music under the title "Afghan perceptions of birdsong". [back]

2. The 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen is famous for the use of birdsong as a source of inspiration in a number of his works. These pieces together constitute "Le Style Oiseau". Messiaen was a considerable ornithologist, a notator and recordist of birdsong. He made great claims as to the accuracy and authenticity of his transcriptions, which became a matter of much futile debate later. (His detractors, for example, claimed that these were not authentic transcriptions but imaginative transmutations.) back]

The loriot is the golden oriole, and is the name of one piece in Catalogue des Oiseax. Besides the golden oriole, Messiaen quotes in this piece the wren, robin, blackbird, redstart, mistlethrush, garden warbler and chiffchaff, and has embedded his birdcalls in soft chord sequences that conjure up time and place, according to his theory of sound-colour synaesthesia.


References

Baily, John 1985 Amir: An Afghan Refugee Musician's Life in Peshawar, Pakistan. 16mm film, 52 mins. London: Royal Anthropological Institute.

____ 1988 Music of Afghanistan: Professional Musicians in the City of Herat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. With accompanying audio cassette.

____ 1996 "Using Tests of Sound Perception in Fieldwork", Yearbook for Traditional Music, 28:147-173.

Cooke, Deryck 1959 The Language of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Read Papers | Interactive Conference