Welcome to No One's Watching Week, the time of the year when the readers are away, and your tireless editors have run amok. For this week only, Atlas Obscura, the New Republic, Popular Mechanics, Pacific Standard, the Paris Review, and Mental Floss will be swapping content that is too out there for any other week in 2015.
Berlin may be the best city in the world in which to jam with nightingales. The place is full of Luscinia megarhynchos, the Common Nightingale, a small brown bird with a song that can go on for hours, any time of day, really, but especially between midnight and 4 a.m. Contrary to early mythology, it's the males that do the singing, and they are relentlessly loyal to specific sites. Some prefer the tops of lamp posts at especially loud street corners, and nothing can dissuade them from keeping to their avowed territorial spots. They return year after year to the same tree, or the same traffic light, depending on the disposition of the bird. Of course you never know what kind of crazy people or crazy birds will be wandering around a former East German park at night amid Soviet war memorials, drug-dealer hideouts, and romantic riverside paths.
If you've never left America you have not heard a nightingale. They exist only in the forests and towns of the Old World. Their song has been beloved by poets for centuries, always a bit of avant-garde just beyond human familiarity. They somehow sound not like usual birds, but more like weird electronic music, with whistles, clicks, and occasional strange bluesy tones. The kind of music humans often make in the clubs and cellars of Berlin. Maybe that's why they like it here so much. Berlin is almost as cool as Brooklyn these days, and a lot cheaper, so it's full of interesting musicians and artists from all over the world looking for a place to convene and survive. With all these nightingales heralding from trees and streetlights late into the night, and enough people who like to stay up 'til dawn, it seemed the ideal place to get humans and nightingales together for some interspecies creation.
I'm rather fond of playing music with the nightingales of Berlin. What's especially fun is getting other people to join in with the glorious chew chew chee and hear what happens as their musical boundaries are challenged by the act of playing along with the birds. So one night last May I gathered the coolest ensemble I could find, and prepared to share their sense of surprise and astonishment.
We were: Cymin Samawathie, German-Iranian jazz singer, well-versed in the poetic songs of Hafiz and Rumi, several of which deal with nightingales, able to sing in Farsi, Arabic, German, Hebrew, and English; Maria Magdalena Wiesmaier, classical cellist, who knows that a cello, together with a nightingale, was the subject of the first-ever outdoor radio broadcast by the BBC in 1926, heard by millions of listeners around the world; Korhan Erel, wizard of electronics and live sound transformation, a recent émigré from Turkey to Germany, who planned to use an iPad to sample the bird songs live in the moment, repeating and transforming them to see how the bird would react; Lucie Vítková, singer and accordionist, arriving directly from Brno; and, finally, Alexandra Duvekot of the Dutch rock band Blue Crime, who has also done performances live with house plants at New York's School of Visual Arts. So basically, your average Berlin pic-up band.
Now, you may wonder, do nightingales like making music with people? The most rigorous study of nightingale response to playbacks of their own songs, conducted in Berlin in the 1970s by Henrike Hultsch and Dietmar Todt, concluded the following: There are three ways a nightingale will respond to a strange new sound in its midst. First, if he feels his territory is threatened, he will try to interrupt the new sound, what the scientists called "jamming the signal," preventing any foreign message from coming through, singing at the same time, getting in the way as much as possible. That’s the aggressive response. But he may respond differently. A male nightingale who is confident in his territory, who doesn’t consider you and your clarinet or iPad or voice or cello a threat, will listen to what you play, wait a moment, then respond with his own short song, and then wait some more. If you give him some space, play a short phrase, and stop, the whole exchange is considered friendly acknowledgment, with each musician trading ideas, leaving space for the next, accepting that we each have our place and our song. Thirdly, a nightingale who considers himself at the top of his game, the boss bird, best singer in the whole park, will just do whatever he wants, maybe interrupting, maybe leaving space, singing whatever he wants for as long as he wants, because you, or anyone else, does not matter in the least to him, since he’s so convinced of his greatness. He hardly notices you or anyone else is there.
We’ve all met musicians who fit into these three categories! But what one person hears as "jamming the signal" could actually be just plain jamming, trying to make interesting music together. Because music, human or avian, might be much more than signals. Perhaps our artistry and form is not just advertisement of territory and skill, but some attempt to work together to create something no single species could make on its own.
Through flash messaging and the wiles of social media, at least 100 people had gathered at the Treptower Park S-Bahn stop at midnight to follow us to the venue, one copse away from the river's edge, where our favorite bird, with whom we had practiced a few nights earlier, was ready for showtime. As we quietly ushered everyone into the large grassy field, our bird was already singing. Instruments and amplifiers were taken out. We were all set to go, eager to figure out what sounds and rhythms might best go together with what this bird might do, when we realized we were not alone. Right when we were setting up our recording equipment, we saw them—our friends, the scientists. Silke Kipper and Sarah Kiefer, nightingale scientists from the Free University of Berlin, had chosen this same night to do some playback experiments with this very same bird.They were not pleased to see us. "What are you doing here David? You know this is our study area. We don't want you ruining our data collection."
We had talked about this earlier. "I know Silke, I'm sorry, but this bird is so special. We've listened to many, but we keep coming back to him."
"How do you know?"
"We were here playing just the other night."
"Clarinet. Voice. Some electronics."
"What kind of electronics? I heard you just now, and it sounds like you have nightingale songs on that iPad."
I had to confess. "Yes, we were sampling the bird, and playing him back his own song. Looped. Re-mixed. Changed pitch. Sliced and diced."
"What!" A sense of betrayal flashed across her face, lit by the glow of the iPad. "This bird is ruined for us!"
"What do you mean?"
"We don't care if you play clarinet or cello or sing to him, but playing him back his own song. That is a playback experiment, that is what we are trying to do. I hope you have the proper permits for conducting experiments with a wild animal."
"Uhhh.... We are just making music together with birds."
"You have compromised our research subject. Messing with his brain, his whole sense of aesthetics. Who knows what you've done to him!"
The questioning continued. "What if you are upsetting the birds?"
"Nothing we do seems to make them stop singing."
"If you don't chart their mating success you won't know whether you have impacted their ability to attract a mate and procreate."
"I don't know that about the humans who hear my music either." And with this, the crowd snickers a bit.
"Ugh," Silke sighs. "You win. Look, I see you have a lot of people gathered here, you don't want to disappoint them." She turns, dejected, mumbling. "Ruined, another experiment, ruined."
So we made the whole crowd get up and walk some more. To the next bird, and a whole new realm of sonic possibility. While walking I composed under my breath the letter I will write to these scientists. "You were absolutely right," I'll say. "We do not want to ruin your data."
We usher our audience onto another lawn, this one a bit too close to the new Burger King at the former site of the KfZ Prüfstelle at the edge of Treptower Park, near the weird floating biergarten Klipper with the seaplane and paddleboats adrift before the bridge to the Insel der Jugend. All right, this is the second best singing bird in the park, but I think he will be good enough.
It is now after midnight, prime time for the nightingales of Berlin. Our boy does not disappoint. He is ready to defend his line against 100 eager humans who pose no actual threat, but sit reverently before him as the inscrutable song begins. Alex, wearing all black leather, smiling quietly under a tree, plinks a tentative note on her ukulele. Maria seems worried. She's far from the classical hall she is used to playing in, but then again she has always wanted more time to improvise. Korhan smiles, hair all frizzed out, a little red lipstick on—you know, this is Berlin—and he taps the iPad to sample a bit of the bird's song, loops it, transposes it down a few octaves so it booms like an ecstatic whale.
Our bird keeps singing. I guess he is interrupting us, as the scientists say, but as a musician I feel that he is enjoying the process of joining in. I pick up my clarinet, try once again to become a bird. It might actually be easier than playing human music, since these songs of evolution have coursed through our DNA for millions of years. Then Cymin softly sings a great poem of Hafez, who, strangely enough, is the world's best-selling poet in English, in this century as well as the last. If we were to translate the Persian we'd get something like this: "The nightingales are drunk, wine-red roses appear / And, Sufis, all around us, happiness is near."