The Chickadee Symphony

A composer reflects on three decades of birdsong.

 

Emily Poole

On my land in the Black Forest, north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the black-capped chickadees are up to something. They don’t migrate, but the notes in their spring song have. It may be a stretch to say that the chickadees are composing, but over the nearly 30 years I’ve lived here, their spring song has evolved in a way that I, as a composer, can appreciate.

Scientists have found that bird songs are affected in various ways by altitude, region, stress and many other environmental factors. I’m an artist, not a scientist, but I’ve yet to see data showing specific pitch shifts resulting in a different melodic shape. What I’ve heard on my land is exactly that.

I’ve kept a journal for many years. My first entries of the chickadees’ song, from 1988, note three pitches reminiscent of a blues lick that I often play on the guitar. For many years, that was the chickadees’ only tune.

Classical composers often divided their symphonic movements into three chunks: exposition, development and recapitulation. In the exposition, they laid out a brief musical theme or themes. Most composers, including Mozart, used only two themes; Beethoven splintered the so-called rules by using however many themes he wanted. We might think of the blues lick as the first theme or exposition of a Chickadee Symphony:

 

The tonic, or “home,” pitch for the chickadees is close to our “F” note. The note varies only slightly here and there. But ever so gradually, the top two notes of the lick, the B flat and the A flat, have migrated in two distinct ways.

The first variation appeared alongside the original, almost as if we were entering the development section of the symphony. In this new melody, the A flat has migrated down a half step (the distance between a white key on the piano and its adjacent black key) to a G:

 

If it were four octaves lower, the notes in the new melody would sound like an old R&B bass line of the sort Elvis Presley’s band used in “Burning Love.” (The chickadees would have to work on the rhythm; they’re funky, but not that funky.)

As the years passed, Variation 2 came on the scene. In Variation 2, the top two pitches have both migrated down a half step. This variation sounds like “Three Blind Mice,” or, to listeners of a certain generation, the Three Stooges theme.

 

 

Variation 2, it turns out, is quite close to the Carolina chickadee song. Variation 2 came late to the party on my land, from where I don’t know. Perhaps it’s an emergent property; when conditions are right, the birds give out the Three Stooges theme.

At present, on my land, we seem to be firmly in the development section of our Chickadee Symphony. This is where composers have the most fun, playing all kinds of musical games with the themes they established at the outset. Beethoven, in his famous Fifth Symphony, enraptures us to this day with a seven-minute elaboration on a four-note theme: da, da, da, DUM. (I don’t have to notate that one, do I?) It sounds a bit like a birdcall, which makes sense, since both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies recall the sounds that the increasingly deaf composer once heard in nature.

The development section of the Chickadee Symphony really gets cooking with a seemingly random amalgam of the three melodies, their texture and interest enhanced by false starts and added vocal stops — not unlike what bagpipers do to separate notes from the constant air stream. As the three variations skitter across, around and through one another, the birds create an almost Bach-like web of counterpoint. Quite beautiful.

I may need a few more decades to see where this Chickadee Symphony is headed. Will there be a recapitulation, where the birds return to just the original blues lick? Probably not. I’ll be expecting something new, because unlike human art, which is bounded, nature is always in a state of becoming.

Tom Taylor is a composer, guitarist and recording artist who also teaches jazz at Colorado College.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.