Embedding Sound, Analog Style

Embedding Sound, Analog Style

I happened to discover a lovely children’s book titled The Restless Robin (1937), by Marjorie Flack. The author tells the story of Mr. Cock Robin, who flies north one spring to find a place for his family to nest. His ‘wife,’ Mrs. Cock Robin, joins him after he has selected a lovely apple tree on a farm in rural New Hampshire. Well, done, Mr. Cock Robin! Once settled in, the couple hatch Buffy, Muffy, and Puffy. Buffy, the male bird-child is a little bit of a rascal and gets into all sorts of scrapes (even bird-boys will be boys in 1937). At one point, Buffy leaves the nest and is almost eaten by a cat. After narrowly escaping a gruesome end, he is stranded in a lilac bush because he has not yet learned to fly.

During this charming episode, several other birds show up to cheer him on. Below, you can see a Thrasher, a Peabody, and a Warbler, introduced.

This aspect of the book struck my attention because I was able to imagine the birdsong in my mind because of the musical notation. It helps to read music, yes, but I suspect that many readers would be able to follow the movement of the calls and their rhythm by reading the phrases. Birders often use these short-hand word clusters to identify species. The author of the book cites the Fieldbook of Wild Birds and Their Music y F. Schuyler Mathews. A copy originally published in 1921 is available here from the Internet Archive.

One of the things soundBox is interested in is the relationship between text, image, and sound. I find these musical notations of birdsong, when embedded into a narrative story provide a rich sonic atmosphere that amounts to something like an analog version of what we seek to produce in a digital context. I found the process of reading the story and imagining the birdsong to be really engaging and my three-year old niece enjoyed it too!

Here you can see a close up of Mr. Cock Robin’s call:

After 9 different birds and their music are introduced to the story, all the birds join together to sing to Buffy as he struggles to fly from the lilac bush. The text opposing the image below reads, “Then the Oriole and the Chickadee and the Thrasher and the Peabody bird and the Black-throated Green Warbler and the Blue-bird and the song Sparrow sand their songs over and over again for Buffy while the Flicker rattled along and the Meadowlark’s sweet whistle rose and fell and rose and fell again and again as he sang: ‘Spring o’ the Ye-ar, Spring o’ the Y-e-a-r!'” Because readers have now been taught all the birdsongs, the image below incites a cacophonous imaginary.

Many books blend musical notation with text and image to create a richly sensate world for readers. One limitation of this approach has been, of course, that one needs to read music in order to fully appreciate the sound. Even though the history of musical notation correlates to a hierarchization of classical music and certain methods of formal training, it has provided students and musicians with easy means of transcribing, recording, and learning new music. A limiting form for those who are not trained in it, for those who are, it opens up worlds of possibility. There are also many advantages that come from learning music by “ear.” This is well-trod territory, I know, but it’s worth thinking through the semantic properties of musical notation and what they afford in terms of the relationship between sound and text.