Review of Animal Musicalities – Birds, Beasts, and Evolutionary Listening

Animal Musicalities – Birds, Beasts, and Evolutionary Listening
Rachel Mundy

Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2018
264 pp., illus. b/w. Trade, $21.35
ISBN: 9780819578068.

Reviewed by
Edith Doove
June 2019

Living in times where the sound of birds is rapidly diminishing, we may see Rachel Mundy’s study on bird song to be more than timely. Far from being a simple field guide for recognising predominantly birds (the beasts from the title are hardly mentioned), this is in the first place an extremely rich publication on the evolution of the study of birdsong. What makes it so rich, and at times somewhat confusing, is that Mundy connects this study with various matters of difference and race. The bird is namely seen as “the other” and is put into connection with “the enduring evaluations of species, races and cultures”, including the treatment of women. Mundy traces the study of birdsong back to the 19th century, the time of Darwin and Spencer when true to the general method of studying animals, it was often a case of “Shoots, eats & leaves”, to paraphrase the title of a well-known book on punctuation. What seems these days completely out of order due to their rapid demise, was at the time not seen as overly problematic – those that studied birds for their song were in more than one respect hunters and, in some cases, noted that their prey not only sounded good, but was also very tasty. With the ultimate aim to study and categorize their object of study it thus usually ended up dead (and eaten) and their song muted. Mundy extensively and sometimes rather dryly, describes how all kinds of machinery were used to record their song. This eventually resulted due to technical restrictions into extremely limited notations that were hardly representative of the full audiophonic splendour.

Mundy interestingly describes how these attempts to catch birds and their song are also very much related to a major shift in the 20th and early 21st century from collective to subjective knowledge and thus towards an entirely different perspective. Wallace Craig for instance recognised that birds actually have something like an acquired taste. In the case of woodpeckers he discovered that some, rather than choosing the classic hollow wood, would go for iron roofing and produce a clearly different sound. Further on in the book, in a different context, Mundy refers to Claude Levi-Strauss as having recognised “that birdsong, like language, can be called a product of (...) culture”. She does however not fully unpack the possible consequences of this connection.

The style of the book is unfortunately somewhat uneven, ranging from very personal, exciting to extremely dry and technical. In the chapter on collecting songs Mundy for instance deliberately changes tone by addressing the main subjects, the just mentioned psychologist and zoologist Wallace Craig as well as music ethnographer Laura Craytor Boulton suddenly only by their first names. This trying to create a kind of closer relationship does not work, but rather distracts, especially since Craig is in other chapters just referred to with his last name. Overall there is the impression that Mundy might have wanted to include too much, and on the other hand sometimes leaves loose ends hang.

Where the book in my view becomes truly interesting is in the final chapter called ‘The Rose Garden’ where she discusses the importance of the audio field guide as a way to “model important relationships between human listeners, singing birds, and imagined spaces of nature”. By discussing three specific soundscapes or imagined spaces by Messiaen, Feld, and Chu, she questions “how listening to birds models interspecies ethics in a postwar, postmodern, posthuman world.” Although these three are all very different (a work for piano, a recording and a book), they all lead in Mundy’s view to the garden she named this specific chapter after: “postmodern human identity, which frames human singularity around the boundary between genetics and human culture, replicates the sacred foundation of the Judeo-Christian Garden.” As Mundy indicates that this garden “is located in the species-specific problems of human sin, guilt, and sanctity” this seems to maybe unwillingly imply how much of the current rhetoric around global warming and disappearing animal and floral species is connected to feelings of guilt. Far from wanting to launch a conspiracy theory nor to deny the seriousness of global warming, it is nevertheless worth asking what part and how much is being used for other religion-related purposes. In relation to the field guides Mundy observes for instance how the most recent ones “often represent birds in a world of carefully crafted geography in which the postmodern human, unable to unify culture and nature, is absent.” In other words, when brought into connection with Mundy’s remarks around the ideal garden, back to a point zero, before the apple and the snake so to speak. Mundy does not go as far as I suggest in terms of the consequences, but just sees this as a “final fantasy (...) in which the garden is, as of old, closed to human access, but retains the birds who have not sinned.”

Instead she surprisingly proposes in her conclusion a different approach to the “postwar, postmodern, posthuman” through “a made-up discipline”, the animalities. In this approach, which is explicitly directed to the living and thus excludes the nonhuman that she apparently regards as dead, Mundy seeks to add her own contribution through “the study of living culture in a more-than-human world”. It could be argued that minerals that figure among the thus discarded, form an integral part of if not an important condition for the living, human or nonhuman. Where Mundy quotes Una Chaudhuri for having suggested “that the proliferation of neologisms by animal studies scholars is the symptom of a shared desire to radically intervene in thee stablished discourse of aesthetic meaning”, I am not truly convinced yet another neologism will truly solve the issue of notions of difference that Mundy wishes to stress. That said, her book gives a lot of food for thought as long as we don’t forget to listen to the birds while they are still around.