Cows moo, dogs bark, cats meow, pigs oink, birds sing.

Which one is unlike the others?

In English, we typically describe the sounds animals make with a rough imitation of the sound in question: cows go mooooooooo, cats go meeeoooowww, etc. But look at “birds sing.” No onomatopoeia here. Instead, we grant birds a verb we usually reserve for our own voices. Sure, we can also talk about birds “chirping” and “tweeting,” but we’re far more likely to admire “birdsong” than, say, “cowchat” or “pigchant.” We hear something musical in the varied pitches, the repeated rhythms, and the complex counterpoint of birdsong.

And, sometimes, we include it in our own music. Imitating birdsong in classical music is a centuries-old tradition (complete with a Wikipedia page), from violins representing birds’ “festive song” in Vivaldi’s Spring to the oboe quacking like a duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. But as recording and electroacoustic technology developed rapidly in the twentieth century, composers were able to eschew such vile mimicry in favor of the real thing.

One such composer was Einojuhani Rautavaara, born in Finland in 1928 and just recently deceased in 2016. In his 1972 piece Cantus Arcticus, subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Rautavaara asks the orchestra to play along with a tape of various birds’ songs recorded in northern Finland.

The word “cantus” in the title comes from the Latin word for “to sing.” But Rautavaara is tricky. In the first movement of the piece, called “The Bog,” it’s ambiguous just who is doing the singing. There are the birds, of course. For the first half of the movement, flutes and other woodwinds play winding lines while the bird sounds hover above them. But then, about halfway through, a long, slow, hymn-like melody appears in the cellos and bassoons, rising gradually up through the orchestra. This is the only thing in the music so far that would really be singable by humans, the only thing much like what we’d typically call a “song.” So although the title is singular, there are two songs here: one avian, one human.

Things get even stranger in the second movement, “Melancholy,” which begins with a taped birdsong alone, lowered in pitch and slowed down to sound like what Rautavaara called a “ghost bird.” So if you’re attending a live performance, none of the musicians you’re paying to hear are playing for the first minute of this movement. The performers become, briefly, part of the audience.

This is normal in concertos, where the orchestra may sit still for minutes on end as the soloist shows off with a snazzy cadenza. But here there is no human soloist, no familiar or famous face to turn your adoring attention to. It is simply birdsong, a sound we’re used to hearing in the background, invited onto center stage.

There’s much more to say about the piece, but the key point is this: Rautavaara challenges the assumption that music belongs unequivocally to humanity by making birdsong a challenger and equal partner to “humansong.” He asks us to listen to birdsong as we would listen to orchestral music, not because it’s the same, but precisely because it’s different—and still beautiful.

I think this is a challenge we need. As a rule, we humans are pretty convinced of our exceptionality. It’s a core tenet of Christian theology in particular that humans are set apart from the rest of creation for the special role of bearing God’s image and ruling over the world. To equip us for this mission, God gave us gifts he didn’t give to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field, gifts like language, compassion, curiosity, art, and music. And when we see the results of that difference—cities, poetry, charity—it’s easy for us to see ourselves as creation’s soloists. And then the world becomes something we use to develop our gifts, rather than our gifts being what we use to love the world.

Rautavaara reminds us that our divinely-appointed role is not a solo role. It is not a “high and lonely destiny,” as Uncle Andrew, that old ultra-humanist, might say. It’s an ensemble role in the chorus of creation. God gave us a powerful and diverse musical gift, but that doesn’t mean that what birds have isn’t also a gift—a gift we lack. Recognizing that creation bears divine gifts we can’t find in ourselves helps us take one step away from being persistent cosmic prima donnas.

If we’re going to take better care of this world we’ve been entrusted with, maybe we should by putting down our instruments and stepping, if only for a few minutes, into the audience.

See Chris Morrison’s program notes for more about the piece, and, for the musically minded, see here for a recording that includes the score.

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