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A NEST OF SINGING BIRDS, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 30th May 1953

Where will it end? Not content with digging up mere music of the past, the Musicologist is turned Archaeologist and must dig up actual instruments of the past—and then even play them. We are all awaiting the next sensational discovery. The Neanderthal Concerto to be played on an authentic Descant-Cromagnon. We have every reason to ask, “where will it end?” Now that a few dreary bits of stone (discovered deep in some paleolithic cave, each stone happening to give off, when struck, a note different from its fellows)—now that this assortment of stones has been dignified with the title of Lithophone, what is holding us back from acclaiming as a new musical instrument (or an old one) anything and everything in the whole of creation that can emit a noise? We shall soon have to add the name of Dame Nature to that of Dame Ethel Smyth in the list of honourable lady composers. A thousand and one fortuitous sounds there are, any of which if ranged in some order so as to approximate to a scale (even a pentatonic scale!) can be called a nice long name (derived from the Greek, of course), and used for a lecture-recital on the Third Programme.

We have had a row of wineglasses with differing content of water—that is simple. But why stop there? A row of dustbins would be quite as exciting—and if played by a skilled performer, would undoubtedly attract a capacity audience of cats and cockroaches. Each dustbin would have to be filled to a different level to obtain the required pitch, and here a problem of “medium” is immediately encountered. What goes in the bins? A similar case was the Morgianaphone, described in the Arabian Nights, constructed of resonating pots, tuned by the addition of appropriate quantities of robber and boiling oil. The sound emitted during tuning, however, was said to have surpassed (and even precluded) subsequent performance. Still, with the less sensitive wineglasses the same result is obtained whether you use water, wine or camomile tea. But with dustbins, what is inside them is of vital importance.

In America, in a very short time, I foresee an epoch when the contents of the resonating object will be of such prime significance that people will not be satisfied till every conceivable substance has been tried. We shall have the cynephone (or korythophone)—a line of resonating hats, tuned perhaps with a filling of rice pudding. Maybe we shall hear the sweet strains of the torynephone, made of varying tablespoonsful of jellied eel. Even Demosthenes recommended a mouthful of pebbles. Yes, Sir! Media will be simply fascinating, not to say nutritious. I look forward to a May Week concert programme that has the following note : “The instruments played in the first half of the concert will be served as the buffet during the interval.”

But in the meantime there are many natural resources nearer home which could be successfully tapped. A row of old men snoring in a clubroom—if only the old men are filled up to different levels—might be made to emit a delicious ostinato decorated with most intriguing cross-rhythms.

A more intimate instrument would be a set of seashells of varying size. The sound of the sea inside would be heard at different pitches. A quick player might hear “Full fathom five,” or some such tune, all through quite satisfactorily, by using alternate ears. Two-part music, say a Morley Canzonet, would of necessity require a very skilful manipulation of the shells or of one’s ears, and the listener would have to put up with the somewhat disjointed effect of the music inevitably arising from the technique of the instrument. The name of the instrument would be the Ostracophone, and composers might write Conchertos for it.

But there are yet more convenient fields of experiment, which have (incredibly enough) only been exploited to a small extent. One hears of a Consort of Recorders, why not a Nest of Singing Birds? Rooks, for instance, though clumsy, ugly, and in every other ornithological respect unsuited for the life of the tree-top, have very fine voices (and a deal of conversation). The larger birds produce deep bass notes on such syllables as “Dark!” “O’Rourke!” or “Gawk!” Mezzo-Rooks are heard to utter sounds like “Work!” and “Murk!” in the middle register, while smaller birds whose voice has not yet broken cover the upper notes with shrieks of “Fire!” or “Liar!”

Now if a couple of octaves of birds were placed in a line, each bird electrically wired-up to a keyboard, so that the depression of a key would send a small electric shock into the desired bird, thus making it “speak” (the intensity of the shock controlling the volume)—we should have a fine addition to our musical palette, the Coracophone.

An actual instance of a Coracophone is recorded in an old song. It seemed to be a large hybrid instrument, and at the time of the song was evidently in ruins after a disaster to one of the three performers. A sixpence, a pocketful of rye (obviously a soprano pocket, since empty pockets emit a bass note), and a pie of blackbirds constituted this particular instrument.

At first the song does not make it clear whether or not the pie is the resonating object with the blackbird-content determining its pitch. But later it becomes apparent the pie is in the nature of an enclosed “Swell,” as on an organ. When the swell-box was opened the birds (very properly) began to sing. I assume someone was “playing” them. Their specification is not specified. Were the twenty-four birds arranged in a single rank of a semitone scale of two octaves, or in two ranks, each covering one octave? Or perhaps they were tuned in pairs like some rudimentary “mutation” stop? Or was each bird part of a hexachord, the hard, soft, natural and unnatural?

More details of this fascinating construction are given in the next verse. For King, Queen and Maid, one should obviously read Organ-builder and his two mates, who were in all probability themselves the performers.

Just as in many cathedrals the organ is in several sections—part in the apse, part in triforium or transept—so here, the Coracophone was in three sections, one in a garden and the other two indoors. The King was dealing with the brass section in the “Counting House.” Obviously a rank of sixpences would have sixpence as only its highest note. The lower degrees of the scale would be provided by larger coins, annas, roubles, cents, farthings, and so on. If there was as much counting of coins to do as is inferred by the song, one must presume that this section of the Coracophone was in several ranks and formed a substantial part of the whole—almost worthy of a separate denomination—the “Numismatophone”!

The Queen was in the Parlour (or loudspeaker section) seeing to the feeding of the blackbird section of the instrument. The Maid was in the garden attending to the pocket-of-rye section. She was hanging out the clothes in which, of course, these resonating pockets were. It sounds as if there might have been a whole octave of pockets, a varying amount of rye in each. This portion of the Coracophone was naturally in the garden to keep the dust and chaff made by the clothes and the rye from getting into the other parts of the mechanism.

It would be a very inspiring and worth-while work of musicological reconstruction, if some of our friends could drop their harpsichord manufacturing, and provide us with a really first-class (authentic) Coracophone.

Meanwhile a new instrument is appearing daily in the sky. A line of jet-planes. The fact that performances are given so often over King’s College Chapel does not necessarily mean that they are deliberately sponsored by rival college choirs. I hope not, for we are all in this together. The lithophone is a thing of the past. The cracking of the sound-barrier is our next instrument of percussion. As we shall all be by then congenitally half deaf, I advise everyone to order their deaf-aid in good time, so that they can make sure of destroying it.

Peter Tranchell