Music of the Birds

As the sun gives the day's first light, so is music the mind's first light.
Mathematics follows music and science seems more art than science.

This page is about one of the pieces in the "Catalogue d'Oiseaux" (Catalogue of the Birds) by the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). This page also has information which can be found in the book Messiaen by Robert Sherlaw Johnson (hereafter RSJ-M), J M Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1975, page 148.

In the early noughties, I described my interests by saying that I wanted to turn three separate activities into one, and today (14 April 2012) those three activities are still (1) reconciliation between mathematics and those who fear and hate it, (2) reconciliation between civilization and the natural world, and (3) my own pursuit of mathematics and physics. I do feel that I have managed to do the unification.

[Though: Yesterday, 18 February 2016, I found myself saying to myself "I have forgotten what is the unification!" But I realized quickly that the three activities are united to each other as if by laser beams via Messiaen's Catalogue in the center of everything.]

So: Now, as before, to undertake such tasks without music would be a grave mistake, and I have chosen to emphasize Messiaen for two reasons: First, Messiaen is relevant to the task of making easy that which is difficult. Second, Messiaen's Catalogue of the Birds is highly relevant to the issue of establishing an harmonious relationship between civilization and the biosphere.

My degrees (BA and MS) are in physics (though I make no claim to be a physicist) and my work is applied classical mathematics (without any claim to be a mathematician). I have no formal training in music. Below, I will explain first what I'm doing to enjoy Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux, and then I'll talk about how I would like to encorporate Messiaen into my mathematical pursuits.


For the pieces in Catalogue d'Oiseaux, I have written on paper the form diagrams from Robert Sherlaw Johnson's book Messiaen. Then, using a stop watch and a recording by , I have written down the precise time at which each bird or feature is heard. I find this activity to be both enjoyable and rewarding. In fact, I showed this to a friend who has a music background, and he said it made him able to understand Messiaen as he never had before. If pictures and video were added in a multi-media format, the result would be remarkable. So, I'm in the process of trying to find if any such work has been done, and I'm contemplating the possibility of doing a little such work myself. In any case, I would like to make contact with people who know and love Messiaen's work and who might be interested in and/or doing the sort of multi-media work I have described.

Here's the connection I see with my mathematics for the math phobic: Many people who listen to and love classical music don't like 20th century music because they feel it is not melodic enough. I used to be in this group, and I remember Karl Haas trying to coax people into enjoying modern music. Messiaen might be regarded as a somewhat extreme example of "difficult" music, but the multi-media presentation I have described could make it very easy. Thus, people who think they could never enjoy modern music might find it delightful - AND, if they can do it with Messiaen, why not also with mathematics? And How? You ask? Acquire some State of the Art mathematical software and work along with me to study The Catalogue. Anyone who, even if starting from scratch, aquires and persists in using said software, will acquire a great power over numbers.

'L'Alouette Lulu
( The Woodlark )

Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux consists of thirteen pieces arranged as seven books. The sixth piece is called 'L'Alouette Lulu (The Woodlark), and it is the second piece of the third book. The headings of the three tables below give Robert Sherlaw Johnson's form diagram from page 148 of his book cited above. The body of each table gives the times which I recorded from my stop watch after listening to the piece many times. Each table includes a blank row in case you would like to do the exercise yourself, if you have a Catalague d'Oiseaux CD. I have done this for all of the pieces in the Catalogue d'Oiseaux. I have found that doing this makes otherwise unintelligible music quite understandable and enjoyable. Most of the other pieces in the Catalogue are more complex than this one, and I have found it very satisfying to go through the process of figuring out which sounds go with the various elements in professor Johnson's form diagrams. In the tables shown below, "A" is the nightingale, "B" is the woodlark, and "c" is the night.

Introduction: B + c
Recording c B c B c B c B c B c B c B
[_1_] 0:00 0:10 0:15 0:26 0:31 0:42 0:49 1:00 1:06 1:18 1:24 1:35 1:40 1:50
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____

Central Strophes: Dialogue between A and B (+c)
Recording A c B A c B A c B A c B A
[_1_] 2:14 2:38 2:48 3:13 3:55 4:05 4:12 4:15 4:21 4:32 4:36 4:42 4:48
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____

Coda: B + c
Recording c B c B c B c B c B c B c B
[_1_] 4:56 5:18 5:22 5:33 5:38 5:49 5:53 6:20 6:26 6:37 6:43 6:54 7:02 7:10
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____

Making the Tables

I have created a web page that documents the process of creating tables, like those above, for the last piece in the Catalogue, [_2_], but I don't think the page is suitable for publication here. I look forward to studying from the score, and I plan to use my 'table-making web page' in that study.

A Note on Times

I would like to explain the times that you see in the above tables. In the CD player that I have been using, I press "play" and then "pause". I then advance to the track which contains the piece which I wish to study. When I press play, and at the same time start my stop watch, the first note invariably is played immediately, thus defining the 0:00 point of time. Usually (but not always!), this also enables me to identify the first element which appears in professor Johnson's diagram. Each of the subsequent entries means that the time of the first note of the given element occurs, to the best of my ability to measure it, at an instant of time which is greater than or equal to the time given (as for example 0:10 which is zero minutes and ten seconds beyond the first note) and less than the next second (which would be 0:11 for the example just cited). Of course different recordings will involve different times for each element, and different perfomances by a given artist will also involve different times. However, I have found that, after twenty or thirty hearings of a given recording, the times I get do not vary at all. Thus, I find that I am able to locate the first note of each element to within a one second interval.

A Note on the Corncrake

One of my favorite sounds in the Catalogue d'Oiseaux is that of the corncrake, who appears in the ninth piece 'La Bouscarle' (Cetti's Warbler). I mention this here because I have just listened to this piece on my recording by Hakan Austbo and I was very much surprised to find the sound altogether different from the one I remember. When I did the exercise described above for 'La Bouscarle', I was using a recording by Anatol Ugorski. In that recording the sound of the corncrake struck me as very funny. I had the picture in my mind of a rather clumsy bird moving along the ground in short jumps. Having just done a quick web search, I found the following description: "When walking about undisturbed a Broadland corncrake's head would move to and fro at each step, with feet lifting high. But it always remained very cautious and at the least sound the neck would be stretched to full extent as the bird craned its head above the grass for a better view." (Click here for more. This link is to "Birds of Britain", "The monthly web magazine for bird watchers".)



[1] , piano, Naxos
Recorded at St. Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, England. from 24th to 27th April 1996 and from 1st to 3rd August 1996. Producer: Gary Cole. Editor: Gary Cole. Piano: Steinway & Sons Hamburg. Music Notes: Patricia Althaparro-Minck. Cover: From a sketch by David Barker (1997). Distributed by: MVD music and video distribution GmbH, Oberweg 21c - Halle V. D-82008 Unterhaching, Munich, Germany.

[2] I have not given the English tranlation for because I am trying to avoid learning it. I want to see a picture of the bird, for which I will no doubt not know the english name, and then I will know it only by its French name. Thus, in a small but significant way, a bit of the French that I know will be my native language. The details of my listening to this piece are here. I did this for each piece of the catalogue, but only recorded the details for this one.