"Singing the World: A Case Study in Collaborative Artistic Research on the Theme of Birdsong

Bennett Hogg


Paper given at the MuSA Conference,



"Singing the World" was a five-way collaboration with myself, artist and writer Mike Collier, printmaker Alex Charrington, sound recordist and birdsong expert Geoff Sample, and glass artist Ayako Tani, based on our responses to the dawn chorus, and the less-attended-to evening chorus of songbirds. In the following paper I will concentrate on the process by which Mike Collier, Alex Charrington, and I collaborated on a set of prints with musical soundtrack for this exhibition held at Cheeseburn Grange Sculpture Gardens in Northumberland, England.

Mimesis and Alterity by Michael Taussig is devoted to what the author calls, after Walter Benjamin, "the mimetic faculty", the (apparently) innate capacity "to copy, imitate . . . explore difference, yield into and become Other" (Taussig, p. xiii). It names a dialogic and participatory understanding of the relation of human culture to the natural world that is at odds with the view that reality can be reduced to construction - Taussig calls this "construction-ism" - and that nature is a passive bystander to human action. Taussig's book is 25 years old, and since its publication writers such as Donna Haraway, Val Plumwood, David Abram, Tim Ingold, Nigel Thrift, inter alia, have joined his critique of the epistemological grounds of such worldviews. Taussig, though, remains useful to my discussion of "Singing the World" because of the particular way in which he theorises mimesis.


Acknowledging the political and social value of the postmodern position that "reality is artifice" - that our worlds are "social constructs" - Taussig wonders, however, why there is not more surprise voiced as to how we manage to function as social creatures. A conscious awareness that everything is constructed - that reality is not, in fact, real - should lead, Taussig suggests to "nausea".

"Something nauseating looms here, and we are advised to beat a retreat to the unmentionable world of active forgetting where, pressed into service by society, the mimetic faculty carries out its honest labour suturing nature to artifice and bringing sensuousness to sense by means of what was once called sympathetic magic, granting the copy the character and power of the original, the representation the power of the represented" (Taussig, p. xviii).


Perhaps it sometimes does, although Antoine Roquentin in Sartre's novel Nausea seems to suffer from the opposite problem; his world seems uncannily animated and beyond his ability to construct it, and he shows the ordinarily constructed nature of reality by way of a kind of Via Negativa.


"We dissimulate. We act and have to act as if mischief were not afoot in the kingdom of the real and that all around the ground lay firm. That is what the public secret, the facticity of the social fact, being a social being, is all about. No matter how sophisticated we may be as to the constructed and arbitrary character of our practices, including our practices of representation, our practice of practices is one of actively forgetting such mischief each time we open our mouths to ask for something or to make a statement. Try to imagine what would happen if we didn't in daily practice thus conspire to actively forget what Saussure called 'the arbitrariness of the sign'? Or try the opposite experiment. Try to imagine living in a world whose signs were indeed 'natural'" (Taussig, xvii-xviii).

Generally, though, we are forced to dissimulate in order to function, "to act as if mischief were not afoot in the kingdom of the real and that all around the ground lay firm. That is what the public secret, the facticity of the social fact, being a social being, is all about" (Taussig, p. xvii). The mimetic faculty comes into play here, going about "its honest labor suturing nature to artifice", as Taussig puts it (Taussig, p. xviii).  


Mimesis, having been of central importance to magic and alchemy, fades in significance under the epistemological transformations of the Enlightenment, particularly the rise of rationalism. "With Kant, the formalist conception of aesthetics in general provided both philosophers [p. 14] and composers with an idea of art that did not require specific content but only beautiful form, thereby replacing mimesis with formalism as the primary concept of beauty" (Donelan, pp. 13-14). Matthew Head traces this change in the attitudes towards the origin of music in mimesis - particularly in relation to birdsong - as the eighteenth century progresses. From Rautavaara and Westerkamp, today, through Messiaen, Beethoven, and Vivaldi, birdsong and mimesis have formed a constellation with music. This goes back to at least the first century BC when Lucretius wrote that imitating

". . . the liquid notes of birds

With mouth and lips came long before men learnt

To charm the ears by singing tuneful songs . . ." (Lucretius, De rerum natura book V, lines 1379-1381). 


Head offers a detailed account of how various Enlightenment authors navigated this constellation. Many of their attitudes were based on the idea that music ". . . in one way or another - was rooted in nature . . .". Music, in this view, is not an "artificial and arbitrary invented thing" (Head, p. 6). Within this constellation we can perceive mimesis going about "its honest labour suturing nature to artifice" (Taussig, p. xviii). But as theogenic explanations, and ideas that music's origins might be based in the imitation of nature were discounted, Enlightenment writers arrive finally at a rational and anthropocentric position, explicitly discounting mimesis, which persists in one form or another into the present day.


“It is . . . childish and entirely contrary to the nature of humanity, when we want to accept, with certain ancient writers, that man learnt to sing from birds or that music is an art of mimicry. The eternal sameness of birdsong is so wearisome that people could have lapsed into imitiating it only in certain comical hours” (C. F. D. Schubart, 1804, quoted in Head, 1997, pp. 16-17).

C. F. D. Schubart, writing in 1806, marks the almost complete marginalisation of mimesis when he writes "It is . . . childish and entirely contrary to the nature of humanity, when we want to accept, with certain ancient writers, that man learnt to sing from birds or that music is an art of mimicry". For Schubart, "[t]he eternal sameness of birdsong is so wearisome that people could have lapsed into imitiating it only in certain comical hours" (quoted in Head, pp. 16-17). Mimesis, in 1806, is something we "lapse" into, only to make fun of something. Schubart's view is a product of what Taussig calls the "myth of Enlightenment, with its universal, context-free reason" and Taussig wants to challenge this, reasserting a bodily, social, and mimetic "sensuousness" (Taussig, p. 2).


As Taussig sees things, rationalism has placed a disproportionate significance on human intellection, which postmodern theory has reformulated as the fictive, constructed nature of reality. The mimetic faculty can do no more, in this scenario, than support the fiction, carrying out "its honest labour suturing nature to artifice" hidden beneath the obscuring shadows of "constructionism".


Following Benjamin, though, Taussig suggests that photography, film, and sound recording have brought the mimetic faculty back from the philosophical margins and into the heart of our cultural consciousness.

"". . . if I am correct . . . modernity has ushered in a veritable rebirth, a recharging and retooling of the mimetic faculty, [and] it seems to me that we are forthwith invited if not forced into the inner sanctum of mimetic mysteries where, in imitating, we will find distance from the imitated and hence gain some release from the suffocating hold of 'constructionism' no less than the dreadfully passive view of nature it upholds" (Taussig, pp. xviii-xix). 


This "retooling of the mimetic faculty", as he puts it, invites us back "into the inner sanctum of mimetic mysteries where, in imitating, we will find distance from the imitated and hence gain some release from the suffocating hold of 'constructionism' no less than the dreadfully passive view of nature it upholds" (pp. xviii-xix).


These technologies transform the objects and phenomena they mimic. As testified by Adorno's early essays The Curves of the Needle and The Form of the Phonograph Record, and Benjamin's celebrated essay on the Work of Art . . . , mimetic technologies produce phenomena in their own right, transforming our experience of those phenomena, rather than reproducing the phenomena at which they are directed. Though mimetic technologies might seem to offer us the reproduction of a given phenomenon, Rick Altman argues persuasively that what they produce are representations. Implicit in this is the distancing of a representation, rather than the continuity implied by a reproduction. In this respect they are, I think, properly-speaking mimetic in keeping with Taussig's argument, allowing us to, as he puts it, "find a distance from the imitated and hence gain some release from the suffocating hold of 'constructionism'". Put bluntly, mimetic technologies - and mimesis itself - means there is more to the world than ourselves.


One of the consequences of the rise of technologies such as photography and sound recording is that, because they do the job of imitating the real so well, we no longer need to do it ourselves. This argument is commonplace in accounts of modernism where photography and the reproduction of images are seen as part of a cultural movement that shifts aesthetics away from fidelity to an external reality, towards an aesthetics based on the materiality of the paint, the gesture of the painter, and thus the painterliness of the painting. At the same time, though, since at least the Zürich Dadas, if not before, mimetic technologies have been - and indeed continue to be - integral elements in the embodied practices that artists deploy to make art and music.


One consequence of this has been a cultural urge - a drive, even - to find creative ways around literal mimesis, but without throwing the mimetic baby out with the philosophical bathwater; practices based on mapping, decontextualising, translating, and abstracting (which is not the same thing as abstraction) have emerged as strategies whereby this "drive" might be fulfilled. In my own experience, in interdisciplinary collaboration, mapping and translating - perhaps unsurprisingly - come to the foreground, but - interestingly - this is often cut through with a heightened awareness of the disciplinary specificity of my own practice.

Singing the World

"Singing the World" was the brainchild of artist and academic Mike Collier who approached me to make a soundwork for a collaboration on the theme of the dawn chorus. Mike's plan was to make a suite of silkscreen prints, but the only thing he had as a starting point was the colour yellow - the dawn chorus is yellow. We agreed quite soon in the collaboration that the less-noticed but no less interesting evening chorus should be part of the project, and we both agreed that this was probably a blue-purple. These two colours, in relation to the sound of the birds, we might think of as trans-modal translations, and this was to become central to the processes we explored.


Ironically, given the time I have devoted to mimesis in the paper so far, the other thing we agreed almost immediately was that we would not use recordings, or even imitations of birdsong, in the final exhibition. The exhibition was to be installed at Cheeseburn Grange, a sculpture garden in Northumberland surrounded by mature woodlands and bursting at the seams with "real" birdsong.


Mike and I are both keen naturalists and quickly discovered that we have many of the same books about nature. Flicking through a 1960s book on bird identification in Mike's studio I noticed that the graphic renderings of birdsong - which are in fact artist's impressions transcribed from analogue devices - bore more than a passing resemblance to medieval neumes, and I mentioned this to Mike.  












[example of a robin's song transcribed into a sonogram compared to late 14th-century music notation]

We decided to collect examples of all of the dawn chorus birds heard at Cheeseburn and, working with birdsong expert Geoff Sample, isolated the different songs to make detailed sonograms. This was, of course, done digitally, but Geoff was able to modify the view of the spectrograms to closely resemble the sorts of images that would have been generated by 1960s technology. And, indeed, neumes appeared in abundance.


We worked together from Geoff's sonograms, extracting any elements that could be construed as neumes or ligatures, and overlaid them onto a medieval four-lined stave.

[an early sketch by Mike Collier drawing medieval neumes from a sonogram of a blackbird]









[a slightly later sketch tracing the same process; this combines the neumes Mike saw, and the ones I saw, together in order to arrive at a richer set of materials for us to work with]

I then retranscribed these "neumes" - which, it has to be said, threw up rhythmic patterns that would not be recognised as music by a medieval musician - into modern notation. The following is an example of how the "neumes" we transcribed from the sonograms of birdsong result in melodic material, in this case the song of a dunnock, Prunella modularis, often known as the hedge sparrow in the UK.








Mike carried out a similar transcription, but in his case gradually simplifying each neumatic transcription into patterns of square notes. 












Mike took the patterns he derived, and superimposed them onto one another to create a visual "chorus".










[original dimensions c. 1m x 1m]

I took the melodies that I had derived, and, following the order in which the dawn chorus often begins - robins and blackbirds first - I more or less freely composed a seven-minute composition. I chose a small choir of solo voices for this, intending to retain the "medieval" sound world implied by the neumatic notations I had used as a source. The first half of the music emphasised materials derived from the dawn chorus, the second half, marked by a slight ritenuto, the evening chorus, with a great deal of the material used being derived from the sound of wood pigeons. Though present in the dawn chorus, the relatively greater presence of woodpigeons in the evening chorus is one of the soundmarks that differentiates it from the dawn.


On the subject of mimesis, by way of a parenthesis, we have the fantasy in Northumberland that wood pigeons mimic us: their cooing in the early evening, the time when cows would traditionally be brought in for milking, is supposed to say "Milk the coos clean Kitty", although that is probably the topic for a different paper!


Nonsensuous similarity

As the great Scots poet, Robert Burns wrote:


"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft a-gley"


 - the best laid schemes of mice and men often go wrong.


When I saw Mike's sketches, I realised that voices were wrong. If anything, the residues of mimesis carried by the human voice sent the wrong signals, and besides this it just sounded wrong next to Mike's images - it was, somehow, too "churchy".


I thus made a fourth layer of transcription, and recomposed the piece for multiple pianos which allowed me to retain the loose counterpoint, but present a soundtrack to Mike's images that was intutively more in tune with them. This was a decision based entirely on an (initially) unreflective intuition, rather than something woven into the conceptual underpinnings of the project, and it emerged at a very late stage in the creative process. On later reflection, though, I realised that this decision was taken on the basis of my own "mimetic faculty": something not quite nameable did not correspond.

Correspondences emerge in the interplay between perception, memory, and perhaps an innate ability of living things to perceive what we call pattern.

[an example one of a series of 22 unique silkscreen prints produced by Mike Collier and Alex Charrington, dimensions c. 1m x 1m - different examples have been exhibited at Cheeseburn Grange Sculpture Gardens, Northumberland, Drawing Projects UK, Trowbridge, and Platform A Gallery, Middlesbrough, with a further show confirmed for Allenheads Contemporary Arts, Northumberland in June 2019 as part of ACA's Continuum festival].










Click on the soundcloud player above to hear ". . . singing every minute high up in golden-green blossom . . .", the composition for multiple pianos that resulted from the collaboration, and which is designed to be heard with Mike's images. The title is taken from the poem "At cockcrow" by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Benjamin expands the idea of correspondence into what he calls "nonsensuous similarity" which, in his words, ". . . establishes the ties not only between the spoken and the signified but also between the written and the signified, and equally between the spoken and the written" (Benjamin, "On the Mimetic Faculty" in Reflections, p. 335). In the collaborative process described here we can see this nonsensuous similarity as what I earlier referred to as trans-modal translation - between birdsong and the original sonograms, between the sonograms and neumatic notation, and in my decision to replace voices with pianos because I sensed an absence of nonsensuous similarity between my original choral conception of the music and Mike's images. Like the connection established by our common starting point had been broken.


In the emergent field of artistic research we often worry about finding things that make it different to other ways of knowing, in the interests of defining it. I believe that what artistic research, as a cultural and intellectual phenomenon, does best is to give thinkers and makers an opportunity to ground their research in the full range of ways of knowing available to us. In the case study I have just presented, I hope to have shown how historical, scientific, and cultural knowledge can coincide with collaborative making, and how mimesis, in particular, shares in several different histories and philosphical tropes. Mimesis, in this case, brings technology, imagination, and a certain non-linguistic decision making into equal and productive partnership with anthropology and the history of ideas. It demonstrates that there are ways of knowing that we attain only through doing, and for which words are only ever a partial trace. These ways of knowing, though, are not radically separate from other forms of knowledge. I like to think that if there is such a things as artistic research, then all of these different ways of knowing have a role to play in it.    



  • Adorno, T. W. (2002, [1927]), “The Curves of the Needle” in Adorno: Essays on Music, edited by Richard Leppert, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), pp. 271-276.

  • Adorno, T. W. (2002, [1934]), “The Form of the Phonograph Record”, in Adorno: Essays on Music, edited by Richard Leppert, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), pp. 277-282.

  • Altman, R. (1992), “The Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound”, in Sound Theory / Sound Practice, edited by Rick Altman, (New York and London: Routledge), pp. 15-31.

  • Benjamin, W. (1986, [1933]), “On the Mimetic Faculty”, in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, translated Edmund Jephcott, edited Peter Demetz, (New York: Schocken Books), pp. 333-336.

  • Benjamin, W. (1986, [1936]), “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zorn, edited by Hannah Arendt, (London: Pimlico/Random House), pp. 211-244.

  • Bowden, S. (2008), “The Thieving Magpie: The Influence of Birdsong on Beethoven’s Motifs”, The Musical Times, 149/1903, pp. 17-35.

  • Head, M. (1997), “Birdsong and the Origins of Music”, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 122/1, pp. 1-23.

  • Lucretius. (2008). On the Nature of the Universe, Oxford World's Classics, OUP.

  • Taussig, M. (1993), Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, (London and New York: Routledge).











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