Writings about Music

The Warbler Returns

The Northern Mockingbird indigenious to Los Angeles

It was close to midnight when I heard in the distance the most welcome music of a returning warbler away since last spring. Getting up close to the mockingbird, performing from inside a bush, he wasn't shy or frightened at all, continuing uninterrupted his uncannily inventive utterances. The next morning, I was blessed with the auditory effusions of another returning warbler, even more surprising because I most often hear mockingbirds at night.

The dictionary defines "warble" pertaining to birds as to "sing softly and with a succession of constantly changing notes." This is profoundly true with regard to the mockingbirds I've come to love after moving to Los Angeles, their improvisations actually ranging from piano to forte in volume. Such sublime passerine extemporizations are a harbinger of hope, joy, creativity, and spring, seemingly arriving a bit early this year.

Analyzing closely the music of the first warbler heard a few nights ago, I especially marveled at the incredibly wide variety of timbres he invented ranging from airy to guttural, tuneful to percussive, there really being nothing in human music like it. And the drama of the dynamics, phrasing, and register changes he employed were also amazing, not to mention the inspired rhythms, and profound use of silence in-between phrases. Pondering how to characterize his music with rasa it would be a combination of adbhuta, hasya, karuna, and shringara, these coincidently being the rasas used to describe my new album, Taffeta Patterns.

Olivier Messiaen attempted to emulate specific bird songs in great detail, my personal preference being towards assimilating some of their spirit and musical characteristics into one's own style, or simply enjoying their aesthetic and intellectual musical achievement unencumbered by any other purpose.

Leonard Altman spoke fondly of his friendship with Messiaen, including time they spent at Tanglewood, the Frenchman being one of the living composers Altman took a special interest in together with Steve Reich, George Crumb, Philip Glass, Ralph Shapey, George Rochberg, and most recently, myself. I was mentored by Steve, and had composition classes with Ralph at Tanglewood.

- Michael Robinson, February 2021, Los Angeles


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Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).