The birds who know how to improvise

Like a human infant, a young bird begins with an inherited, hard-wired gift for the song language of its species and, like human beings, each has a sensitive period when it learns how to sing from a parent or (in laboratory studies) a “tutor”.

According to the American writer Andrew Hudgins, there are some things that are “basically poetic about birds”. They are pretty, they sing and they can fly, he writes. “And if their ability to sing makes them easily emblematic of the poet, their ability to fly makes them immediate and compact symbols of the ancient, human desire to transcend our earthbound nature.”

All this is true but there is another aspect of bird behaviour that may be even more poetic and that is the ability, of some species at least, to improvise – because improvisation, a form of play and at the same time a variety of practical magic, is the basis of all our poetries.

Like a human infant, a young bird begins with an inherited, hard-wired gift for the song language of its species and, like human beings, each has a sensitive period when it learns how to sing from a parent or (in laboratory studies) a “tutor”.

The similarity does not end there, however. As in those human instances in which young children are deprived of language (the best known case being that of Genie, a brutally abused American girl who, over a period of 11 years in captivity, rarely heard normal human speech), what develops when no parent or tutor can be found is an abnormal, sometimes unrecognisable facsimile of true song.

It is painful to imagine this condition. For a bird, especially for the more musically inventive, song is the defining characteristic, the primary way by which it knows itself and is known by others. To lose its species song is to lose not just its identity but some part of its presence in the world.

Like Genie, who lived in a detached, almost ghostly silence even after she was rescued, a songless bird is a sort of local vacuum, a dropped stitch in the fabric of universal consciousness that seems, to those of us who can express ourselves, both eerie and tragic.

Having learned the basics of its species song from a tutor, each bird goes on, through practice and close listening, to perfect a version of that song. Once this has been achieved, some birds develop no further; others, however, build vast and highly inventive repertoires, incorporating musical inventions from their own and other bird species and even mimicking humanmade sounds.

Everyone is aware of the virtuosity of mockingbirds and starlings in this regard, but their repertoires of 200 or so “tunes” at most seem rather limited compared to the brown thrasher’s 2,000.

Yet repertoire is not the whole story. Indeed, as with human improvisation, real mastery comes in combining a limited range of notes in complex performances – and surely this is where the most musical songbirds prove most “poetic”.

With human beings it could be argued that all music-making is, in essence, grounded in improvisation. Whether it is Bach constructing the astonishingly lyrical and inventive Goldberg Variations from a simple original theme or John Coltrane transforming a standard such as “Bye, Bye Blackbird” into a jazz classic, we begin with a given datum or experience, draw upon a vast inner encyclopaedia of other experiences (only some of which are sounds) and arrive at something unexpected. And this applies not only to music; it is just as true for poetry, architecture or dance at their best.

This gift for improvisation, that serious discipline in which the safe ground is abandoned for the possibility of marvellous play, is arguably the one gift we share with the birds and it is only here that we can aspire to be their equals. We cannot fly and few of us are pretty enough to bear comparison with the vireos or orioles but occasionally our ability to improvise (or to recognise great improvisation when we encounter it) allows us to transcend our earthbound nature, for a while, at least.

Poetry in aerial motion: our feathered friends dazzle with variations on a theme in the same way we do. Image: Joel Micah Miller/ Gallery Stock

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Tsipras' resignation has left Syriza in dire straits

Splinter group Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal Syriza struck with its creditors.

The resignation of Alexis Tsipras on 20 August was the start of a new chapter in the havoc affecting all sections of Greek political life. “We haven’t yet lived our best days,” the 41-year-old prime minister said as he stood down, though there is little cause for optimism.

Tsipras’s capitulation to the indebted state’s lenders by signing up to more austerity measures has split his party and demoralised further a people resigned to their fate.

Polls show that no party commands an absolute majority at present. It seems as though we are heading for years of grand coalitions made up of uneasy partnerships that can only hope to manage austerity, with little room for social reform. The main parties from across the political spectrum have lost legitimacy and the anti-austerity campaign is more marginal than ever. Many fear the rise of extremists, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Thankfully, that is unlikely to happen: the party’s leadership is facing a number of grave accusations, including forming a criminal organisation, and its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is going out of his way to appear more moderate than ever.

It is to the left of Syriza that most activity is taking place. The former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis has defected to co-found a new party, Popular Unity (an ironic name in the circumstances), joined by MPs from the radical Left Platform and, according to the latest information, Zoi Konstantopoulou – the current speaker of the Hellenic
Parliament, who had considered starting her own party but lacked time and support in the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 20 September.

Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal struck with its creditors, to end austerity (even if that means leaving the euro) and to rebuild the country. It is likely that the party will work with the far-left coalition Antarsya, which campaigned hard to guarantee the Oxi referendum victory in July and increasingly looks like Syriza in 2009, when it won 4.6 per cent of the vote in the Greek legislative election under Tsipras.

Yet it is dispiriting that few on the left seem to understand that more splits, new parties and weak, opportunistic alliances will contribute to the weakening of parliamentary democracy. It is perhaps a sign that the idea of a left-wing government may become toxic for a generation after the six months that took the economy to the edge and failed to produce meaningful change.

Despite this fragmentation on the left, the largest right-wing opposition party, New Democracy, has been unable to force a surge in the polls. Its new leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, enjoys the respect of both the parliament and the public but has few committed supporters. The apolitical alliance To Potami (“the river”) appears to have stalled on 6-8 per cent, while the once-dominant Pasok is unlikely to enter parliament without forming a coalition on the centre left, postponing its predicted collapse for a few more years.

The winner amid all of this is apathy. Many believe that a large number of Greeks won’t vote in the September election – the fifth in six years (or the sixth, if you include the referendum in July). The situation in Greece should serve as an example of what could happen to democracies across Europe that lack political unity: parties with clear ideological positions end up serving as managers of diktats from Brussels, while more extreme forces become the de facto opposition. In this harsh climate, many citizens will either abandon their politicians or, in a bleaker scenario, reject the democratic system that elected them. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism