I could no more read the kanji in this title than I could Hittite; my Japanese wife and colleague Naoko Akutagawa furnished them. The most usual reading (there is always more than one, to the immense frustration of anyone attempting to learn the language at an advanced age) is kuro uta dori, and translates as “black songbird”. This is the prosaic but highly applicable Japanese name for the European blackbird, Turdus merula merula, called “common”. His musical talent is anything but. I know of no other creature so gifted for song, including homo sapiens. The nightingale (now classified as a member of the family Muscicapidae) may excel in superficial virtuosity, but I am talking here about true musical substance.
Four-and-twenty blackbirds were, at some time in the past, allegedly baked in a pie and set before a king. When the pie was opened (we are told) the birds began to sing; but I have found no credible documentation, and it seems unlikely that the poor creatures could have survived oven temperatures. His Majesty’s entourage is said to have found the dish “dainty”.
Our bird used to be called “Miles” in our modest suburban establishment, because he is such a cool, black improviser. Twice a day, morning and evening in spring and early summer, Kuro-chan regales us from his perch atop the cherry tree with an outpouring of sound that defies both description and comprehension. Each riff lasts about two seconds, and is followed by a slightly longer pause. He may be listening to a competitor next door during these breaks, but I like to think he is planning his next contribution. Sometimes during the winter he can be heard singing softly to himself, presumably to keep in shape during the post-season.
I read somewhere that an ornithologist took the trouble to transcribe over 200 separate blackbird motifs, and claimed that the birds simply rearrange them in different sequences. The average bird uses about 70, I think he said. Well, all I can say in reply is: I pity him. He was living in some blighted area, outside the reach of major league broadcasting. I never heard our blackbird repeat anything, except for a kind of signature tag which sounds for all the world like the theme from an 18th-century gigue. Did he pick it up by listening outside our studio window? I wish I could ask him. They say a blackbird will come fetch a fresh earthworm from your hand, but I never tried to tempt ours. It seems presumptuous, or impertinent – what Jeeves would have called “taking a liberty”.
Every single time kuro uta dori opens his tiny orange beak, something akin to Schönbergian Sprechgesang, played at fast forward and rhythmically far more complex, emerges and leaves me gaping with amazement. There was a wonderful Italian composer called Tarquinio Merula around 1620. I made a recording with an ensemble called Quadro Hotteterre which included some of his music. The twittering of the two soprano recorders comes closer than anything else to the sound of Kuro-chan. This work of the human mind may be more clearly structured, more comprehensible to our slower brains – but it lacks the blackbird’s spontaneity and his boundless powers of inventio. Given the choice of listening to one or the other for all eternity, I would not hesitate to request a representative of what the Plains Indians used to call “the feather people”.
July 12, 2021