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Singing with turkeys

Desert Dancer 21 Nov 12 - 04:21 PM
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Subject: Singing with turkeys
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 21 Nov 12 - 04:21 PM

Yep, just like it says.

The Perfect Thanksgiving Music, Sung by One Human ... and 300 Turkeys, from The Atlantic.
In November 1973, the Berkeley, California-based public radio station KPFA sent a young avant garde musician to a local turkey farm. Jim Nollman was just out of college, and, acccording to the Smithsonian, he had heard "that wild male turkeys can gobble on cue -- especially in response to loud or high-pitched sounds." Nollman's goal was to harness this to artistic, or at least aural, ends.

He made two recordings. The first is a solo track of Nollman singing -- accompanied by 300 of the birds -- "Froggy Went A Courtin'." It's kind of an amazing thing.

More than once, Nollman gets the entire rafter of turkeys to cry "Uh-huh" along with the music. When the track was released to vinyl nearly a decade later, Nollman explained the turkey-euphonic process in the liner notes:

I recorded this one sitting in a farmyard surrounded by 300 tom turkeys. The toms respond to pitch and volume. When a certain relative intensity is reached, each turkey emits a single gobble. A large flock can be manipulated to respond in unison, no different than a basketball player getting a crowd to erupt by sinking a crucial basket.

And, listening to "Froggy," it's not hard to hear Nollman's technique. He'll spike his volume on a chorus. He'll fade out quickly on a verse. He'll pause, sometimes abruptly, to let the toms settle down. He confirms that in the liner notes:

The trick to the process is riding the shared musical energy without aggravating the turkeys. I was once attacked by a flock for getting too frenetic. But if the music is subtle, carefully modulated, accenting those gobble sounds with space between them for the turkeys to compose themselves, one can create a shared music, with a turkey chorus answering for hours at a time.

(Emphasis is mine.)

Nollman went on to found Interspecies, a non-profit devoted to human-animal music-making and communication. A lot of his professional work is spent, as you might expect, trying to figure out what the whales are saying.


Audio and more text is available at the article linked. This recording is one of the treasures available from Smithsonian-Folkways. Happy Thanksgiving!

~ Becky in Long Beach


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