This week marked the anniversary of what has been considered by many to be one of the most important cultural events of the twentieth century. Tonight, we try to recapture that moment and explore why its power to move still remains today.
18th May, Thursday,
“Is there anything more beautiful
Than the softness
Of April and May light
While the clouds scramble
Amid a sky of towering blue?”
Apologies for the lack of sound during the 'Tuesday' morning section. A technical blip meant that the recording was deleted in the editing process and I was not able to recover it.
Beatrice Harrison and Elgar on the recording session of Elgar's Cello Concerto, at HMV studio, November 1920.
Image: Public Domain (Wikipedia.org)
You can listen to the Emergence Magazine Podcast episode featuring Tim Lee here: ‘The Nightingale’s Song’ (you will need to scroll down to the specific episode). You can read the transcript of the interview here: Transcript.
In this episode I read from:
Charlie Connelly (2020) Last Train to Hilversum: A Journey in the search of the magic of radio published by Bloomsbury Press.
Seán Street (2012) The Poetry of Radio: The colour of sound published by Routledge.
The nightingale song was recorded by ‘reinsaba’. You can access the full recording at Freesound.
You can hear a 1927 recording of a nightingale sing with Beatrice Harrison’s cello: Nightingales and Beatrice Harrison.
With special thanks to ourlock-wheelersfor supporting this podcast.
Laurie and Liz
Rory and MJ.
Narrowboat Precious Jet.
Linda Reynolds Burkins.
Mike and Tricia Stowe
In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded toFreesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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18th May, Thursday,
Is there anything more beautiful
Than the softness
Of April and May light
While the clouds scramble
Amid a sky of towering blue?
Welcome to a night in which a new moon is born - or would be if it wasn't blind tonight and hiding below the rim of the world. But we have Gemini climbing the western horizon and further in the north the squashed W of Cassiopeia. But there is still quite a lot of light in the sky. Twilight flows deep into the night at this time of year. But all is quiet. but the rippling of the water.
This is NB Erica narrowcasting into the night to you wherever you are.
It's lovely to see you. I was hoping you'd be here. Come inside for a while. Welcome aboard.
It’s the time of year when so much is happening. Every day you notice something that is new or that you have missed before. I saw my first cuckoo spit of the year. Somehow that always make me feel like summer time. When I spotted it, it made me realise that I haven’t seen it for quite a while. It is probably that I have just not been aware of it for a while. It is just that I have such memories of racing through long grass as a lad wearing shorts and my bare legs getting soaked with cuckoo spit and dew. It was a tiny spot, but it is now on my radar!
The shallows by the bankside are warming and the carp are gathering in the afternoon to sun themselves. Two swallows skimming inches above the water, dropped down to scoop a beak full of water before scything away into the sky.
Most of the sheep have now lambed and so the ‘holding’ field is almost empty. It is amazing how quickly the grass is growing. Shepherd’s purse with its pinpricks of white flowers and tiny triangular fruit blushing pink, and brilliant greenish-white star-fields of chickweed hang gauzelike above the grass. I am not surprised that it’s called birds-eye in Somerset and Buckinghamshire. It’s renowned for soothing stings and bites and apparently chickweed poultices and ointments are good for relieving limb aches and pains. Vickery’s Folk Flora cites a correspondent whose mother used to fry chickweed in butter with an onion and some cheese. It actually sounds rather tasty, doesn’t it?
I tend to think that some milestone in the year has passed once the pinks and reds begin to emerge in the hedgerows. Red campion is now out alongside the brilliant daffodil yellows of the flag.
The warmer, drier weather has now meant that boat maintenance time has now well and truly arrived. This year, the rather inclement spring has delayed things, but now an air of busyness has descended upon the moorings. Chimneys taken down, flues brushed, stoves thoroughly cleaned and de-coked. The jobs left undone from last year and ravages of winter are being assessed and actions plans having been fully planned are now put into action. Boat maintenance, pretty much like house maintenance, is an ongoing, never-ending list. As soon as one job is crossed off, two more appear. I suppose the major difference to living on land is that a lot of the jobs for boat dwellers involve the natural combination of steel and water – rust. And so, this week, the angle grinder and sanders have been out, rust spots, targeted, cleaned, ‘Fertanned’ to treat the rust, and painted with a couple of coats of red oxide. There was one patch in particular – a water runoff-point from the roof runnels – that, all through winter had been beginning to worry both of us and we have been itching to clean it up and treat it. The metal is still sound, but we wanted to catch it before the rust began to eat into it. This week gave us the first real chance to have a go. And so, the Erica has once again a rather spotty appearance, with blotches of red oxide undercoat down one side of the cabin. It looks as if she has a bad case of the measles. We still have a fair way to go, and one huge job which I am building myself up to. But it is good to get the overalls back on and to be, at last, under way.
The clouds are building, but the sun is still shining and its warmth spreads out across the field and down to the canal. The three horses that were previous here are here no longer. They’ve now been replaced by a larger group. There’s a spot just up from old oak – nestling closely to the convocation of oaks, where they seem to gather. The grass is flattened and grazed. They seem more boisterous, louder. I’m not sure if they’re still just finding their feet, but there’s a chippy edge about them – snickerings, whinnying snorts and short scuffles betray their presence. They move across the field in a tight group and yet the proximity triggers testy frays. Nothing serious, just give me space… but don’t go too far away! There’s something very human about it all. I may, of course, just caught them on a bad day. The other day, they were all happily grazing in the sunshine; four or five were lying down, on their sides. Heads cushioned on deep grass. But today, the feeling is different. I am conscious, not so much of them as individuals, but their group identity. This sense of community – being part of the herd, the gang, somehow makes my alienness to them more pronounced in a way that I never felt with the three. With them, I was a strange creature that moved without purpose through their world, but I was a fellow creature nevertheless and we met on those terms. They’d watch me, sometimes coming closer to greet me, sometimes turning their heads. But I was tolerated and being tolerated, at least, meant that my presence is recognised – even if not particularly welcomed or even understood. With this group, and it might be because they are new and that they have still to get used to the contours of this new communal and geographical landscape, it is different. I am aware that a couple on the edges are eying me, but for the most part, I my presence is an irrelevance. One more annoyance to upset the sporadic rhythms of the day. Their world is horse and I am not even on the margins. I walk up towards them. There’s a number of piebalds. One, a larger horse, whinnies and kicks out at a smaller one that has been pressing close as they graze. The smaller one tosses its head moves away and then presses back in. I am aware of three or four pairs of eyes watching my progress. None of the rest seem interested. I pick my way over the thick grass tussocks. The grass must be tasting wonderful just now.
I drop back down towards the canal. I should be getting back, but I can’t bear to leave this sunny Maytime field. I come across another horse. I have noticed her on her own earlier. Unlike the others she is wearing a coat still. For some strange reason I feel the strong pull of empathy towards her. If I were a horse, this is where I would be. I understand.
Earlier, I was sitting beside the new shoots of the willowherb and hawthorn blossom, and lost in the rippled surface of the canal when I turned to be greeted by this silent watching figure. I have no idea how long she was there, nor for how long I was there. Time, in the sense of counting minutes, I have noticed, is becoming more of an irrelevance here. There is a flow of events that seems somehow disconnected from rigid concepts of time and for which time means nothing. Was she thinking about the same things that I am now thinking about her? What is she thinking about? What is she feeling? We stand before each other as two closed books, but at least (and I think it could well be reciprocated) we recognise that we are books – books able to be read, if we only knew how. After a while, she drops her head down to her left, away from me. So, I turn facing away. Unspoken acknowledgment that our meeting is, for now, at an end. I move back away from the pool. And turn my back to her. She moves easily down to the water’s edge and huffs up a drink. Long slow pulls at the water – stopping every now and again, snout resting on the surface so her breath ripples shallow saucers into the water. She knows I am still here. Unsure. On guard. Good girl. You’re right not to be too trustful. Almost simultaneously, although completely independently, we both turn and go off in our separate directions.
The main herd are now out of sight over the hill crest. Part of me wants to go over and greet her again, but there is something inside me that says, ‘no, let her be.’ This is her home not yours and you know the value and healing of solitude. Let her be. She has obviously sensed me (or at least sensed something) near as her grazing slows down. Like Penny used to slow down her eating when she was listening for something. I turn back and climb the style under the hag-straggle hawthorn. The minutes and the seconds start ticking.
It has often been said, and, in fact, I have also often said it here, that there is something singularly powerful in the audio medium. Radio, and now other audio formats, has a unique capacity to touch us in a very deep way. That for all the strengths of the visual media – and there are many – radio operates at a far deeper emotional or intimate level.
We have just passed the anniversary of an event that exemplifies this power perfectly. Ninety-nine years ago, almost to the day (19th May 1924), right at the dawn of public radio broadcasting saw what is arguably one of the most influential (and important) moments in early broadcast history and which helped to set radio as a cultural entity on its way. It was not some grand or grave announcement of national importance. It featured neither royalty or high political figure. It was not some climactic report of tragedy or trauma. It simply featured two musicians. You might not be too surprised if I said that one was famous and one not famous at all. But you might be surprised if I said that the second musician was not even human!
Just think of it – one of the most significant cultural events in the twentieth century was a co-creation between two artists from two different biological/zoological classes.
I hadn’t twigged as to the fact that the anniversary of this event was coming up. However, what put me first in mind was when, the other week, I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts ‘Emergence Magazine Podcast’. This episode featured the folk singer, conservationist, and song collector Sam Lee. In it he reflected on the “ancient musical kinship between humans and nightingales—melodies shared and silences exchanged—and the parallels between folk music and birdsong that embody deep connection to place.”
Sam Lee argues that this close and connected kinship between human and bird song is exemplified by the nightingale. This small bird that sings in the lonely night watches with such extravagance and artistry – “[His song is] a persistent, extraordinary, improvised, constantly new but constantly taking from his 1500 different sounds and a repertoire of 250 phrases, but always cycling a new combination.” It is not surprising then, that the sheer artistry of this bird has become so deeply embedded within the European culture and consciousness. As he observes, “[this] bird is exactly the same as the bird that sang at the time of the Lascaux or Chauvet Caves. In fact, they would have been those nightingales singing outside those caves for the whole of spring and summer.
Noting how nightingales change and adapt their songs, in an apparent creative relationship with human song and music, each Spring, Sam renews this connection by singing with nightingales. Each occasion is unique, as bird and human respond to each other, blending, harmonising, adding counterpoint, in the creation of something totally new.
I loved the way Sam described the moment he discovered this connection. It was while he was working on a documentary, part of which involved him singing alongside a nightingale. He assumed that the song would act as a rather lovely, if passive, background accompaniment.
“And it was going out there to sing a song with the birds… that I discovered that actually the birds sang back. And that was the big threshold for me. Really, the most important one, which was not just the discovery but realizing the birds and me and other musicians could collaborate, that the birds changed their key and their frequencies and their decoration to adapt to your music. And that blew me, because I’d only ever been a silent participant, you know—a listener. Never would I sing with the great master, you know, interrupt. But lo and behold, he invited me in.”
So many things struck me about this interview, but I think what touched me the most, was that this reflected a newer (or Sam Lee would argue much, much, older) way of interacting with lives around. Sam Lee’s work in this field could be taken as a powerful metaphor for the shifts in our attitude to the natural world. Reconnecting with those with whom we share the world through relationship not through objectification and differentiation. What better way to portray this, very ancient idea, than with the delight of co-creation, a relational working with another to make something that is new? An interaction rather than reaction. There is something marvellously and recklessly artistic (in all the best senses of that word) in its ephemeral and transient nature that strips artistry down to its priceless essence.
As Sam is the first to point out (and in fact that is his point) he is certainly not the first musician to enter into collaboration with a nightingale. And this brings me back to the 99th anniversary of theis momentous cultural event. 19th May 1924 saw the broadcast of what was to become the famous nightingale and cello duet. The cellist was Beatrice Harrison and she effectively became the very first radio superstar. Radio, at the time, was in its infancy – as was the BBC. Harrison had noted this tendency of nightingales not to mimic, but to respond in kind to her playing of the cello. In fact, Harrison was the inspiration for Sam Lee’s work.
I have to say that, last year, the BBC went on record to say that the broadcast was actually a fake and that after analysis the nightingale song was actually a voice artist. A couple of performers renowned at the time for their bird impressions have been suggested. However – and there is always a however isn’t there? As in all good myths (urban or otherwise), it doesn’t actually appear to be as clear cut as that. It has later come out that the recording used in the analysis was certainly not that broadcast in 1924 (as it was not recorded). Others have suggested that dismissing the song as fake on the basis of some abnormalities in the sonogram – for a song which, by its very nature is going to be abnormal – is not particularly convincing. I have the greatest respect for the ornithologist and academic who led the study and he clearly knows more about the subject than I do. However, his own caveats while drawing his conclusion suggests that the evidence is a long way from being conclusive. What is also not in doubt is that subsequent broadcasts (and recordings) of Harrison’s cello and a nightingale were genuine.
Whether that initial broadcast in 1924, at the birth of radio, was genuine or not, the emotional response to the idea of human and bird in an act of co-creation together was overwhelming and completely genuine. In a world that still felt the scars of the traumatic convulsions of the First World War, there was something healing here. The use of the cutting edge of new technology to capture something so inherently ancient – shared across the world. In doing so, through this one beautiful creative act between bird and human, a dispersed and fractured world is united.
These words are so telling. I am not sure whether King George was being literal or meant it figuratively, but the idea that, in an increasingly power-delineated world that identified itself in terms of conquest and dominance, a work of artistry and beauty, created equally between a bird and a human should eclipse the sovereign head of an empire is wonderful. One human and one bird, bringing together a disparate people across the world. But all responding in awe and wonder of it.
On the 19th May 1924 (and many years afterwards) a simple but radically subversive message encircled the globe. Something inherently old, reminding us of deeper truths, older values that were being dismissed and re-written – but somehow remained in deep within the listeners’ souls. And remains in us today. After all, three hundred and fifty years, or so, is not so long as to completely overwrite the cultural codes of our epigenic blueprint. Older wisdoms still remain and respond to the quickening of newer memories like these. The blending of bird and human melodies creating a symphony that calls down to something deep within us all – doing something the empire could not do. Heal, unify, create a sense of belonging and being.
Sam Lee’s recent work throws a sharper focus on what is happening. How this relationship between avian and human musician works. Lee allows for improvisation, latitude for creativity, perhaps in ways that Beatrice Harrison’s could not. There is a sense that in Lee’s work, the nightingale sets the pace – is not simply a contributor or accompanist to the star act. In doing so, the template begins to form for a better understanding of the way to heal and unite a fractured and lonely world.
This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and may your night be filled with the song of the nightingale.