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Tuesday, February 19, 2002
By Paul Ford
He is, in addition to being a musician, a strident progressive, and has persistently encouraged the other birds to be more accepting of the pigeons, among whom he ranks many of his closest friends.
This bird is full of plans. He has spent too long in the city. He pines for grass and little bugs, the kind that pop right in your beak when you bite down, the absolute pleasure of that exoskeletal kh-ih, the feeling of the hard shell and the soft innards on his tongue. He thinks of building a nest somewhere quiet, settling down.
He wishes. He wishes for of a tree of his own, in which to build his nest. He wishes for fur instead of feathers, not fully fathoming that it is his feathers that give him flight. He wishes for warmer blood and a nest full of eggs and a young birdwife. He wishes for insight, to understand himself more fully, to make the world a better place both for birds and for others.
He has been recalling himself as a younger bird, trying to understand what brought him to this spot in life. He cringes when he thinks of how seriously he took himself when he was younger. After his first molting he became admired for his ability to carry a mating song, a watch-out-cat song, a back-away-from-the-nest song. But he looked down his beak at the more popular forms and even began to read John Cage. He read Silence many times, in a bird-sized edition, carrying it around under his wing with the spine out so that the other birds would be impressed. He once flew into the rafters of a performance of Four Walls and when the soprano sang about a nightingale tiny tears fell from his eyesx and sopped his feathers.
One day, following some of Cage's advice but adapting it to his lack of opposable thumbs, he collected some twigs in his talons, flew a few feet into the air, and dropped them. He examined the patterns of the dropped twigs and sought to make them into a composition. He wanted to discover the essence of the chirp, to uncover the possibilities of space and silence in his tweeting. But as he flew up and down, looking at the dropped twigs from different angles, a cat appeared behind him and took a swipe and hurt his right wing rather badly.
That was the end of his involvement with Cage. As he watched from the top of a chain-link fence, half-cawing in anger, the cat chewed up Silence, then hissed and sneered up at him. He vowed not to let the event bias him against all cats, but it was difficult not to feel resentment.
He took briefly to the great European composers, fluttering around outside the downtown and uptown performances to catch snatches of Brahms and Mozart and Beethoven, but it didn't hold his interest as much as the new music had; he heard too much in the sound of the car horn to just ignore the sounds around him for violins and cellos. His own chirps attested to the possibilities of non-traditional instrumentation. He would enter near-ecstasies at the rhythm of the trains as they came out of the tunnels and sent himself and his peers fluttering from where they'd been pecking at some lost sandwich. So, now, he is trying to decide what next to do with his song, how to make it more valid, come more alive. He needs a great project, he thinks, a genuine challenge.
He is, in addition to being a musician, a strident progressive, and has persistently encouraged the other birds to be more accepting of the pigeons, among whom he ranks many of his closest friends, particularly given the great prejudice against what is seen as the “brutishness” of the cooing class among the more refined chirpers.
He has even sought to make peace with the squirrels, to share the rights to the feeders - after all, he says, there is always more birdseed - but he has been often vetoed by his own kind, who want know compromise. And his willingness to seek rapprochement with the cats was shot down in numerous warbled editorials in Aves Daily and Furcula.
Yet he keeps his secret goal always in his mind - that one day he himself will conduct a chorus of the birds and four-footed animals, in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The hawk will come down, the pigeon, robin, and sparrow will sit together, and all will sing; the cat will mewl with them, and the dog bark, and the foxes will yipe and the possums chatter.
In his nights he dreams of this concert, and his feathers rustle with the thrill of it. He is showing the world that peace and cooperation could be real. The voices of the animals together perform one of his compositions, a great, complex, dissonant symphony for the voices of animate creatures.
He knows at some level that it is a vain hope, that a cat will always be a cat, will always be hungry, will always be savage, but the image of their whiskered faces singing next to a murder of crows, all together in their various tonal ranges, a perfect dissonance - that image is etched in his thoughts. He is a true believer. To think of it - and it comes to him often, as he seeks insects for a meal or takes shelter under a leaf - makes his heartbeats - which already come so fast that they work as a quiet oscillator, his heart an instrument of its own, producing a low tone which can only be heard by the most sensitive ears, a miniscule hushed seashore of flowing blood and feathers - that image of peace raises the pitch of his heartbeats even further.