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Friday, September 11, 2009

Tamarin Monkeys chillin out to Metallica

A recurring point of interest, in the scattershot reading I've been doing on animal consciousness, is the area of non-human animal aesthetics. Humans are notoriously jealous of their capacities, but the more animal researchers dig into those categories which are supposedly "uniquely human" -- the use of tools, the capacity for language, and now perhaps what could be called the possession of an "aesthetic sense" -- the less "uniquely human" those categories appear to be. Temple Grandin, in her book Animals in Translation, even suggests a religious sense, or a sense of "God," may be innate in some non-human animals. She hasn't done any studies on this -- she uses a combination of intuition and analogy to get there -- but I find the notion as suggestive as the description I came upon, in the book When Elephants Weep, of bears climbing out onto hillsides at the end of the day to sit down and watch the sunset.

For me, that image of sunset-admiring bears is at once surprising and consoling. There would be something horrible about a vast and verdant world, a world that humans find self-evidently beautiful in both its enormous vistas and its detailed filigrees, populated with an army of creatures completely insensible to that beauty. If beauty is just a freak of the human mind, it amounts to little more than a pretty mirage laid over the landscape.

I caught an interesting interview on Talk of the Nation today, dealing with monkeys and music. Ira Flatow interviewed both biomusic researcher Patricia Gray, who jams with Bonobo apes on synthesizer, and David Teie, a cellist who has composed music for tamarin monkeys. Both interviewees end up relating music more to behaviors and emotions than to aesthetics (you'd probably get closer to musical animal aesthetics with songbirds or whales), but there are a lot of fascinating details that shake out. The second-funniest bit is when Flatow asks Gray: "Does it matter when you play with them that they hit the right notes?" I'd really like to know what he thinks the "right note" would be for a monkey.

The funniest bit is when Teie reveals that, of the human music played to tamarins, Metallica and Tool made the most impact -- and the impact it had was that it calmed the monkeys down.

And then there was this bit:

Mr. TEIE: According to my hypothesis, the reason we have rhythm and the sense of - and the foundations of all music are of the womb sounds that we have heard, that the fetus can hear for five months and the sounds of the heartbeat, the female voice of the - the voice of the mother and the respiration, they account for all of the universal traits music found in all cultures.

That's an evocative notion: that music has as much to do with the womb as it does the brain. The capacity for musicality, for musical art, is impressed upon us in the dark, before we're even born. And in this case "us" is a noun that encompasses more than humankind.

And with that, I'll leave you with a video of a Walrus playing a Swiss horn:

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