The Perfect Thanksgiving Music, Sung by One Human ... and 300 Turkeys

"The trick to the process is riding the shared musical energy without aggravating the turkeys."


President Obama relieves a turkey of the burdens of the criminal justice system into which it was so recently incorporated during the 2011 National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. (Reuters)

Right now, on the White House website, you can vote which turkey -- Cobbler, a male "strutter,"  or Gobbler, a "patient, but proud" male -- will get to be the "2012 National Thanksgiving Turkey." At first, I worried that the turkey who didn't win would die, but, no, the site assures me that the -obbler pair will survive Wednesday regardless of the vote ("no turkeys will be harmed during the selection of the National Thanksgiving Turkey"). They'll live out the rest of their fowlish days, a former National Turkey and his civilian best friend, in a special pen in Mount Vernon.

I don't want to get into semiotics of the annual turkey pardon (Justin E.H. Smith, a philsopher at Montreal's Concordia University, did that much better last year anyway), but let me suggest that there are better ways of humanizing turkeys than incorporating them into our criminal-justice system (not known for its humanizing effects). There's even a better -- a more festive, convivial -- way to humanize them while still celebrating Thanksgiving with them.

That way, of course, is singing with them. Singing with turkeys.

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.)

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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