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

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

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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.)

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.

Which sounds ridiculous. But it also makes a little sense (or, at least, provides a baseline for fascinating failure). Nollman's Interspecies argument -- which he elucidates in this long interview from 1997 -- is that we only apply certain human techniques to the natural world. Our academic interaction with animals only happens within the domain of science and objective tabulation. If we went out in nature and attempted other human activities near and with animals, we might better learn, or begin to sense, how their minds work.

Nollman's advocating for an extreme form -- some might argue a bastardization -- of one of the fundamental progressive understandings of culture: that culture is a tool, that it's a big set of social keys. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed a pure form of this idea earlier this year, when he wrote in the New York Times that the ideas and practices of a society are less "a set of irrefutable best practices" and "more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job." All Nollman does is tug this conclusion (along with speakers, instruments and microphones) into the forest and ocean: If culture is a set of hammers, we should try any kind of hammer we have in trying to understand animal life.

The second track Nollman made during his 1973 turkey incursion was a two hour-long ambient work, Music to Eat Thanksgiving Dinner By. It achieved quirky hit status in California during the Seventies, and might have made Nollman's career, although it would be wretched music to actually eat a meal by. In it, three flutes create a rollicking, amelodic canon while turkeys cluck and occasionally roar underneath. (It's not online in full, but you can listen to six minutes on the Smithsonian Folkways website.) And even more than "Froggy Went A Courtin'," the snippet of Music to Eat rewards multiple listens. At first, it just sounds like three flutes playing patterns that get more and more complex as turkeys pipe in with a mass, tutti gobble every so often. (In their endless chatter and occasional peals of approval, the turkeys sound like the aural equivalent of CNN's wavering, undecided voter squigglies.)

But on a second listen, you realize that the turkey chatter, which runs endlessly beneath the flutes, is way louder at the beginning than at the end. The turkeys seem to be listening to the flutes; music is soothing the savage beasts. A human tool, applied to nature, is succeeding, or at least doing something, even if that tool isn't providing us with data or a replicable experiment. The turkeys, for a moment, are involved in a human celebration -- more involved than either Cobbler or Gobbler will be today.

And even if that's wishful thinking on my part, we can definitely say, without hesitation, that by Music to Eat's end, the flautists have fashioned a fainter feeling from Franklin's failed but favored federal fowl. Womp womp. Happy Thanksgiving.

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

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