Mexico offered cheap living, warm weather, and carefree mind expansion. After months of travelling, I finally set up house in the town of San Cristobal de las Casas, very near the Guatemala border. It was an area rich in a very old native musical tradition. Within a few weeks I began to study these traditional Indian songs, both on an old guitar, and on a local Zinacantecan pottery flute.
And every single time that I hit a certain high note on that flute, the tom turkey who lived in the yard of my next door neighbor, would let our a single resounding gobble. It was positively uncanny. It was as if the turkey had found its own place in each song, and then joined in right on cue. So, the third or fourth time this happened, I ventured next door to meet this very musical turkey face to face.
There it stood, fat and brown, red skin drooped over its nose, tail spread wide like a fan. When I began to play the song, the turkey first stared, then dropped its wings right into the dirt. Then it shook its wings vigorously, raising a small cloud of dust, and began advancing step by haughty step in my direction. Four steps forward, then four steps back. Every so often, the red wattles on its throat would suddenly turn a deep blue color. And then, just as quickly, they would return to red again. And every single time I hit that certain high note at the end of the song's third measure, the turkey would let out a gobble.
Over the next month, I spent about an hour a day playing strange songs and stranger sounds with that turkey. I learned very quickly that the bird was not actually singing with me, but was, rather, responding to the intensity of the notes. Intensity meant a relation between a high pitch and a loud volume. But this relationship between volume and pitch was never constant, and would some days differ quite dramatically from what I called the "trigger note' of the day before.
I speculated that the change was due to a blend of weather conditions, and the turkey's own composure. When it was hot, the bird gobbled sooner and more often. Neither was the response directly related to musical sounds. One day a truck sans muffler drove up the street waking me up from a blissful siesta. From next door I heard the turkey go into one of its gobbling tantrums, like a hysterical woman unable to stop crying.
Despite the bird's apparent indifference to the source of any sound, it would, nevertheless, allow itself to be carefully programmed into the body of a particular song. All I needed to do was properly accentuate certain key notes by pitch or volume: ta ta ta ta TA (gobblegobble gobble) ta ta ta. And there was method to this madness. If I accented too many notes in quick succession, hoping for a crescendo of gobbles, the turkey soon reached his own breaking point, and trotted off in either fright or disgust, as quickly as his two plump legs could carry him.
The first time this occurred, a fat woman, with small child under tow, rushed our of her house to scold me in quicksilver Spanish for upsetting her pet. After all, she was fattening the bird for an upcoming Easter dinner, and could not stand by while my frenetic style caused her turkey to lose weight. For my own part, it was a rude awakening to learn that my playing companion would soon be served up in the traditional sauce of chocolate and chile.
Upon further questioning, the woman confessed to me that turkeys like to be serenaded the same way that cows do. 'Ride the turkey energy,' she advised, ''ride the energy the same way a surfer rides a wave.' With that bit of information she gathered up her dirty-faced little son, and so waddled back to her house. But if to the uninitiated her suggestion seems overly esoteric, I myself had a vague idea what she meant. This business was not only about dropping the correct pitch here, the proper volume there. It was also about getting down into the dirt and becoming a turkey. Looking that bird right in the eye.
Granted, if this had been a dolphin, a humpback whale, or a wolf no one would have had any trouble understanding this change in attitude. But this was a gobbling tom turkey, and the entire process had a slightly ludicrous ring to it. In a way, becoming 'like a turkey' was every bit as challenging as becoming like any of the other, more celebrated, animal communicators. At that moment I ceased to experiment on the turkey, and instead, began to play with it.
Now, I rarely brought out the clay flute without first checking to see if the turkey was in the yard. I noticed that his attitude towards me had become much more active. He spent much of his yard time browsing right up against the barbed wire fence, right next to where I had laid a rug to sit on while I played. One day I invited an interested musician to drop by and play with the turkey and me. I taught her a simple made-up canon, a 'round' on the order of 'row, row, row your boat'. Just at that point where the first part ends its first phrase, signalling the second part to enter; I accented the key transition not with a slightly louder volume. Of course, at that precise moment, the turkey gobbled. The gobble itself added a third harmony to the two human parts to the developing canon. In other words, the three of us were singing a canon with a harmony that would have done justice to Bach. The three of us sat at eye level to one another singing the canon over and over again for at least ten minutes.
-page 14-15- ...I left Mexico, and journeyed back to the San Francisco Bay area. There, I convinced that same benign radio station, KPFA , to commission me to produce a piece of recorded music with turkeys. Sensing the potential humour of such a strange musical offering, they readily agreed to provide for all of my recording needs. On the day of the recording session, held at the Willy Bird Turkey Farm, I experienced the incredible phenomenon of 300 turkeys all answering a trigger note in perfect unison. I sang the traditional folk son, 'Froggy went a courting', and every time I enunciated 'Uh Huh, Uh Huh', all 300 toms responded with a veritable ocean of gobbles.
"Froggy went a courtin' he did ride Uh Huh Uh Huh (3 times) Sword and pistol by his side Uh Huh Uh Huh.
He rode to Missy Mouse's door Uh Huh Uh Huh Where he'd been so many times before Uh Huh Uh Huh
Froggy got down on his knee Uh Huh Uh Huh He said "Missy Mouse will you marry me" Uh Huh Uh Huh.'
The edited two hour recording became Music to Eat Thanksgiving Dinner By, played over the airwaves at three p.m. on Thanksgiving afternoon. It became a kind of new wave Muzack for families gathered together to share the traditional American turkey dinner. [nov 21 1974]
And the music was a hit. Friends encouraged me to continue to explore the connections between music and animals. So, over the next full year I spent time sitting with bobwhite in Ohio, kangaroo rats in Death Valley, and a pack of wolves at a refuge in Nevada. Each species related or reacted to the music sessions in totally unique ways. I was pleasantly astonished when the wolves would cease howling whenever my musical answer to their own singing was the least bit off-key. -page 14-15-
Typed by Cheryl Vega 3-18-95