I recorded birds in the studio on the day my wife left me. The set-up: a single condenser mic attached to a feeder. Newspaper on the floor to eliminate the sound of the droppings as well as the actual droppings. The talent: blue-breasted and black-eyed songsters. They were so loud I put a compressor on the way in. Why not just record them in the woods? That was my first question to the client. He assured me it would be an audiophile recording of isolated birdsong to be used for sampling purposes. A professional ornithologist would be in the studio to handle the birds.
Most of them were well-trained, but one wingnut with a song like a dial-up modem gave us a handful of problems: he scratched at the handler’s eyes; he tore up the sound-paneling; he flew into the rafters and refused to sing. When I stopped the tape and called it a day, he flew back down and fluttered about the mic, where he made a sound like a dove-coo mixed with a cat-purr and a baby-gurgle. I pressed record again to capture the second sound for the track, which was good because he didn’t make it a third time. The alien waveform that appeared before me resembled nothing sinusoidal or seen in my twenty plus years as an audio engineer. It had no head or tail and went straight through the walls.
An independent filmmaker downloaded the dollar audio file for his debut short. The one-sentence plot description of his film was enough of a pitch to secure financing: A bird falls in love with a doorbell. The remainder of the Sundance audience booed the film after most had walked out during the sex scene, which is quite long for a half-hour runtime.
The director featured many of our songbirds but only used my waveform in the post-coitus scene where the two leads share a cigarette. By the end, the bird’s love is unrequited: he calls “go-ku” for the door to answer, but the bell is silent, because nobody lives there anymore. A female swoops over to comfort him, but even in silence, the females of his race can’t match his beautiful bell (in the script it’s written as “belle”).
The voice-over describes the bird’s ennui: To him she rang like Big Ben in the morning; she stirred up a religious feeling in him he didn’t know was there: a love of God and the Creation, tucked deep inside our breast, hidden away in the hearts of all His creatures. The critics considered the Christian themes to be in poorer taste then the sex scene, which graphically shows the subtle workings of a bird’s kiss with miniatures and practical effects.
When I saw this film by accident—nobody ever intended to see L’Oiseau Romantique—I was moved by the plight of the pet bird who played himself. His owner named him my common name, rather than a novelty pet name. I felt a kinship with John the bird, both in the film and in real life. Every jerk of his head and glance of his dead eyes spoke directly to me. I cried at the last scene when he perched at the door knob and sung to his inanimate mate. He pressed her buttons for her, to get her to answer—what the script called a “real good ding-donging.”
Once the bell had ceased, he made the sound I instantly recognized from our second messiest session, next to the time we recorded a real horse gallop for a hip-hop album. Without the visual, the sample was still unmistakeable: it cooed, purred, and gurgled.
I remember the fight that precipitated our divorce because it was based on a pun. It also happened the day of the studio birds.
“So, you’re cooped up there all day?” My wife sounded excited by it, as her intonation rose a little too high.
“Yes,” I whispered while checking wren levels.
“Like a chicken coop.”
“There are no chickens, thankfully.”
“I was only joking.”
“You always do that…” She cut out but didn’t explain anything further than white noise.
“Do what?” I elbowed my mic on and startled the birds in the live room.
We went at each other from there. I had to leave the control room to have a proper spat. It seemed to be about her jokes and my reactions to them, or lack thereof. Her jokes were almost always puns and never made me laugh. That was a problem, but not the problem. While I was working twelve-hour days at a console board and computer screen, she was cheating on me with my best friend and former bandmate. I would say she cuckolded me, but only she’d appreciate the pun.
Her voice faded out of the house before we signed the papers. She moved out in a background foley of boxes and footsteps. At the door, she made one final sound—a sniffle mixed with a whinny, almost a joke of a sound I should’ve recorded during our marriage. So, in the midst of our divorce I brought her into the studio, sat her down on a pile of newspaper and waited for her to make the sound again. It appeared on screen slower than usual, but the resulting waveform resembled a feather of her hair, looped forever.