Shake

I mean, I knew I knew what it was but
the melody's recognizable but the tempo's
sped up. Speeded. Some are, yeah, but
some are slowed way down. When I first
heard it I thought it was Bach. He makes
everything sound like Bach but it wasn't.
Yeah, but the melodies, it's like he's
seeing the score three-dimensionally. It's
like one of those exploded diagrams where
you see it taken apart, a carburetor or
whatever, to see how it goes back together.
But you were saying about the blessing,
the one on sukkot. You shake the lulav,
bound palm branches, fronds, like a broom, 
once in each direction, north, south, east,
up, down I mean, I mean, you know, you
recite the bracha, the prayer, but broken up.
You have to break the rhythm of the waving
motion away from the words so you don't
shake it when you say God's name. But you're
not even supposed to say it and you said it. 
That's only the name of the name, not the
same. Anyway, you were saying you say
the bracha on a sort of legato as you bring
the lulav to the next position. Like the invocation
Santeros say to open the gates to Elegguá. Or
no, to ask him to open them for you. You mean
for you. He guards doorways and crossroads,
where possibility begins. Legba in Vodou.
Protects children too. Aren't you a Jew?
You look familiar. Like we've met somewhere
before. Between each compass point or tone's
another one and so on.  It's where time started or
starts all the time. I don't follow.  It's like you're
trying to halve it both ways. You mean have.
Whatev. You know exactly what I mean.

 

 

 

Song

Bengalese finch singing from
its song-isolation box in our
Bay Area lab.  But from would
mean to, and this isn't that. What
matters to us is production and learning.
Colleagues in the birdsong field likewise
wait for zebra finch song crystallization
a continent away. Needless
to say we more easily see
in the head-fixed sleeping bird
than in the freely behaving bird
how sleep bursts of basal ganglia
activity resemble song bursts of
same; the bird brain's in rehearsal.
            The high vocal center or HVC,
            formerly the so-called song center,
            suggests we still rely on
            a music-box-like conception
            of the underlying neural mechanism
            of the structure of song. We're talking
            eight thousand nerve cells
            sending signals downstream to
seven or eight muscles making up
the vocal mechanism responsible for
the tweets and chirps and warbles
and trills and, well, all in all,
song, which we distinguish from
everything else, mere calls.
            So we insert a device
            adapted from a device
            you plug into your car's
            cigarette lighter to keep
            a Coca-Cola on a
            long drive cold
            into the air sacs inside
            the zebra finch skull.
            Bilateral cooling causes
            uniform slowing of song.
            Having localized the dynamics
            we note distinct neural substrates
            for sequence and pitch. So
from highly variable babble
through the intermediate plastic song
and on to stereotippy repeatability
the juvenile eventually matches its output
via basal ganglia feedback to what
we take to be a stored template to
clock-like patterns of adult songbird
sound. Listen and learn:
            the template holds a stable
            sensory representation
            of what the bird has heard
            in its tutor's song, which is
            what its own production
            is based on. A recovery process
            for error correction increases
            accuracy of matches, as in this don't
            sound right: adjust accordingly.
Basal ganglia reward circuits guide vocal
play toward recognizable sequence of sound,
highly structured sequences of sound. Meanwhile
the cortical loop allows each species-specific
characteristical song to unfold until it's complete.
Social context for variability awaits further study.

 

From talks by Michael Fee of MIT
and Michael Brainard of UC;

mistakes are my responsibility.

 

 


[Mark Dow is the author of Plain Talk Rising (poems) and American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons. His poems have been in Blackbox Manifold 11, and more recently in Word for/Word, PN Review, Mudlark, and JAMA. His interviews with linguists have appeared at Language Log, and he was writer-in-residence for Evolang XI (International Conference on the Evolution of Language).]

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