An exhibition on listening to animals at the Philharmonie


Paris Philharmonic

To my left, the family of birds, those sorcerers with golden throats whose harmonious songs have populated musical and pictorial works for centuries. To my right, the people of their predators, those cats whose meows “symbolize anti-music, disorder, chaos”explains Marie-Pauline Martin, director of the Music Museum and co-curator – with Jean-Hubert Martin, art historian – of the “Musicanimale” exhibition.

These adversaries feature prominently in the visual and sound primer – from A for Calls to Z for Zoomorph – judiciously chosen to punctuate the visitor’s journey. “We opted for a multitude of very concrete stories, each of which sheds light on an aspect of this vast subject”, explains the commissioner. Vast and complex, in fact, the relationship between the animal world and the man who perceives, imitates and seeks to understand its own music.

The exhibition masterfully plays with emotion and aesthetic jubilation. Back to our dear birds: the first room is a multicolored aviary where the winged concert paintings by the Flemish Frans Snijders (1579-1657) find an echo in the immense bouquet of peacock feathers from the dreams and fairy fingers of the feather worker Nelly Saunier (born in 1964). But still in this extremely elegant fiddle from North India, also in the shape of a peacock.

The course is then accompanied by musical examples or recordings of the babbling of the thrush, the chittering of the mouse, the snickering of the hyena or the surprisingly shared wail between the hare and the… crocodile! Until the cry of the insects « in which we were not really interested until the 19the century « , emphasizes Marie-Pauline Martin. And to highlight the tasty portraits of insects for piano (1917) by Danish composer Rued Langgaard, but also the exceptional work of Knud Viktor (1924-2013). Also Danish, this precursor of sound ecology recorded the walking of the snail, the scratching of a worm in the flesh of an apple (you can hear the flow of juice!) or the anger of the ants .

A question – the question? – arises then. All these beasts, from the smallest to the most imposing, do they « only » emit signals to communicate with each other or do they make musical work? Are these functional or creative sounds? Developed with the Museum of Natural History, Musicanimale does not claim to answer the question that torments scientists and artists.

The letter B as Whale offers a poetic immersion in the song of cetaceans associated with impressive images, rushes of the film oceans by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud. In the remarkable catalog that extends the exhibition (1), the bioacoustician Olivier Adam reminds us that these songs vary according to the seasons, the location of the animals, « the changes in their leitmotifs from one year to the next (taking place) either gradually (cultural evolution) or rapidly (cultural revolution)”. A mysterious and hypnotic music that fascinated Xenakis and John Cage but also the French metal band Gojira, whose electric guitar distortions draw from the deep sea.

“I deeply admire nature. I think nature infinitely surpasses us and I have always asked her for lessons”, declared the composer Olivier Messiaen. The one who fills more than 250 notebooks with bird songs expresses the debt of the musicians towards the animals, in particular “a blackbird that can modulate in succession eleven or twelve different stanzas in which identical musical phrases recur. What freedom of melodic invention, what an artist! »

Making extensive use of contemporary plastic creation, essentially in its dreamlike dimension, but also of objects from popular culture – Swiss cuckoo clocks, bells of cows returning from the mountain pastures or flageolets of birds intended to teach human music to domestic birds – , the course is tasted by the eyes, the ears, the intelligence, but also the heart. Whether you are a music lover or not, familiar with the wild world or not, adult or child.

It invites the calm of the night crossed by the tenuous growls of the watchers hidden in the shadows like the trances of the tarantellas warding off the delirium provoked by the bite of the spider. Above all, it invites us to listen to the living, to respect it and to love it.


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