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A J Mithra: Zoomusic as a barometer to determine the ecological status of a given environment

By  Preethi N Kumar 

A J Mithra- Recording Bird Calls

A J Mithra, a music teacher at MCC Campus Matriculation School, Chennai, India chats with Preethi N Kumar at EWTT about his musical journey with nature, birds and wildlife. He conveys how his passion for wildlife and his profession as a music teacher lead to the discovery of the niche domain of zoomusicology, which is the study of music and communication by non-human animals.

He also shares his experiences about creating beautiful pieces of music from bird calls, his collaboration with Cornell lab of Ornithology, USA and about his recent research determining the health of ecosystems through zoomusicology.   A J Mithra is working to create awareness within the teaching community on how to integrate their individual subjects with Nature. He believes that teachers have a bigger role to play in creating environmentally aware citizens for the future.

EWTT: How did you develop an interest for wildlife and birds? And how did the whole concept of creating a new genre of music from wildlife originate? 

A J MITHRA: Since my school days, I always had a liking for nature as a whole. But never did I know that there is so much in store to learn from nature until I downloaded a ringtone for my mobile.  That sound file was a dawn call of birds. Whenever I get a call while driving my bike,  I used to park my bike to attend the call. Invariably 75% of the time I found that it was not a call from my mobile but, it was natural bird calls that I had heard. Until then I was under the impression that birds did not co-exist with man. This ignited the interest on birds and its calls.

During the same time, the fifth grade students of our school asked me to give them a project in music.  Immediately, without a second thought,  I split the class into two groups and asked them to collect bird calls from four different landscapes – desert and seashore bird calls for one group and grassland and mountain bird calls for another group.  I asked them to do a PowerPoint presentation.  Then I thought, as a music teacher,  I too should do a bit of homework on this project.  That’s when I thought, why not try and compose music using natural bird calls?  I just browsed on the internet and found some interesting bird calls, wrote to the bird call recordist for permission to use them, which he happily shared and that’s how I did my first musical piece using about 15 different bird calls and named it “A walk thru the woods

A J Mithra’s first musical piece “A walk thru the woods”

Video link here

EWTT: Can you explain what are the instruments you use to record the voices of animals and birds. What kind of places do you actually visit to record their sounds?

A J MITHRA: In the beginning I used to record the bird calls and frog calls with my mobile.  Though I was not satisfied with the result, I had no other option but to go on with my mobile, as bird-call recorders are quite expensive and beyond my budget (Remember, I am working as a music teacher in a school).  During these hard moments I met my old student Ms. Jothi Krishnaswamy on Facebook after more than two decades.  She was working in Australia and when she heard my music, she immediately turned into an avid bird watcher.  It was during one of her birding trips t hatI asked her to record bird calls and send to me.   She immediately went and bought an Olympus WS -650S recorder.  Every time she went for birding, she used to record bird calls with it and mail them to me.  I have done a few pieces with her recordings too.  She gifted that recorder to me when she came to India and since then I’m using Olympus WS-650S.  I have lots of recordist friends who willingly share their recordings for my music.

Our school is situated inside Madras Christian College, which is a 350 acres of tropical dry evergreen forest.  This campus is a home for more than 120 bird species.

I record calls during my morning walks inside the campus and a few other birding spots around our area.  I also record calls whenever I go on conservation trips to Bangalore, Coimbatore and elsewhere.

EWTT:  What are the challenges you face while converting animal sounds into a beautiful piece of music and how long does it take for such each song to be developed?

A J MITHRA: Technicality is the only challenge I face.  I use primitive softwares to make music.  If only I could have better software and a better recording instrument and a laptop, this kind of music can be taken to the next level, in the sense, the music can be made more pleasing.  Since there is a lot of background noise in my recordings, those noise disturbs the bird and animal calls found on the foreground. Composing a piece can take from a couple of hours to a week, depending on the inspiration I get from the bird calls and animal calls that I work with.

EWTT: How have your virtual collaborations with Photographers like Clement Francis, Harvey Schmidt and animator Nancy Landrum for your projects like Ontirio’s opus, Magpie Rockers, Rock Rustic Bunting helped you put across your message to wider audience?

A J MITHRA: The virtual collaboration with Ms. Nancy Landrum of USA, was the turning point in my life.  It was one of her animation of a Blue Jay playing the guitar that attracted me while browsing Celebrate Urban Birds, a web portal of Cornell lab of Ornithology, USA.  I downloaded that animated picture and made music using natural Blue jay sounds and sent it back to that website. They were so impressed that they created a webpage called A virtual music video collaboration for my work with Nancy Landrum helping me on the animation of bird pictures.  Nancy passed away on June 5th 2012.  I miss her a lot. It was her animated Blue Jay that changed my life and here I am being interviewed by Eco Walk the Talk.

Almost 70% of the kids who had watched those animated videos with the bird call music on the background,  have started taking serious interest in not just birding but conservation of nature as a whole. I have seen kids record bird calls with their parents’ mobile.

Here is one of A J Mithra favourite compositions, ” Inspiring Iora”

Video Link here

EWTT: Who inspire you in the field of wildlife conservation?                

A J MITHRA:  My students are my first inspiration.  They are so full of questions and their thirst for ecology as a whole is second to none. Their questions help me learn more.

In spite of being seen as a threat to government policies on conservation issues by the so called bureaucrats and politicians, I also see Mr. Bittu Sahgal’s perseverance and uncompromising attitude on ecological issues as my other inspiration.

EWTT: What kind of platform do you think you would require for your music to create awareness about wildlife on a larger scale?

A J MITHRA: Media can break or make a platform. I am grateful for all the leading newspapers for having covered my music. But sadly, our country has more viewers  and listeners than readers.  If television and radio could step in and start playing this kind of music, I am sure people will start listening more to nature.

If a doctor doesn’t listen to his patient, he will not know the patient’s pain. If a lawyer doesn’t listen to his client, he will never be able to get justice. It is only when people start listening to nature that they will know the pain and agony that nature undergoes.

But are we teaching people to listen to nature? This music can inspire the general public to listen to nature.

EWTT: Though you are a music teacher by profession, can you tell us how your passion for zoomusicology has influenced or increased awareness about wildlife and birds among students? What do you think has to be done to increase awareness about depleting wildlife among students?

A J MITHRA:  I have seen so many out there who are still not able to listen to a bird call or even a cricket call that exists in our environment.  It is not that they are deaf but its because their ears are not tuned to nature.  I was deaf to nature until I started using the ringtone of dawn chorus. That ringtone dawned on me and I started noticing the existing bird calls that I had thoroughly missed for several decades. Almost all the students of my school come running to me if they find an insect, a bee, a caterpillar, a moth, a butterfly, a bird, a spider, frog, a toad or even a cocoon.  In fact after every weekend, at least one student would come up with a story of an encounter he or she had with a wild life species. We have even created a sparrow map of our municipality and have contributed to the sparrow census of India with the help of our students.  Thanks to birds and animal music, they have stopped hurting even an ant.  In fact one of our fourth standard student, Jemima stopped her mom from killing a mosquito.  The reasoning she gave was that is that it’s part of our food web and we should not snap our food web.

Here is the video called “Freaking Froggy” along with facts about the importance of frogs in the food web:

Video Link here

Zoomusic can bring people back to the basics of listening to nature.  While I was talking about zoomusic to a young naturalist Angel Merlin,  she remembered how her parents use to say that their hens they reared at home would soon incubate, just by identifying the change in their calls.

Every subject on the face of the earth right from Mathematics to Material science and Politics to Philosophy is not life-oriented.  Environmental Science is the only subject that is life oriented that we use in our day-to-day life.  But sadly, Environmental Science is not considered as a “must” study subject.  If only the education department takes up this challenge and drafts Environmental Science as a compulsory subject, I am sure students will be exposed widely to environment and environmental issues, which would surely make an impact not only among students but also among teachers too.

More than 75% of the teachers are not aware of even the basic ecological issues like saving paper, water and food.  A Headmaster of a reputed Higher Secondary School in urban Chennai, requested me once to conduct an orientation program for female teachers on disposal of sanitary napkins, before creating an awareness to the girl students. He said that even teachers do not know to dispose them and how often he had to bring in men to flush out the block in the staff toilet.

Most of all, no matter what subject she or he handles, every teacher should understand that they also have a role to play when it comes to preservation of environment.  I would say it’s wrong to say that only science teachers should handle environmental issues.  Any subject teacher can teach their subject through nature.  A physics teacher can take the students out for a bird walk and can teach air thermals.  A maths teacher can teacher the angle of elevation and the distance between the predator and the prey during the course of a nature walk.  All that the teachers need is the same passion that they have for the environment as they have for their own subject and a little bit of creativity. It’s after all the teachers who play a big role in the making of good citizens, isn’t it?

EWTT: Can you share some of the ‘wow’ moments, moments where people were very fascinated, inspired about your idea or where people actually became aware of the importance of wildlife preservation, about biodiversity through your music?

AJ MITHRA: After doing my first bird call music,  ”A walk thru the woods”,  out of curiosity I googled and yahooed to see if anyone had done this type of music, and I found that Jim Fassett ,  a renowned musician had done an album using bird calls. But the biggest difference between his work and mine is that, he had stretched and skewed the bird calls and had composed music.  But I have never tampered with the bird calls and I use them as they are, pure and unadulterated.  The only manmade musical sound that I add is percussion instruments and that is only to create more interest by showing how clinical the wildlife species are in terms of rhythm.  In that sense, I would boldly say that I am the first one in the world to compose a whole piece of music using natural bird calls.  This was my first “wow” moment which spurred me on to do more of this kind of music.

Sharon, who works for an NGO and the daughter of a Professor at Madras Christian College, had been living inside the campus since her birth, but once she heard my bird music that I had composed using sounds recorded in and around the same campus said, “HOW DID I MISS ALL THESE WONDERFUL SOUNDS FOR THIS LONG?”

Dr. Michael Faraday, Head of the Department of Tamil language, Madras Christian College (MCC) asked me to give a presentation on the bird music that I do. I chose to give a talk on  “ The influence of bird calls in poetry and music of MCC”. During the talk I showed how the poets and musicians of MCC had derived inspiration from the bird calls that exists around them using audio files. I was able to convince those poets which included the Head of the Department as well,  and the musicians how they had used the rhythmic phrases of the babblers, White browed Bulbuls, Pied Cuckoo and Oriental Magpie Robins in their compositions. They were stunned.

Dr. Hollis Taylor, calls me a Bird DJ and christened me Zoomusicologist for the first time in my life and entered my profile in her website “Zoomusicology” among all the most accomplished Zoomusicologists of the world.

Recently I got a mail from the editor of the Limca Book of Records (LBR), the Indian version of the Guinness Book of Records, asking me to send my work on bird and animal music and also my profile. She said that though the last date receiving of entries for LBR got closed almost two months back for the 2013 edition, she still wanted to include my work this year itself.   This I would say is the icing on the cake.

EWTT: Since zoo-musicology is a unique skill by itself, have you found any like-minded people or forums to discuss your work or to learn new ways to improve your skills?

Photo: Hipporhythmics

A J MITHRA: Zoomusicology is alien to India and Asia as well, since I have yet to come across a zoomusicologist from Asia.  Right now,  I am trying hard to help people see how zoomusic is so very important to determine the ecological status of a given environment.  How I wish more people put up their hands to study the natural birds and animal calls as not just music but perfect signals of degrading environment.

I am fortunate to have zoomusicologist  friends like Dr. Hollis Taylor of Australia and Dr. Allan Powers from USA, with whom I discuss and analyse this very interesting subject.

EWTT: What are you future plans? As you are the first Indian Zoo Musicologist? How do you perceive your passion to be passed onto the next generation to keep the legacy alive?

A J MITHRA: Almost all zoomusicologists are pursuing hard to express the musical nuances found in birds and animal calls. But, I want to go ahead and show how they are not music alone but warning signals of a given environment. The tag of the first Indian Zoomusicologist, has in fact pushed me on to study and to take up research on not just the musicality found in wildlife sounds but, a step ahead on how zoomusic can be  effectively used as a barometer to determine the ecological status of a given environment.  During the course of this research I found only a few people like Dr. Bernie Krause and Dr. Allan Powers are trying to show how the missing sounds of birds and animals once found in an environment can help us find the cause of a depleting environ. I am happy that I am one among them.

Homo Sapiens are the only species in the entire earth whose communication is based around ssues such as love, sex, marriage, money, drugs, business, sports etc., but wildlife communicates only on global warming, disaster, climatic changes and pollution. This research should open new avenues.  But for the younger generation to take up this subject, they need lots of patience, perseverance and dedication.  If only universities the world over,  lays emphasis on the importance of this field for conservation of the environment and with proper encouragement and guidance I am sure the tech savy younger generation would surely come up trumps and create deep inroads with the help of the latest gadgets.

If you wish to assist A J Mithra in any way, please contact him at:

A J Mithra,
3/19, 2nd Cross St,
M E S Road,
East Tambaram,
Chennai – 600059
Tamil Nadu, India.

A J Mithra’s wish:  For an  ”OLYMPUS LS100 Voice recorder and a Laptop” that would greatly enhance the quality of voice recording.

Further links you may be interested in:

ZOOMUSICOLOGYz o ö m u s i c o l o g i s t s 

TEACHERPLUS: What does EVS have to do with me?

A J MITHRA: Feathered Musicians or Feathered Sound Engineers?

GUARDIAN UK:  A great silence is spreading over the natural world

 

About The Interviewer:

Preethi N Kumar is a former IT professional, and works as Editor for Eco WALK the Talk. She’s deeply interested in social and green innovations in the world.

 

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Posted by on Oct 17 2012. Filed under Animals/Wildlife, Biodiversity, INSIGHTS, PEOPLE. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

4 Comments for “A J Mithra: Zoomusic as a barometer to determine the ecological status of a given environment”

  1. Best Wishes to the music teacher on all his endeavours to bring music to Nature!

  2. I have known Mithra for several years now and could see a person who is ardently following his heart and passion – interlinking Music and Birds. I had invited him to our school farm in Kumili village when we had visitors from from the Windsor School, UK to take us on a discovery trek early morn to identify birds and their calls. Mithra was so genuinely involved that he had us mesmerized with his deep interest and knowledge in the subject. He has come up in steady and great strides in his pursuit to educate more interested young children in nature and its mysteries. Excellent interview and kudos to the interviewer and interviewed. Keep going Mithra….

  3. wow, great work.

  4. Dear Preethi,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful interview with AJ Mithra. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have always found that spending time in nature, and just listening to the sounds, of birds, of squirresl in the trees, leaves rustling, is so therapeutic and connects one to something deeper and more eternal. But I love the way Mithra intersects the two world of natures music and human musical composition, then uses this to involve children to teach and educate and to inspire a new generation of environmentalists! Brilliant and moving stuff
    Best
    Tara

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