In the Dead of Night, The Reeds Speak of Separation

An extract from my talk at English Literature Department at University of Bristol, 2017, Animal Utterances conference. Discussing a summer spent recording at all times of day in the Sharjah desert and mountains, I play out the sounds of night-caterwauling made by animals both caged in the outdoor wildlife centre, and free in the wilderness around it. After listening I show the graphic shape made by that collective sound, comparing the longing in the night-chorus to that longing described by Persian poet Rumi as the bird longing for unity. The images below, of the animals’ collective sound intertwined with the physical space taken up by the mosque, one a ghost of another, are a miraculous find made by chance in my late night recordings. The pre-dawn azan had triggered amongst animals of every species, a huge collective cry, that mimicked the shape of the mosque nearby.

In the Dead of Night, The Reeds Speak of Separation, Bradley, 2017. Digital print on silk coated digital paper. 100x300cm

 “Further away from the wolf pen, we made a more balanced recording of all the morning’s singers with whom the wolves had been calling. By making the same recording overnight from the leopard enclosure, we were able to hear more of the finer animal calls in the mix. Expanding the sound, I discovered a blip in the timeline, a rising and falling, a cacophony of creatures, calling up to the sky. I then had to work out whether whether it was the airplanes that had set off this morning cacophony or something else. It was in fact, the first azaan, before the call to prayer, in the distance which can be heard faintly at the start and end of the collective racket made by the animals.

One can see the shape of the sound, rising up out of the darkness, is much fuller for the chorus and resembles to my mind the very mosque it is singing along with, or perhaps masking. Have the animals become the sketchers of the acoustic footprint of the mosque itself, creating their own architecture in space but with sound?

In the Dead of Night, The Reeds Speak of Separation 2, Bradley, 2017. Digital print on silk coated digital paper. 100x100cm

 The azaan is a sound one hears everywhere, even in desert outposts
makeshift and resplendent mosques alike pepper the landscape. I was born
in Iran and for me the azaan played out 5 times a day for the first
formative years of my life, it somehow gets under the skin. The praying
face East from wherever they are, like migratory birds who know the
direction of north, south, east, west, wherever you place them, the one who
prays must orientate themselves. The prayer, conducted at the same time each day
brings people together, it is said ‘to remember their purpose in life’, a
reminder of their collective humanity, of their oneness. So how do the
animals react to this circadian ritual of acousmatic sound? In a situation in which they cannot walk away, the azaan becomes part of their own daily ritual.  Here is
evidence that the animals join in, and enunciate in unaccompanied
crescendo. Needing no amplification, they do not sing, but rather call out in complete darkness, a time when sound carries further than any other during the day and has
more agency. The different species call as one, to whom we do not know, call to all free animals, who too join in.  We often discuss
the voices of animals but less what they hear, yet certainly they are
hearing, first the azaan, then themselves, then their cacophonous unity,
and with that collective sound they supersede the boundaries of their
cages. The inhabitants of the wildlife centre making their acoustic
footprint larger than the limits of the ones they are able to make in
the desert sand, sending their
sound up like a free bird, or the souls that Persian Sufi poet Jalal aldin Rumi compares
often to a bird.

“The soul is like a falcon and the body chains,
a slave that’s bound of foot and broken winged.”


spiritual ornithology compares mankind unfavourably to the spirit, which
is a falcon, who would return to the arm of the king, i.e. the divine. Yet  to Rumi
humans are only owls (fowls), they are not falcons. Here in The Capturing of the Falcon Among the Owls
in the Wilderness

(Mathnawi, book II):

O all you disputatious fowls, be falcons
and listen to your royal falcon-drum
From your diversity to unity
set out from all directions joyfully!

In the Dead of Night, The Reeds Speak of Separation 3, Bradley, 2017. Digital print on silk coated digital paper. 100x100cm

But most of all it is Rumi’s flute, which resembles the expression
of the soul yearning to return to its state of oneness, which I hear
amongst the animals before dawn. I returned to this poem as I know it
very well, having performed it several times including at Cafe Oto and  the
Delfina Foundation London. Here in his poem, Rumi describes the throat as the flute, the utterance that links us, that calls to return to the
divine, while the voiceless fish (the spiritually dead mystics – religious authorities -, who cannot fly, nor use the air to carry up their call) being blind to what is all around them, are unable to satisfy this longing:

Listen to the story told by the reed, 
of being separated:

“Since I was cut from the reedbed, 
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves 
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source 
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there, 
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few 
will hear the secrets hidden /
within the notes. 

No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit, 
spirit up from body: no concealing /
that mixing. 

But it’s not given us 
to see the soul.
The reed flute 
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.”

Hear the love-fire tangled 
in the reed notes, as bewilderment 
melts into wine.
The reed is a friend 
to all who want the fabric torn 
and drawn away.
The reed is hurt and salve combining. 
Intimacy and longing for
intimacy, one song
A disastrous surrender, 
and a fine love, together.
The one who secretly hears this 
is senseless. A tongue has 
one customer, the ear.
a sugarcane flute had no effect, 
it would not have been able to make
in the reedbed. Whatever sound 
it makes is for everyone.
Days full of wanting, let them go by 
without worrying that they do.
Stay where you are, inside 
such a pure, hollow note.
Every thirst gets satisfied except 
that of these fish, the mystics, 
who swim an ocean of grace 
still somehow longing for it!
No one lives in that without 
being nourished every day.
But if someone doesn’t want 
to hear the song of the reed flute,
 it’s best to cut conversation 
short, say goodbye, and leave.