The lyrebird is of the genus, Menura, and the family Menuridae. It is most notable for their ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds. To tell the story of the lyrebird I first have to tell the story of a blind autistic man and musical genius, Derek Paravicini.
He was born 3 months premature and weighed less than a book. His feeble body had to be constantly pumped with oxygen to keep his tiny lungs fluttering. The high amount of oxygen eventually burned out his retinas and would also retard the development of his brain. His aristocratic father watched his floundering for eight years and seemed rather disappointed with his heir. But he would soon change his tune.
Derek was to begin going to a school for the deaf. On their first tour through the school, young Derek and his father walked through down the hallways.
“Do you think you would like to start school Derek?” the headmaster asked him
“Start school, yeah, start school Derek,” he replied imitating the headmaster’s upper-class accent. He often repeated speech, a behaviour called ‘echolalia’ typical among suffers of autism.
They walked past a music room in which a little girl was playing the piano, Derek charged into the room and knocked the little girl off her perch, who began crying. His father, no longer surprised at his outbursts went over to apprehend him as he mindlessly poured his fingers over the keys in a cacophony of sound. With each of his father’s heavy steps that came ever closer his tapped faster and faster, until a tune began to emerge out of the chaos, soft at first but then stronger. A melody erupted that paralysed the room. The girl stopped sobbing and his father didn’t dare to take another step while Derek’s fingers flew across the keys.
Derek Paravicini’s first song sounded like nothing else in history, he had never heard Beethoven, Bach, or Chopin. This creation was entirely original. He had constructed a masterpiece exclusive from centuries of music theory from the ground up.
His father’s eyes welled up with tears. He had never been able to truly relate to his son or even communicate throughout the tumultuous six years they had spent together. In fact, he had yet to talk with anything other than a grunt. The fact weighed heavy on the father’s proud heart, especially with because of how much he loved the boy. But now he was talking, and more than that, he was singing through the ivory keys. The song was a catharsis for both father and son, all the pain and stress that had built a wall between them was melting away.
The song was collected from the melodies only a blind man’s heightened hearing could pick up. As a piece of music, it was hard for the father to define, it spoke of splendour and misery despite its creation by a mere child’s mind.
It was remote from human learning and so wild that birds flocked to the window. All kinds of birds flocked to the windows and gazed in with their glossed eyes. The birds watched Derek Paravicini’s own glazed eyes which he carried blindly as his head pecked up and down to the music, they thought that he was a very peculiar type of bird. All at once they took a step back from the window, a mass shuffling of spindly legs created a parting down the middle of a sea of plumage. Out of the avian crowd stepped a bird that was equally gorgeous as it was humble: the lyrebird.
It listened to the tune and strutted back and forth across the window sill. Its freckled tail perked and wafted about in time to Paravicini’s melody. Then it opens its small beak and sang with the piano chords. A duet between man and bird commenced, and the lyrebird’s voice was equally as beautiful as the boy’s playing. From out of the seemingly impenetrable darkness, Paravicini heard a voice that understood and spoke his language, for the first time in his life the universe was in harmony. For the first time in his life he had a friend. A gentleness and femininity rang through the lyrebird’s notes which he had never felt before. It was the closest he would ever come to feeling love. He would have cried if his tears could flow through his shrivelled ducts.
Their duet rose to a crescendo. Beak, feather, finger and foot unleashed in an upward slash that cried out in pain. This lyrebird had travelled and collected a requiem of every birdsong in existence but had never heard anything so tortured and confused, and though she was intimidated she held onto her pitch. The agony Derek endured as an infant now fuelled his playing, while he was clinging to a life he had started far too soon he found sanctuary in a small corner of his mind. And this was where he created music composed out of the inhuman bleeps of medical equipment, the murmur of hopeless doctors, and the sizzling oxygen that ravaged his brain. It spoke of innocence tortured, a beautiful nightmare that seemed to have no end which would echo and spin endlessly among the stars that he would never know. The stars he would never see.
His fingers collapsed in a rest. Drained of his anger he felt that he could not play on. The world returned to his home, a dark confusing misery
But then the lyrebird picked up the melody again. This time she led and he followed. The melody spoke of all the wonders the lyrebird had heard in her travels, it spoke of a shining hope that existed not only in the quiet grassy plains that surrounded them, but in the grinding desert sands, in the groaning arctic glaciers, and in the silence you can find deep below crashing waves. Paravicini treasured every phonic, clung to each one like a candle in the dark, and memorised it all. Likewise, the lyrebird memorised all it had heard, as was its nature. The song came to a cadence and ended as abruptly as it had begun.
The quiet that consumed the room seemed as thick as molasses. All that remained was a rarely seen smile on Paravicini’s face and a twinkle in the eye of a lyrebird who would be content for the rest of her life. Derek’s weeping father ran forward to take him into an embrace and almost crushed the fragile boy. The birds at the window spooked and flew off in a flurry, the lyrebird disappeared in the cloud of panicked feathers. Derek’s father cried from being overcome by sheer majesty – but also in grief because he knew with certainty he would never hear that song again. And he was right, he never did hear that song again nor did anyone. Derek went on to take huge developmental steps thanks to his passion in music, he eventually became well known as a savant musician though he could never recreate that first song.
Don’t despair reader, the song isn’t entirely lost. As we know the lyrebird performs its own type of ‘echolalia’, she whispered to its young who then whispered to their own young. And if you venture into the depths of the wilds where the lyrebirds reside, far from the guttural groans of civilisation, you might hear it sung out from wooded hills, down through lush valleys: a human melody shrouded in birdsong.