#nowlistening: On automata and colonisation

As birds go, the cuckoo could use a bit of work on its public image. It probably wins the prize for most recognisable bird call: clocks, Beethoven symphonies, and Delius tone poems all make of the distinctive two-note pattern that gives the bird its name. But let’s face it: the eponymous clocks are hardly the most desirable home accessory in the twenty-first century. And what else is the bird so well-known for? The fact that female cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Yup: they just waltz* right in and set up shop. Frances Pitt, in ‘The Scandalous Cuckoo’, calls them “lazy, idle, languid, flirty, promiscuous and reprehensible”. They’re ubiquitous, but no-one really wants them around. A bit like my weird uncle George at Christmas….


So when the mellifluous strains of The Cuckoo Waltz played as Alice and Josh bickered over his setting up his office in the tea-room (at 10:35), we could safely presume a reference to the notorious squatting behaviour of the bird. More than this, though, an intertextual ear reveals further layers of meaning.

There isn’t space here to speculate over a storyline prediction paralleling the premise of the 1970s TV show for which this piece was the theme tune, although that would be an intriguing avenue to pursue. More interesting, perhaps, is to follow the trail left by the instrument on which it played last Tuesday: the accordion. Like the cuckoo, the accordion is ubiquitous, having emerged in nineteenth-century Vienna and spread the world over in all kinds of folk music. It’s never really taken off as a high-class instrument of classical music—not even half as successfully as other nineteenth-century inventions like the saxophone—and so it remains an instrument of the tango, of klezmer, of gypsies and brothels, or of the stereotyped dorkiness of folk clubs. Like the bird, then, the accordion is always weirdly out-of-place: exotic at best and antediluvian at worst. Moreover, like the cuckoo clock with its quaint moving bird popping out of the chalet every hour, it is fundamentally an instrument of automation. For although it has predecessors in ancient Chinese instruments like the sheng, the patent sought for the accordion in 1829 by Cyrill Demian included the characteristic feature of being able to sound an entire chord by pressing only one key. It is this feature that makes the accordion so portable and so useful. It is no accident, for instance, that the accordion’s Argentinian descendant, the bandoneón, was developed for use in churches without an organ, as this one instrument can provide a full accompaniment anywhere for any musical occasion, and still be carried home by one person.


So yes, the music points to Josh’s colonising of the tearoom without having bought anything for hours. And maybe it implies a future storyline in which he takes up lodgings in some newlyweds’ household, as in the ITV sitcom. But it also points to both cousins’ interest in the automatic, the futuristic, the technological, and even the extent to which that interest sets them apart from their respective family units. And so ultimately, the music encapsulates a particular combination of rural, automated, and always-slightly-out-of-place that applies equally to the bird (and the clock), the instrument, and both cousins.

Enormous thanks must go to @JoannaCDobson for amazing ornithological input, and @BramblyBarb for identifying the muzak.

* The question over whether this was intended as pun will emerge in a moment. It was.




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