Kōkako Music

Author: Ran Kampel, Assistant Professor of Clarinet Baylor University School of Music Texas, United States of AmericaDate: April 2024Header Photo Credit: Darren Markin

Last month my wife and I attended a guided tour with Bethny Uptegrove on Tiritiri Matangi Island. We loved the beautiful colours of all the birds and enjoyed observing them fly around and interact with each other, but what we found to be the most fascinating was the variety of sounds and the birdcalls we heard during our visit.

Above all these birdcalls stood out the remarkable call of the Kkako. Its intricate call captured our attention from the first moment we heard it! My wife and I are classically trained musicians (flute and clarinet respectively), who played with orchestras all over the world. This pure melodic pattern of the Kkako call was one of the most beautiful chants we ever heard in nature.

Bethny, our guide, shared with us that the call we were listening to is unique to this specific pair of Kkako who are controlling this exact part of the island. Their call can carry for kilometers and is used to mark their territory. It would only change the moment the male were to lose its dominance to a younger Kkako. She also shared with us that the call was split between the male and female Kkakos, but it was very hard for us to differentiate the two and tell what was the call and what was the response.

The pitch accuracy and control of the Kkakos call was remarkable. It was very tonal and was comprised of full steps and half steps. In western tonal music all scales are comprised of half steps and full steps between the notes. This beautiful melody we were witnessing was comprised of 4 distinct pairs of notes grouped together. Each time the group of notes started on a higher note than the group proceeding it with the last pair of notes repeating the same note twice:

The last repeated Si bemols were the least stable pitch-wise and got lower intonation-wise, which is surprisingly a common phenomenon in classical music (especially among students) to drop the “pitch support” at the end of the phrase. However, the impeccable pitch accuracy with each repetition of the kkakos call was quite remarkable!

The sound quality of the kkakos call reminded us of the tone of a glass harmonica or the sound one makes when running your fingers on the rim of a glass with some water.

It had a real transparent timbre, which gave it the very haunting colour of a surreal instrument.

Moreover, in contrast to most other birdcalls, which are very rhythmical with fast active measured repeating patterns, the kkakos call was unique in its amorphous sense of time and undefined rhythms. The sense of pulse (time) of the call was very free and unpredictable. At times there were long-held rests (quiet moments) between each pair of notes which made it hard to predict when the next note of the call would happen. This absence of clear time gave the call a magical almost rhapsodic-like free-flowing mood, as if it was improvised on the spot.

I wish we had an opportunity to listen to a version of a different kkakos pair and compare their melody with the one we heard. Next time you are in Tiritiri Matangi Island, try to capture their call and compare it with “our kkakos call”.