Between the Song and the Silence: My Muses
Oftentimes my projects derive from an event or actions which act as my muse.
When I had begun to think about birdsong a couple of years ago, specifically that of extinct and threatened birds, I had wondered about how I could communicate their songs. I thought of recreating and recording the different birdsongs myself, and combining that with another track of ambient sounds collected from the sites where you’d normally find those kinds of birds: fields, forests, shorelines. I considered presenting 30” x 20” wooden gallery panels, one for each species, with speakers embedded into them in the bottom 1/3 of the panel. I’d seen some Victorian reproduction doorbells made of wrought iron with the word “Push” embossed on them, and envisaged a doorbell installed below the speaker. I was interested in painting the mnemonics of their songs above the speaker, perhaps with some other ephemera representative of the particular bird.
I drew sketches of how that could look in my idea books, found some of the mnemonics, and made some recordings of me doing some of the birdsongs, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying. I was working with some people from the Royal Ontario Museum (known as the ROM), and we discussed looking further to see if I could find any extant recordings of some of these birds. When we were looking at dates of last sightings of these birds, it occurred to me that there might still be people alive who were birdwatchers who had actually heard them. Better yet, they might have their own notes about the songs, and might even know how to do the calls.
I tracked down an elderly centenarian who now lived in a residence, let’s call him Jack, and arranged to go and visit him. By mutual arrangement and with the knowledge and consent of the residence, I was to arrive with a bottle of Jura single malt in hand. In exchange, we would look through his notes, talk about his life-long birding adventures, and maybe give some bird calls a whirl while having a wee dram.
I showed up on the appointed day, armed with the Jura, and we sat in Jack’s room and sipped and reminisced. He told me about going birding with his uncle when he was small, and showed me a drawing he did of a passenger pigeon when he was 5 or 6 years old. He said that his uncle would tell him stories about there being so many passenger pigeons that when the flocks would take to the air, it would look like advancing thunderclouds, and sound as loud as thunder overhead. He talked about there having been so many of them that they all considered it unimaginable that they could vanish from the earth. His uncle maintained that it was indicative of the “end of times” that they were disappearing.
Once we were sufficiently lubricated, Jack began to go through his notes and demonstrate the various different calls of birds, and asked me to “call” them back to him. We’d been doing this back and forth for a while, when suddenly from the doorway someone else answered his call. Another resident, “John”, who had a dementia which severely impaired his ability to converse, was standing there. John looked back and forth between us, and then called out another birdcall. Jack responded, and what happened after that mesmerised me. John entered further into the room and sang out another call, and Jack responded yet again. John shuffled over to the chair and sat (although I prefer to think of it as perched), looked closely at Jack, and emphatically called out another birdsong reminiscent of a query. The two of them carried on in this call and response, conversational birdsong really, for a good half hour longer, until one of the staff came looking for John. John looked more animated and far more relaxed than when he’d come in, and when the nurse helped him to his feet, he didn’t yell out and push her away in frustration, which is apparently what he’d usually do. Once on his feet, he shakily reached out to Jack, who took his hand and shook it.
I found this exchange profoundly moving, and it confirmed for me that there was something about birds and birdsong that fundamentally touches something within us.
There are myriad instances of birds throughout time and across cultures in the arts: think perhaps of the 12th century Persian poem by Attar of Nishapur, The Conference of the Birds; Clément Janequin’s Le chant des oiseaux in the 16th century; or Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the 19th century, to name but a very few. This fascination is by no means restricted to the arts: science has long studied their every aspect. My forays into scientific literature led me to interspecies research on vocal learning, which posits that we are genetically hardwired to respond to birdsong, which I must say, came as no surprise. So while I may get caught up in the didactics, the pull that I feel when I listen to birdsong is no less real.
Over time, my idea evolved into putting together a site-specific choir to do a call and response using the calls of extinct and threatened birds. Once I had the opportunity to go to Berlin, I made the decision to focus on the birds of Germany. German birdwatching, or “birder” culture, has been around a long time; the German Ornithologists' Society was founded in 1850 and is now one of the oldest scientific organisations worldwide with over 2,000 current members. All to say that I felt I would have abundant source materials to work from, and perhaps an appreciative audience.
I decided that in the first year of my work on this piece that I would need to concentrate on putting together a graphic score to use with the choir. There are many considerations that come along with that: using professional performers vs amateurs (or some combination thereof), the duration, staging, species determination, sourcing the mnemonics, type of notation to use, and I could go on … and on.
I am excited about fully immersing myself in this project, and about where it will take me; both figuratively and literally!
I was to arrive with a bottle of Jura single malt in hand. In exchange, we would look through his notes, talk about his life-long birding adventures, and maybe give some bird calls a whirl while having a wee dram.