How Working with Birdsong Brought Me to New Communities Beyond Music
One never knows where the music will take you, especially if you are willing to explore new pathways. After the release of my recording Birdsongs, the conversations about the music included conversations on listening, walking in the woods, memories of experiences in nature, dreaming, climate change, and so much more. These are very different conversations than I usually have about my music.
One never knows where the music will take you, especially if you are willing to explore new pathways. After the release of my recording Birdsongs, the conversations about the music included conversations on listening, walking in the woods, memories of experiences in nature, dreaming, climate change, and so much more. These are very different conversations than I usually have about my music, which are usually connected to a genre of music and other performer-composer-band leaders from that genre. I decided to explore the possibilities of the different realms and communities where this music might fit.
In the years following the MacDowell residency, I conducted a lot of research on bird songs and on sound and the environment. I completed the Deep Listening Certificate program and joined the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology as well as a Nature Recordists group and had conversations with Bernie Krause and read his book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in The World’s Wild Places. , I also read R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and The Tuning of The World as well as writings by Denise Von Glahn, including her book Music and the Skillful Listener. Through Denise Von Glahn’s writings, I learned about the field of Ecomusicology, and read Current Directions in Ecomusicology:Music, Culture and Nature by editors Aaron S. Allen and Kevin Dawe, which completely opened up a new field of possibilities for me. This is a field of study that combines music, culture, nature, eco-criticism, ethnomusicology, interspecies musicking and more. I immediately joined the Ecomusicology listserv group so I could be aware of what was going on. This one move created a new pathway for me for the next year that led to attending three conferences, the creation of a short documentary, and collaborations with new colleagues.
The first conference I was invited to was The Global Composition 2018: Sound, Ecology and Media held at the Media Campus of Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Dieburg, Germany, organized by Prof. Sabine Breitsameter, the director of the Master’s program International Media Cultural Work at Dieburg. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect but was elated when at the welcome and keynote address, there was a message from R. Murray Schafer to the conference attendees, and it was now clear to me that this conference would be based on the concepts of acoustic ecology. But of course! Global composition is what Schafer constantly refers to in all of his writings, phrases such as “the world as a macrocosmic composition” and “the new orchestra is the sonic universe”. This would be the place where I would meet the global community that is involved with those concepts through art, music, therapy, urban planning, architecture, media, biology and so much more.
I met two people who I have long admired and for several years had only communicated with through email: Eric Leonardson and the wonderful sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp. Eric is a performer, composer, sound designer, instrument builder and the President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology founded in 1993, an international association of affiliated organizations and individuals who share a common concern for the state of the world’s soundscapes. Hildegard is a composer, radio artist and sound ecologist, and in the early seventies joined the World Soundscape Project under the direction of R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University (SFU). She is a pioneer in the art of soundscape composition.
I had wonderful conversations with everyone there including three artists from New York: Suzanne Thorpe, a composer, performer, researcher and educator, who gave a presentation on how we listen, and how that listening helps us to connect with our environment, Ann Warde, a composer, sound artist, and independent researcher whose interactive sound installation Hidden Encounters gave us the sounds of the environment as we walked past, and Amanda Gutiérrez, who talked to us about the soundwalks she conducts in NYC, specifically for women of color, exploring social relationships and how women embrace the space.
My contribution was three-fold: an artist talk; a paper “Birdsongs: How music can engage, teach and transform the general public’s view of acoustic ecology and ecological awareness,” published in the conference proceedings; and a solo piano performance of a few of my Birdsongs at an old railway station in the town of Langstadt. At the beginning of this performance, I did my usual Deep Listening session, and when I asked the audience to vocalize their favorite bird songs, the response was amazing!
As I was working on the paper and presentation for TGC 2018, I received an email from Mark Pedelty in response to a comment I made on the Ecomusicology listserv, asking me if I would be on an artist panel for the Conference on Communication and Environment 2019 with the theme of Waterlines: Confluence and Hope Through Environmental Communication, presented by the International Environmental Communication Association. I said yes, and watched the emails pour in from all of the other participants, one of which would be Hildegard Westerkamp, whom I would soon meet in Germany. Our panel was titled: “Waterlines, Melody Lines, and the Environmental Imagination: Mobilizing Community through Music.” I planned to take Birdsongs there, talking and performing the music. But as the panel emails came to and fro, this stirred my creativity into thinking about how we artists communicate about the environment and mobilize the community to action or at the very least, awareness. Some panelists were communicating pollution and climate change with film, others through song, research papers, and soundscape compositions, and all of them were deeply involved with their communities. I knew what I wanted to explore, but it wouldn’t be until after TGC 2018, and had processed everything that I learned, that I would have a plan. The next step for my music would include field recordings and creating soundscape compositions, new territory for me as a composer, but I have been a big fan of those genres for years. I was ready to take a dive into that process.
The generosity of a dear friend who gave me a ZoomH6 digital recorder, helped me take that next step. I began going on bird hikes with different Audubon groups all over New Jersey as well as going out on my own, and I recorded everything. This was exhilarating and still is as I am continuing this process. Creating a soundscape composition was an entirely new experience for me. As I was I making my first field recording, I immediately began thinking of how our trio would improvise with the sounds, listening deeply to everything, feeling the tempo, rhythms, pitches and timbre of each sound. I wanted to create a soundwalk diary with the sound of footsteps here and there to give the feeling of moving from location to location. As I wove all of those sounds together I was mindful of the arc and flow in the same way I would create an instrumental composition. The score I created for the trio is a timecode of events, but also suggestions of when to come in, what to do, along with with other ideas we implemented throughout our rehearsal process. My recording engineer, John Guth, whom I have worked with for over 30 years, gave me an incredible piece of advice; create a voiceover to guide us as we recorded with the soundscape track. This alleviated the necessity of watching the score and gave us more freedom to really listen to the sounds as we improvised.
Before I went to COCE 2019, I was invited to another conference presented by The International Society of Improvised Music. For this conference, I brought along the other trio members, flutist Anton Denner and bassist Ken Filiano. I talked about my Birdsongs music, played some of the MacDowell recordings, and we performed with the soundscape track. Interestingly enough, I met some like-minded improvisors who were also using field recordings and improvisation, specifically trumpeter Glen Whitehead. Before the conference we premiered the soundscape composition, now called Come Walk and Listen, on our Birdsong concert at the Cell Theater in NYC, improvising to the track with the graphic score I had created. Responses from the audience and the conference were very receptive and enthusiastic. Again we received comments like “listening to your music makes me listen differently.” When I asked what that means, I received responses like, “I didn’t think about genre, I just listen to the sounds and music, and it makes me feel at peace.” Conversations ensued about audience members’ favorite birds, climate change, memories of walking in the woods, and other artists who are expressing themselves with environmental themes.
As I prepared for the COCE 2019, I asked my friend and colleague, Dennis Connors, a brilliant photographer and videographer, if he would like to collaborate with me and create a video to go with my soundscape composition and Birdsong Trio improvisations. Thankfully he said yes, and we began going out on video shoots as I continued to make field recordings. Some of those outings included getting up just before dawn so we could see the sunrise at our location, keeping the tripod steady with weights as the wind whipped around us and dressing in layers as it would be in the 30s in the morning and steadily get warmer throughout the day. We had some wonderful talks with those we met along the way, NPS rangers, Audubon groups, and people who were just curious about what we were doing. We had so many surprising moments; watching a Mute Swan defend his mate and her soon-to-be-born cygnets at Cape May Meadows, Egrets and Great Blue Herons whisking over the waters to look for the perfect place to stand motionless while they stalk their prey, American Oystercatchers defending their nests against intruders. I think our biggest surprise and thrill was the morning we arrived at Plum Island at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area and found horseshoe crabs mating on the beach. It had been a full moon the night before, and high tide was winding down. As we recorded and walked the cove, we overturned the horseshoe crabs that had been flipped over by the waves, helping them back into the water. It was a very special moment.
COCE 2019 was an incredible conference. Two hundred and seventy-five people came from all over the world to share their environmental communication experiences. Our panel, which had grown in size, was now expanded into two panels and two different sessions. There were ethnomusicologists who shared their films of musicians from Haiti and Bangladesh singing and playing about their polluted environments and what to do about it and an ethnomusicologist who related the story of how the Columbia River flooded the town of Vanport, Oregon and played the song by Woody Guthrie that immortalized that tragedy. There was great diversity from the composer-performers there: Mark Pedelty presented two films, We Live in the Lake, a call to action about Lake Pepin’s (Minnesota) sedimentation crisis, a problem caused by climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices, and Loud, which deals with noise pollution in the Salish Sea and is part of a regional campaign to enforce stricter noise regulations and create additional marine sanctuaries in the coastal waters of Washington State and British Columbia. Both films featured music by his band The Hypoxic Punks. Dancer and musician Yan Pang, who collaborated with the Sichuan Opera to raise public awareness of pollution around local rivers, delighted us with her film Dancing Upstream: Current Issues of Environmental Awareness as Performance, while composer Justin Ralls shared excerpts of his opera Two Yosemities while James Spartz performed one of his songs and talked about songwriting and environmental communication. We heard excerpts of Brian Garbet’s composition concerning the Windsor Hum, a low-frequency phenomenon believed to originate at a steel mill on the American side of the Detroit River and we listened to Kits Beach Soundwalk, a soundscape composition by Hildegard Westerkamp.
Finally, I presented our film Come Walk and Listen:
It goes without saying that through all the years of this journey I have been sharing what I am creating and experiencing with my students at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City and the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) MFA Music Composition Program in Montpelier, Vermont. I give lectures and workshops on bird songs and the composers who use them, interspecies improvisation, using the environment as a compositional tool, acoustic ecology, and a course from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on identifying and analyzing bird songs, and the importance of listening to the entire soundscape. From these lectures, students have been using bird songs and field recordings as a basis for their compositions, and it has been extremely gratifying to watch and listen as their work evolves.
I am also very fortunate to be able to perform and collaborate with two wonderful sound artists on our VCFA faculty, John Malia and Michael Early, using bird songs, soundscapes, and electronic processing during our performances. I also conduct workshops on “Deep Listening and the Music of Pauline Oliveros”, and in the summer months, I include a Soundwalk. After each Soundwalk, we talk about our experiences and it is amazing to see the transformation in their beingness just from listening deeply while walking in the woods and in the meadow.
What’s next? I am helping the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology organize their membership in the NYC area, I am collaborating with a visual artist, Sarah Haviland who creates amazing bird sculptures, and when I finish the Waterbirds project, I’ll be collaborating with a former student of VCFA who specializes in 3D audio to take the music to another level. My experiences with the Come Walk and Listen project has led me to perform and present it in four distinctly different ways; the film, the soundscape track, the soundscape track with processing and free improvisation, and the soundscape track with my Birdsong Trio. In my jazz performer-composer life, I would typically perform a composition, then arrange it for different ensembles or possibly workshop it with a student ensemble. With this new way of creating I think the possibilities are endless, and I am so enjoying the discovery and exploration of that process.
Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.