Tag: bird song

The Big Pivot: Moving Urban Birds from the Park to the Internet

Two little girls seated at an outside table watching someone play cello on a smartphone.

By Jennifer Bewerse & Cassia Streb

The story is one we all know. In March of 2020 Synchromy was busy planning their Urban Birds concert when safer-at-home ordinances shut down all public events in Los Angeles. Urban Birds faced either cancellation or becoming one of the hundreds of livestream concerts flooding the internet. Synchromy had partnered with concert design team Middle Ear Project, and together, they were inspired to rethink the Urban Birds concert so that it could still be an original and engaging experience. Necessity led to inspiration.

The term “concert design” is fairly new to the classical music scene, but many of us might recognize it at work in our favorite concerts. At its core, concert design is the craft of unifying the elements of a concert into a meaningful whole. Venue, repertoire, dress, lights, all of these choices are musical choices in concert design by approaching the entire concert framework as an artistic medium.

Back to Urban Birds… When we (Middle Ear Project) began working with Synchromy in early March, they had already commissioned composers, hired performers, partnered with an outdoor venue (Debs Park, LA’s Audubon Center), and had crafted a theme of musically representing the park’s native birds. Even with all of these elements in place, they still had some specific concerns: How could they motivate people to move around the space? Why should audiences listen to short bird pieces? How could they make the event family friendly, but also enjoyable for experienced concertgoers? Middle Ear Project set out to connect the dots.

We would design the audience’s movement as musical bird watching, which would give listeners a frame of reference for moving around the space and a drive to hear as many of the short pieces as possible. We created a field guide that would act as a program, showing audience members which bird compositions they could look for. The guide would also have space for drawing or writing reflections on each piece, an especially helpful feature for young listeners with short attention spans. To make the event even more immersive for our youngest listeners, we would have a craft station styled as an outpost, where kids could make bird watching tools like toilet paper roll binoculars and a clothespin quail call.

We envisioned kids exploring the park and finding performances hidden among the plants and boulders, while contemporary music fans hiked around hoping to hear compositions by local composers and performers. All of this while the regular avian tenants of the park contributed their authentic bird calls to the scene.

Then, on April 10th, Synchromy sent out an email to tell performers and composers that because of the pandemic, Urban Birds could not move forward as planned. They were, however, committed to keeping the event alive in some capacity and, importantly, paying their artists.

Rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience.

The obvious option was to move Urban Birds online, but rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience. We went back to the conceptual framework of the concert—bird watching—and asked ourselves how we could create a virtual experience with some of the essential features of bird watching. We proposed an interactive website with features that would allow the audience to experience Urban Birds in their homes. Synchromy put their production team into action and the Urban Birds web experience launched a few weeks later.

The map of the park used for the Urban Birds project showing where each bird is located.

The performances became video recordings, which allowed the solo performers to safely present their music. The outdoor musical bird hunt became an interactive map of Debs Park and (for families looking for more of an adventure) a printable QR Code scavenger hunt. The Outpost became an activity web page with instructions for how to make binoculars and a quail call at home.

“This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic.”

Once the website was underway, Synchromy realized that Urban Birds could have an even larger scope than they first imagined. Since the launch, they’ve added more video performances to the website, and, because the online experience of Urban Birds is different enough from the live version, Synchrony still plans to present the original concert sometime in the future. In a time where the music performance industry is massively contracting, it’s exciting to have a project with so much potential for growth. As Jason Barabba, Synchromy’s Director of Artistic Planning, said, “What I found most interesting is I asked myself ‘why weren’t we planning to do this already?’ This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic. I believe this will change the way we think about everything going forward.”

Side by side images of a tree with an info marker and a girl walking holding a map and looking through a pair of binoculars.

It’s clear that social distancing will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, so arts presenters of all types are looking for ways to safely share their work. In contemporary music, we’re already familiar with creating within constraints, whether they be limited resources, shoestring budgets, unconventional venues, or skeptical audiences. We have it in us to apply our resourcefulness and imagination to this new landscape of performing.

Work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises.

While it’s true that some concerts are inextricably linked to a physical space, concerts that are built with strong conceptual purpose can be reimagined in different mediums. We need to ask ourselves not “what can we move online” but “how can a virtual presentation serve this music more fully?” Let’s keep our message, meaning, purpose, and truth at the center of our choices; work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises. The format will follow.

Visit Urban Birds at www.synchromy.org/urban-birds

Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb standing in front of a tree holding a rotary telephone and an XLR cable

Middle Ear Project (Los Angeles) was founded by Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb, a concert design team who has been performing, curating, and producing concerts together since 2014. They use the entire concert framework as a medium to explore ideas, share musical perspectives, and process the world around us. Learn more at middleearproject.com

How Working with Birdsong Brought Me to New Communities Beyond Music

Sand dunes

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.

This is a field of study that combines music, culture, nature, eco-criticism, ethnomusicology, interspecies musicking and more.

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.

Prof. Sabine Breitsameter and Diane Moser standing together in a conference room.

Prof. Sabine Breitsameter and Diane Moser at The Global Composition 2018: Sound, Ecology and Media Conference, Media Campus Dieburg Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Dieburg, Germany October 2018

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Program Note for Diane Moser's composition Come Walk and Listen, April 17, 2019: "Improvisations with Bird Songs, Bird Calls, and the Sounds of Nature. Scored for Piano, Bass, Alto and C Flutes with Fixed Media. Boxed text represents actions or sounds. Parentheses with text rep[resent cues. There are key center suggestions for some of the improvisations, but these can also be flexible. The most important part is to listen to the soundscape composition, interact with those sounds and with fellow performers."

The first page of the text score for Diane Moser's Come Walk and Listen shows the first seven time cues for the pre-recorded soundscape and live trio.

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.

I asked Dennis Connors, a brilliant photographer and videographer, if he would like to create a video to go with my soundscape composition and Birdsong Trio improvisations.

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:

Come Walk and Listen from Dennis Connors on Vimeo.

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.

It is amazing to see the transformation in their beingness just from listening deeply while walking in the woods and in the meadow.

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.

A circle of benches in a clear in the middle of a forest in Montpelier, Vermont.

Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT.

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.
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My Journey With Bird Songs

A car approaching a wooden cabin

For the past 11 years, I have been working on incorporating bird songs into my music. When I say “my music”, I am talking about my improvisations, because all of the music I compose starts with improvisation, which I then sculpt into compositions. To me, this is a more “natural“ way to go, but then again, that’s been my approach my entire life. When the composition is set, I leave space for improvisations based on the bird songs, as well as motifs created from the surrounding soundscape. Six of my bird song compositions that are currently in my repertoire were originally created back in 2008 during a 5-week residency at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon.

The proposal I submitted for that residency had been to create a series of compositions for an improvisational duo with bassist Mark Dresser, for a recording session scheduled for late July. I also planned to work on a side project, which was a large work for my big band based on Pythagoras’s and Johannes Kepler’s “Music of the Spheres” concept. I brought two suitcases full of books for research to the colony. But when I opened one of my suitcases, a book I had recently bought, David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing, fell out of the suitcase. I didn’t remember packing that book! I also brought a book of Amy Beach’s piano music. That I did remember packing because she was an integral part of the success of the MacDowell Colony. I also had a small manuscript book in that suitcase, and for another unknown reason, out fell the letter I had received 11 years earlier, from Adrienne Fried Block, who at that time was writing Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. You would think I would have paid attention to all of these signs from the universe, but no, I initially decided to stay the course with the Spheres side project. That only lasted a day. I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon, then get back to work. One afternoon turned into the entire residency; I just had to play with those birds! When would I ever get another chance like this, to have a piano in the middle of the woods, and to play freely? Instead of reading about Kepler, I read David Rothenberg’s book every day, and went to the local bookstore to find Donald Kroodsma’s book with recorded bird songs, The Backyard Birdsong Guide and an illustrated copy of The Music of Wild Birds adapted from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Matthews, who wrote that book in 1904, in Campton, New Hampshire, less than 2 hours from the MacDowell Colony.

My designated studio was Delta Omicron, and inside was a beautiful Mason and Hamlin grand piano. I had a digital recorder and was able to put the microphone in a small window, covering it with a curtain to have a little separation from the piano, which enabled me to hear the birds clearly through my headphones. In this way I was able to adjust the volume I played on the piano so that the birds and I were balanced. I never saw them, so I was never sure who was singing what.

I improvised with songbirds … My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak.

Every day for five weeks, I improvised with songbirds and any other creatures that made their voices heard, and recorded each session. My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak. I listened deeply to their singing, and carefully infiltrated their ensemble. They, in turn, sang to me and with me and seemed to be okay that I was not only privy to their conversations, but would take part in them as well. We had a standing jam session time at around 10 a.m. each morning until lunch. Then they would retreat, and I would do some reading and listen to our recordings. They would come back out to sing with me around 4 p.m. until I left them for a swim in the local pond. There was also the after-dinner bird ensemble, and we would make music together, but not for long, as they had other business to attend to. In the evenings, I would listen to our recordings of the day, and make notes on the improvisations that would become compositions that I could play again and also perform with other musicians. 
As I listened, I made marks in the editing track and would decide on what to keep, sometimes switching sections around, but for the most part only editing what I considered “meandering” type improvisations as opposed to fully formed compositions through improvisation.

The view of the trees and foliage from the window of the cabin at The MacDowell Colony

The view from the window.

The first bird I began improvising with was the American Robin. In fact, the most well known song, Cheerily, Cheerily, seemed to creep into all of my improvisations. I slowed down the song just a bit, and lengthened the motif, and played around with it in garage band.

A page from an old book featuring music notation for a song based on the tune that the American Robin sings. The following text appears at the top of the page: Taking the Robin according to his average conduct, he is a noisy fellow! But there is a host of good cheer in his music which the discriminating writer in A Masque of Poets early discovered: In the sunshine and the rain I hear the robin in the lane Singing Cheerily, Cheer up, cheer up; Cheerily, cheerily, cheer up! These words fit the following music pretty well.

A page from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Mathews featuring Mathews transcription of the robin’s song set to music.

Over time, my improvisations on this theme became a singular line composition, much like the style of early Ornette Coleman, that I freely improvised. I gave it the title “If You Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” and dedicated it to Mark Dresser. The title rhythmically matches the first two measures, and it also represents what the robins use their songs for, calling each other, and what Mark and I have been doing for over forty years, calling each other.

Mark Dresser playing double bass and Diane Moser playing piano

Mark Dresser (bass) and Diane Moser (piano) at Klavierhaus (Photo by Dennis Connors).

Just before sunrise, the first bird I heard singing was the Hermit Thrush. The landscapers at MacDowell referred to the hermit thrush as a deep woods singer, and told me it was the first one singing at the break of day, and first one back into the woods just before sunset. Commonly known as the Nightingale of the Americas, this bird has an amazing set of songs and calls. It’s no wonder that Amy Beach composed two piano pieces based on these songs, one for the morning and one for the evening. She also had perfect pitch and could sit in the woods for hours transcribing bird songs. I have been playing her composition A Hermit Thrush at Eve for years, adding improvisation over her harmonic progression and using hermit thrush songs as a point of departure for improvisation. I have added my version below. Before you listen to the recording, check out the songs of the hermit thrush, and you’ll understand the brilliance of Amy Beach.

After hearing the hermit thrush and the american robin, the next two birds I would hear in the morning were the Black-Capped Chickadee, and the Chipping Sparrow. The Black-Capped Chickadee has a two note song and several calls, but it was the two note song that I was responding to, and the bird responded back with the same two notes. The chipping sparrow has two songs and several calls. The songs are long dry trills, one being faster than the other. I was hearing the faster one and he alternated his song with the black-capped chickadee. I began imitating both of them, improvising in between their songs and my imitations.

Here’s a recording of one of our sessions, right at the very beginning.

As I continued improvising, I integrated both of their songs into a bass line, and then began developing a melody with the two note song from the black-capped chickadee.

All of these improvisations went on for many hours, and other birds would join us for a moment or two.

Originally I had titled the improvisations “Me and the Chickadees”, but I changed it to “Hello” after reading about how bird songs have been set to mnemonics, using a syllabic rhythmic phrase. I decided that the two note song of the black-capped chickadee, a bird song I heard every morning, should quite obviously be called “Hello”.

The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow.

The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow. His dry trill and constant singing at regular intervals of time provided tempo and an ostinato for my improvisations. I used the age old technique of a repetitive note as an imitation of the chipping sparrows dry trill, and that became a “thread” for the composition, tying it together. Everything else evolved through improvisation. Think Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, or any number of compositions. “One Note Samba” by Antonio Carlos Jobim is another good example. As you listen to the recording below, you’ll hear the chipping sparrow, and a dark-eyed junco in the background who wanted to join in with us.

After editing the recordings, I began the tedious process of transcribing. For some pieces I transcribed note for note exactly what I had played. For others, I kept melodies, harmonies, bass lines, and motifs, using them as a jumping-off point for improvisation. I was able to transcribe two of my bird song compositions “Hello” and “If You’ll Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” before I left the MacDowell Colony. We recorded them on my return to New Jersey,  during that aforementioned recording session with bassist Mark Dresser and a few days later we performed them live in New York City at The Stone. (Our recording, Duetto, was released in 2012.)

I was staying true to what the birds and I had created.

One of the benefits of being a performer-composer are the ensembles that I lead, and other people’s ensembles that I perform with, where I can arrange the music I compose for any combination of instruments. Throughout these performances, I constantly referred back to my original recordings, making sure I was staying true to what the birds and I had created, and especially to the surrounding soundscape which was the palette for the compositions. I also created more space in the notated score for improvisation, but with the caveat that the improvisations needed to reflect the bird songs and the motifs. Thankfully, the musicians I performed with had a wide range of musical experiences and could untether themselves from the standard go-to licks, as we say in the jazz world.

I took a different approach for my next bird song composition, Birdsongs for Eric, a 20-minute suite for septet, based on the flute improvisations of the iconic jazz musician and composer, Eric Dolphy, commissioned for the “Eric Dolphy: Freedom of Sound Celebration Series”.

I discovered that in virtually every solo Dolphy took there were bird songs.

In 1962, Eric Dolphy told Downbeat magazine interviewer Don DeMichael, “At home [in California] I used to play, and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds.” I can totally relate to that quote! Happens to me all of the time. 
The quote and Dolphy’s music inspired me to try a different type of process. With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site and their online Macaulay Library, I was able to study the birds in the area of Los Angeles where Dolphy grew up. I compared those bird songs with as many recordings of Dolphy that I could find and discovered that in virtually every solo he took, not to mention melodies he wrote, there were bird songs or motifs that clearly represented bird songs. I improvised with those bird songs for a bit, then chose the songs I wanted to incorporate into the composition and gave instructions to the musicians to base their improvisations on those motifs.

After all of this experimenting, I formed what I now call the Birdsong Trio, piano, bass and flute. We worked on the music for several years, performing here and there, and in 2016 I decided it was time to do a recording. I commissioned a graduate student that I was mentoring at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kyle Pederson, a very talented composer, to compose a piece for this new recording. Kyle, who is from Minnesota, chose the song and calls of his state bird, the common loon, and titled his piece “The (Un)Common Loon”.

The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)

The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)

The result of these efforts was the release of Diane Moser: Birdsongs (Planet Arts Records), and little did I know the resounding effect this would have on critics, music fans, and students. We have had truly wonderful reviews from jazz, contemporary fusion, classical and rock music publications, and even a heavy metal blog! Evidence of the universality of not only music, but of bird song.

At the end of our concerts audience members tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos…

What has intrigued me about the reviews, is that not only are the reviewers understanding the music, but they are also talking about their own memories of listening to birds, the joyfulness of the music, and how it makes them feel relaxed. When we play our concerts, I begin with a short Deep Listening session with the audience, settling in, closing their eyes, thinking about their favorite birds, thinking about their favorite bird songs, and then I invite them to vocalize their favorite bird songs. I also tell them that they can continue the vocalization for as long as they want. As the audience is vocalizing, our trio improvises with them, and at some point we segue into Birdsongs for Eric.  At the end of our concerts audience members have told me they felt transformed, that they were listening differently, that they heard the music in a way they never heard before, and that they felt completely at peace. They often tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos, discuss articles they have recently read and so forth.
 To this day, I receive emails, postcards, photos, text messages, Facebook posts, and messages from my audience base about their experiences with birds and walking in the woods.

A landscape view of Cape May Point State Park showing a placard with a description of the area, an open field, and the sky.

Cape May Point State Park in Cape May,NJ

Recently I received a Faculty Research Grant from The New School for my new project called “Waterbirds: Environmental Dialogues Through Music”, which will include the creation of a 50-minute music composition for my Birdsong Trio, incorporating field recordings that focus on coastal and wetlands birds and their disappearing habitats in and around New Jersey and New York. This is a different approach for me towards creating music, but I am thoroughly enjoying it! Thus far, this project has me traveling the coast of New Jersey, making field recordings and going on bird hikes with the Bergen County Audubon Society, the Cape May Bird Observatory, and New Jersey Audubon. I was granted a research permit from the United States Department of the Interior to work with the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area in Highlands, N.J., where I spend lots of time. I’m amazed by the work that the Audubon groups, NPS, and US Fish and Wildlife Service are achieving on environmental clean-up, bird and bat habitats, education, land management, and so much more. I love the field-recording process and have already worked on one soundscape composition with my Birdsong Trio, which also includes a film. In part two of this series, I’ll share the film and other journeys I have made with bird songs.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Sounds Heard: John Luther Adams—songbirdsongs

Quite a number of years ago now, I spent a summer working for the Chicago Park District, which meant that I got to wear a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned with the Chicago Park District seal, including its motto—hortus in urbe, a garden in a city. Which is itself a clever inversion of the Chicago city motto, urbs in horto, a city in a garden. Which I loved: a civilized tussle over whether civilization itself is the insider or the outsider, whether the machinery of nature only acquires meaning if it has an empire of more obvious machinery to compare it with.

I mention this because it might go some small way toward explaining why I was almost constitutionally incapable of experiencing John Luther Adams’s songbirdsongs, in its recent recording by the Boston-based Callithumpian Consort, purely as a piece of music. Written between 1974 and 1980, songbirdsongs is very much a nature piece: birdcalls and the rustling ambience of their customary surroundings paraphrased into a nine-movement suite for two piccolos and three percussionists. But the simulation of nature is so particular, so intent on being perceived as faithful, that songbirdsongs becomes one of those nature pieces that gets me wondering whether the end result is supposed to be the aural equivalent of conservation land, or something more—which, depending on your point of view, might actually mean something less.

This is the third recording of songbirdsongs, following its original 1982 release on Opus One Records (with Adams himself among the percussionists) and a 1996 reading by The Armstrong Duo. The Callithumpian Consort’s version, directed by Stephen Drury, is bright and energetic, and, not surprisingly, sounds better than its predecessors: detailed and clear, even managing to conjure up a sense of acoustic space. But the piece was designed for big-room, scattered-about-the-perimeter spatial performance—and, even on headphones, that full-immersion, lost-in-a-forest experience is left to the imagination.

The music’s grammar might best be described as kaleidoscopically imitative: drums and winds aping each other, the layers building up to a static, busy landscape, melodic tweaks to each movement’s motives spreading from instrument to instrument. The transliteration of the birdcalls tends toward the diatonic, but then they pile up in competing, polytonal profusion, falling somewhere between Messaien’s chromaticism and the more poppy triads of other strains of minimalism. (It’s more far out than a lot of Adams’s later, more gently contoured music—such as Strange Birds Passing, which, in a performance by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, makes a dulcet pendant to this recording.)

In the notes for that 1982 recording, Adams wondered if he had “abdicated the position of Composer (with a capital ‘C’),” but, flattened from a spatial experience to a recorded one, songbirdsongs shows a notable amount of usable space between capital and lower-case composing. All the compositional decisions, the design of the rhetoric, if not exactly of the structure, seem to come to the fore when filtered through the microphone—and it was those sections in which the composer’s hand was most noticeable that I found the most arresting: the bright, Martinů-like busyness of “Apple Blossom Round,” or the bass-drum thwacks and furious twittering of “Joyful Noise,” the aviary having a go at a Sousa march. The marimba-roll drones behind “Mourning Dove” were such lovely sounds in themselves that I found myself wishing that the simulated doves, plangent as they were in their ocarina guise, would take a break.

It’s the complicated nature of such loveliness that is the source of most of the work’s drama, at least for me. The musical motion is constant—motives and sounds never quite come back or combine in the same way twice—but it is movement without a strong musical direction, except forward in time. But there’s a tension between the natural world songbirdsongs is meant to evoke and the artificial means of the evocation that gives the music an interesting texture. Lovely things happen in every movement of the piece, but in a way that is meant to feel accidental and found, rather than designed and anticipated. At the same time, while the natural sounds are presented in a more organic way than, say, Ravel’s pre-dawn Daphnis birds or even Messiaen’s collections, the translation into instruments is palpably inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on earth, flutes and vibraphones and even ocarinas are, after all, pretty advanced technology. I kept thinking back to another warhorse, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, with its obbligato of nightingale-on-phonograph-record, and the more I thought about it, the less I could say whether one captured birdsong was more “real” or more “fake” than the other. Had the garden invaded the city, or the city the garden? The more songbirdsongs left that an open question, the more I got lost in it.