A creative exploration of dawns, birds, and music.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Arise for 18 solo string players
This is a long, long, long overdue update.
I spent much of 2014 working on a commission from A Far Cry (Boston-based conductorless chamber orchestra) in which I got to realize a long-nurtured vision of musicians in the treetops, playing birdsongs, with fragments of string quartet melodies wafting in and out.
While I didn't yet put musicians in trees, the three levels of four-sided, surround-balconies of the Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was a pretty amazing space to explore this visual and sonic idea, and experimenting with the musicians in the space (testing sound, hearing and sightlines) over three months was pretty thrilling!
It's the most fully-realized of my projects exploring three-dimensional sound composition, not to mention three years of birdsong research (17 species, four geographical locales represented). In addition to solo parts, and singing instrumentalists, I had the musicians organized in three different string quartets (strewn across various levels and sides of the hall) which played snatches of melodies. So fun!!!!
Here is a little taster - if you'd like to learn more, you can read the program notes here:
Arise Birdsong-based, site-specific composition for 18 solo string players of A Far Cry and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum April 2013
6am-9:30am, Brooks Estate, Medford and Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.
My friend, Jim McCoy, an experienced birder, was kind enough to take me birding with him at an early hour this morning. We checked out some birds at Brooks Estate in Medford which was relatively quiet, then booked it over to the Birders' Paradise: historic Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
I've only been to Mt. Auburn a couple times before, and was excited to have expert guidance for this trip.
The place was actually crawling with birders, it being the prime of spring migration with rumors of "fallout" (migratory phenomenon where large number of migrants arrive in one night) in the air. Every now and then I'd glimpse a group of binoculared and be-hatted people, craning their necks or pointing or murmuring about recent discoveries. There was also the occasional hardcore lone birder. Awesome!
There's a bit of a code of sharing too, as birders who knew each other would swap info about birds they had seen, upon encountering into one another.
Jim was awesome about explaining and naming different birds. He was also a bit apologetic about the poor light - it was overcast but bright and seeing birds was difficult. Against that bright white sky, every bird was a backlit silhouette. Colors, markings, and details that help a person ID birds were all obscured.
I didn't mind so much, in fact, it was a good excuse for me to focus exclusively on listening, which is my main interest anyway.
Overheard in some bushes, the Yellow-Rumped Warbler:
I love accidental bird duets. This one, with the two-note descending call of the chickadee and the fluid gurgling melodic phrases of the wood thrush, was entrancing.
Who is this bird? I'm a poor student, forgot to take notes on this one. Help, Jim!
So many new birds glimpsed in my two weeks on tour with The Knights (a NYC-based chamber orchestra), traveling through the Midwest and the South.
It was an intensive pace - we played a concert each night for 9 out of 10 days, plus 2-5 hours of bus travel each morning to get to the next location. The most exciting birding was in Tennessee, where we had 24-hours free and I managed to squeeze in three hikes! (Sunset, Sunrise, and normal morning hike)
Once again I'm grateful for my audio diary as I reconstruct the details 2 months later. I wish I'd taken notes, but it's also great to be able to reconstruct a memory and itinerary based on field recordings and time stamps!
Things didn't start out super-exciting, birdwise. In our first stop, Detroit, I didn't manage to record any birds - our hotel was a Casino-Hotel, super-urban.
Next stop, Ohio, was not much better. But I include the recordings to build up some suspense...
April 11 Akron, OH, 10am
We stayed in a hotel made from converted Quaker oat silos! Amazing.
Fortified by hotel oatmeal, I made my way to the Post Office, hearing this bird (and the passing cars) on University of Akron campus:
April 12 Columbus, OH, 9am
Went for a run along the Scioto River, and heard this cardinal. Not as exotic as one might hope, but the sound of the wind and the passing cars inspired a compositional query - how to compose a piece in which a sound travels down a line of musicians, such that it sounds like a wind (or a vehicle) moving around the audience? I love the feeling of space and motion that a travelling sound creates...
April 13 Lexington, KY, 9:20am
Bear with me - it's about to get good.
This morning I went out in search of the delightfully-named Woodland Park, and found myself on a long desolate stretch of auto-row instead. Sad.
I asked a kindly bakery worker and later, a couple friendly school marms for directions, but I was out of time to make the necessary rerouting. Meandering through some lush neighborhoods on my way back to the hotel, I got a bit of this bird, along with local dog:
Lookout Mountain, Chatanooga, TN, 7-8:30pm
Inspired by (pure jealousy of) a couple musicians who separated from our tour-bus, rented a car, and made their way to Tennessee via the Daniel Boone National Forest, I took advantage of a 5-hour wi-fi bus ride to research hikes and rent my own car in our destination, Chatanooga.
It was well worth the toil and run-around at the rental car locale.
I'm a sucker for sunsets and sunrises. When I learned there was a "Sunset Rock" in the area, there was no other option - it had to be seen/conquered! My friend Emily and I took a gamble on a rather late hike to the rock, keeping fingers crossed that we'd make it back in time to retrieve the rental car from the lot which closed at "dusk".
So worth it! After a week of intensive concerts, traveling, and disappointing
bird-expeditions, I was thrilled by the green therapy of these lush Southern woods, and new sounds on our
(sunset) hike to Sunset Rock.
My first thrill - hearing these two birds in incidental duet. Such a great composite sound! I think the continuous one might be a red-eyed vireo.
And then, this fun bird:
I was so hungry for new birds, this outing was deeply satisfying.
The experience in this town was magical. Later that evening, yummy Cajun catfish stew and a smokin' live bluegrass performance stumbled upon in local cafe.
Then, a short sleep in preparation for:
April 14 Sunrise hike! 6am-7:30am, Point Park, Lookout Mountain, Chatanooga TN
It may not be prudent to admit it, but I am not above breaking a few rules in pursuit of a good view.
A quick web search suggested Point Park's eastern trails were "exceptionally beautiful" for sunrise viewing. I am only in town for one day, this will be my sunrise! I go for it alone, as no one else in the group is up for such an early outing.
Imagine my surprise to find, as I approach around 6am, that the gates are locked and not to open until 8am. What?? Why did the Internet send me here for the sunrise?
Luckily the adjacent walls are very low (less than 5 feet) and wide, with convenient indentations - practically built to be climbed. I'm not going to miss my sunrise - I scale the wall and land easily on the other side.
Did I mention it's still dark out? I use my low-tech flip cell-phone as a light so I can read the map near the entrance, and figure out which way to go to the trail. There's a warm, blustery wind that is both comforting and scary somehow.
Yes, I'm a little scared. As usual, my fears are not animal-centered, they are people-centered. I remember some bearded climbers we saw on the trail yesterday, and start to wonder if there are scary mountain men camped out in the park.
The two flights of metal stairs in dim light gives me another adrenaline boost. I'm very awake, but appear to be the only one. No pre-dawn birds to be heard, just wind and rustling leaves and the mental chatter of my own fear, which is mounting. Scary mountain man. Surely lying in wait to attack early morning hiker.
I inch cautiously down the dirt trail, which is very dark and at times rocky and narrow. What if I slip and die, I wonder. Nobody would even know where to find me. And where are the damn birds I came to record? It is eerily quiet save for the wind.
I text my sister in California, a text to her email account (so as not to wake her up), casually saying hello and mentioning what mountain I'm on and what I'm doing.
Feel a tiny bit better.
But actually, I've actually never been this scared in my life. I'm in the grip of a great, heart-pounding fear. I'm petrified - if a humanoid rock could cautiously walk down a mountain trail. I'm convinced that at any moment, someone may step out of the shadows or emerge from behind that rock, and attack me. I SO WANT TO TURN AROUND AND RUN BACK TO THE CAR!!
But my rational mind knows this is ridiculous paranoia. I tell myself to breathe. I tell myself this is good practice - to be able to breathe and stay at least physically calm in the face of terrifying fears.
A lifetime passes as I move very slowly down the dim eastern trail.
When the sky at last begins to lighten, and a few birds sing, it feels like salvation.
Objects gain shape and definition. The murk is clarified.
Nobody is there to attack me.
I will live.
I'm embarrassed at my cowardice, but my relief at feeling safe is much greater than that shame.
I rejoice that it's behind me, and that in fact I'm the bad-ass who got up at 5:30 and vaulted a national military park wall to see the sunrise.
Here are my sunrise comforters:
First bird: Carolina Wren:
First bird joined by second bird, Cardinal:
Wren and Cardinal, variation:
Bird of the Day (New Bird #1):
My on-site whistled version, followed by another clip of today's bird (in cohorts with a partner bird?):
A Tennessee take on the classic White-crowned sparrow and Chickadee combo:
And for anyone who's curious, many different songs of Carolina Wren:
Later this morning, I pick up some friends from the hotel for a trek in the Tennessee River Valley Gorge. Really beautiful views of the river gorge, glimpsed from our trail. No new birds to report, though red-eyed vireo seem to be omnipresent.
Hurray for the three hikes in 18 hours!
April 16 Along the Chattahoochee River, Columbus, Georgia.
Lots of cities built along rivers.. I have frequented numerous riverside running paths on this tour, which is awesome. I also love that details on these audio recordings help me distinguish one memory from another.
A new bird!
A bridge crosses the river, and on the opposite bank, a train passes as I stop to marvel at the virtuosity of this mockingbird:
After birding, I jog over to the local diner to join a group in a proper Southern breakfast.. grits, biscuit eggs. Yum!
OK, I'm so excited I could just about burst!!!!
This seems the most appropriate venue to share the exciting news...
I've just been commissioned by one of my favorite ensembles, the conductor-less chamber orchestra A Far Cry, to write a birdsong-based piece for spring of 2013 for their concert at the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum.
It's been a fantasy for over a year now to create a three-dimensional performance piece with "birds" calling and singing from all 360 degrees "live surround-sound", including up in the balconies, and it's totally thrilling to have the opportunity to realize this vision with some of my favorite musician friends. These guys kick ass, and can play anything. An incredible opportunity!!!!!!!
Save the date: April 4, 2013 at the Gardner Museum, in their new and unique performance space.
Wow, what to do with all this excitement???!!!
For now, I'm directing it towards this weekend's performances with Sarah Bob, and a 3-cello piece I'm writing for my friends Michal, Aristides and Rafi (no birds, but still really exciting!) which premiers on March 4.
Is it spring? It's hardly winter this year, and frequently I suspect spring has already come.
I don't trust the groundhog (according to Wiki his accuracy is 37%), so am a bit baffled as to how to call spring. Not so interested in arbitrary dates- I would prefer an environmental cue. Ideally I'd like to use the arrival of a spring migrant (bird) to determine a start date - something to consult my birder friends about.
It's important as I am gearing up for a spring 2012 installment of A Bird a Day. Very excited to have another focused period of dawns and creative work! Last year, early spring got rained out, I was up north in Acadia when the migrants came through Boston, then I ran out of gas for the sunrises. Not this year! I intend to really study the dawn chorus and get to know my spring migrants.
Meanwhile, I am excited to polish some of my pieces from last year for an upcoming recital with my pianist friend, Sarah Bob, at the end of this month. I'm also hoping to write a short, structured improvisation for us that quotes some of my favorite Messiaen, from his incredible piece, "Catalogue d'Oiseaux" ("Catalog of Birds").
Well, it's been a full year since I started A Bird a Day, and eleven months since my initial one-month idea got extended into a yearlong endeavor.
While the project is not finished per-se - I am still developing material and compositions, and plan to record a CD this winter - I am no longer trying to get out every single day and make recordings.
Completing a year feels like a significant step, and I have been reflecting on the things I learned - they are many!
For one, it is hard to do something every day, even something you absolutely love. While I was thrilled each day of my first month, the subsequent eleven got harder and hard to keep up. I had no sense of pacing going into it. By the time the long-awaited, true birdsong season of Spring hit, I was exhausted and could not keep up my sunrise routine. So silly - I used up my sunrise energy on Fall and Winter, and their relatively few, non-singing birds!
Moreover, at a practical level it's just hard to do something every single day, unless you are in a totally contained and small community / environment that specifically nurtures that thing, like a monastery or artist's retreat. When other work and projects were knocking, it was hard to keep carving out time every day to be meditative and connected to nature, not to speak of the time it takes to compose, blog, and sound-edit.
When you add a sense of obligation to something you love, it can make even your favorite activities dreary. I was constantly fighting machismo and practicality. I would want to be hard-core and do the daily sunrise thing, especially as my daily posts racked up and looked ever-more "impressive" to me. Meanwhile, my practical side suspected that with a few days off, I'd be re-energized and more present in my nature meditations.
Machismo almost always won out, as my allegiance to the task overwhelmed the point of the task, and I sometimes lost my point. My conclusion: obligatory and/or ego-driven meditation is a bad idea!
I experienced relative social hermitude for a year. An early-morning routine is tough to keep up as a professional musician - rehearsals, concerts, and all the socializing in my field happens at night. For a year, I barely did any night-time activities that weren't gigs - I barely saw any live shows, passed up parties, left events early, and generally had a minimal social life as I was always trying to be in bed by 10pm!
On the positive side, I am pleased to say that my initial hypothesis, "A bird a day keeps the doctor away" proved to be true, at least for this small yearlong sample. I can prove it - the only time all year that I got a bit of a cold, in mid-September, was after a couple weeks of very sporadic (not daily) bird walks. Otherwise, I made it through the winter and rainy spring without ever succumbing to a cold or flu, though people around me were falling over left and right. Aha! Let the National Audubon Society buy this motto from me =).
Other things learned:
--I now know the Arboretum and Franklin Park very intimately, nooks and crannies, and am familiar with several parks that I didn't know of before the project.
--I know winter better, I've seen more of her many faces and the details of her daily changes after meeting her every morning for several months. I have new appreciation for her beauty.
--I've trained my ability to listen deeply, and to slow down. The daily practice seems to have honed some listening, meditative, and observational muscles, which I'm excited about!
--I've also discovered that I love to walk, and that a morning walk is the best way to start my day. Whodda thunk? I was always a runner before this project. It has helped me actually slow down, instead of just talking about slowing down.
--One of the most thrilling developments is that this project has fostered a link back to my classical music roots. In September, I played Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and the experience was nothing short of revelatory.
It felt like I was hearing and experiencing the piece for the first time, though I had studied it many years ago in school. Check out the opening and its remarkable evocation of nature, stillness, birds:
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I felt a great sense of wonder, and connection - I've been exploring and struggling with ways to use music evoke the sonic and emotional experience of the natural world, and here had Mahler done it, some one hundred years ago.
Sometimes I fester about my frustrations with classical music culture - its elitism, its rigidity, the narrow degree of creativity that is expected of players; but my week playing Mahler 1, I was all about love - love for this amazing music, the incredible composer. I was overwhelmed with appreciation for classical music's unique capability to create music of these dimensions, colors, formal cohesion, precision, and musical depths with some 100 musicians. I mean, no other genre of music can do this, especially with so many performers. It's really amazing!
It's lovely to come full circle on so many things. I'm sure it's not the first time I will move towards one thing and away from another, but this particular circle is quite significant, as I had grown estranged from the most beautiful and precious elements of classical music - the very things that first inspired my love and desire to be a musician! So it's a happy homecoming, indeed.
Now I will start taking orchestral auditions and give up all my crazy projects.
However, I am pumped about planning a violin recital this winter and focussing on some standard repertoire, and not worrying too much about being experimental or cross-disciplinary. For once.
More updates to come on A Bird a Day CD recording, concerts, and other performances. I hope to make up for this year's tired spring by re-engaging with my daily expeditions next Spring 2012.