The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

February 28, 2008

Listening to Birds on ASR tomorrow

Filed under: Music — Andrew Whitehouse @ 11:31 am

The Listening to Birds project will be featured on Fiona-Jane Brown’s show on Aberdeen Student Radio tomorrow morning between 11 and 12. I’ll be playing folk music about birds as well as talking about the project. You can listen online here.

December 6, 2007

Composing with birds

Filed under: Music — Andrew Whitehouse @ 1:34 pm

I’m slowly working my way through the 600 or so emails and contributions I’ve had in the past week, so apologies again if I’ve not replied to you yet. Be patient, particularly if you had a specific enquiry!

One of the contributions that I particularly enjoyed came from Neil Horne in Sydney, Australia. He’s an artist who works with computers and he’s designed some interactive java software that enables different bird sounds to be combined into a composition. You can use the ‘Sky Music’ programme here. Neil makes some interesting observations about the different responses to the programme:

Our approach is from the perspective of the aesthetics of bird calls… Birders hear birds differently. When the composing software was trialled by birders, they were reluctant to combine sounds and rhythms, but were more interested in identifying birds. They could only hear it as a quiz. Computer specialists on the other hand with a music background were happy to compose. Where we recorded the black cockatoos, there were people sitting at picnic tables talking who did not hear the amazing performance, or behaved as if they didn’t.

Although I’m a birder myself, I didn’t see it so much as a quiz because I’m unfamiliar with the sounds of eastern Australian birds. Instead I was able to play around with the sounds and rhythms. It’s quite a different way to think about and to hear the vocalisations of birds. It helped me to understand what Juana Molina means by the different loops of sound made by duetting birds combining in different ways despite repetition. Have a go at playing two different recordings together and see how the sound changes as it goes on. Thanks to Neil for letting me know about his work.

November 28, 2007

Juana Molina on how birds influence her music

Filed under: Music — Tags: , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 10:45 am

One of my favourite musicians is the Argentinian singer Juana Molina. I love her work for lots of reasons but I’ve always been struck by the role that bird sounds play in her songs. Sometimes she includes recordings of South American birds on her records as a sort of accompaniment or like a separate instrument. But in this video profile she reveals a more complex relationship between her music and birds when she discusses her response to the singing of Rufous Horneros, a common bird in Argentina that has a complex duetting song in which both male and female sing together. The discussion of birds starts about six minutes in, although the rest of the profile is well worth watching.

On Juana’s Myspace page, she discusses the influence of bird sounds on her music further:

“When I started to write the songs for this record Son, a new element that may have been hidden for a long time appeared; the randomness of the combination of sounds in nature. Each bird has a particular singing; nevertheless this singing is always different. It is not a pattern; its a drawing, a sound and a mode, only a few elements that each bird combines in a new way each time. In the same way, sometimes I chose to sing a melodic drawing I develop for the song. Verses are alike, but never the same (rios seco, no seas antip├ítica) other times I chose to sing a repetitive melody. What changes here and moves randomly is, for example, a keyboard. It is like overlapping two different loops, with no synchronicity at all. One very rhythmic and the other one more loose. When you play both, at the same time, the loose loop will provoke a changing harmony, because their beats will never be in the same place. This causes a moving harmony. During the tours, I also applied my new ideas to the old songs, that’s why, when I got back home, I recorded the first thing that came to mind using these new ideas. In October, when I sat down to put all I had for the record together I had the huge and pleasant surprise that I almost had the record done. Son is a step forward on the same path I started with Segundo and followed with Tres Cosas.”

Many songs have been written in which the lyrics refer to bird sounds, and there are many uses of bird song recordings in music. It’s also quite common for music to imitate bird sounds. But, more unusually, Molina seems to consider the songs of birds like the hornero as influencing her own music in much the same way that she might speak of another musician influencing her work. She is not trying to replicate a hornero, but she is trying to create sound that moves in the same way.

I’m also struck that she refers to birds as having ‘a particular singing’ rather than a particular song. This emphasises the bird actively singing in a particular style in response to what is going on around it rather than passively acting out a pre-designed song. Her description of her own music as a ‘melodic drawing’ adds to this sense of music, both avian and human, as being almost like a kind of doodle in sound, the lines and loops intersecting with one another in surprising ways and the sound constantly moving like lines being drawn across a page.

The University of Aberdeen