A Celebration of Birdsong in Music
Originally appeared in the Summer 2019 Program Book
Birds have played a role in Western Classical music since at least the 14th century, when composers such as Jean Vaillant quoted birdsong in some of their compositions. Songs of the nightingale and the cuckoo are historically the most commonly used. Composers and musicians have made use of birds in their music in different ways: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ottorino Respighi wrote works inspired by birdsong; Olivier Messiaen and John Luther Adams have transcribed or imitated birdsongs in their compositions; and clarinetist David Rothenberg even plays duets with birds!
(1956 – 1958)
Praised by The Guardian as “one of the best Messiaen interpreters around,” French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard brings the composer’s most extensive, demanding, and colorful piano composition to Caramoor — Catalogue d’Oiseaux. The work, which is almost three hours long, consists of 13 extended odes for solo piano, each of which inspired by a different bird species. Aimard performs this composition over three concerts, from Saturday evening through Sunday afternoon, in the Spanish Courtyard and Venetian Theater. With close ties to the composer and his wife, Yvonne Loriod, for whom the Catalogue was written, Aimard’s interpretation of the work holds a unique gravitas and was recorded last year for Pentatone. Catalogue d’Oiseaux is a grand hymn to nature from a composer who never ceased to marvel at the stupefying beauty of landscapes or the magic of birdsong. Bringing this piece to Caramoor surrounded by nature, gardens, — and of course — birds, allows the audience to take in both the inspiration and the interpretation alongside each other.
With his Catalogue, Messiaen tried — in his own words — “to render exactly the typical birdsong of a region, surrounded by its neighbors from the same habitat, as well as the form of song at different hours of the day and night,” suggesting an almost scientific approach to his subjects. The idea of ‘reproduction’ may have been central to Messiaen’s conception of the Catalogue d’Oiseaux, but in the finished work we hear a great composer at work, a master of innovative structures who finds an astonishing range of piano sonorities.
In a world that is increasingly facing unprecedented human-made threats, Aimard views this cycle as “a musical refuge that resonates with an audience ever more concerned, expanded and affected.”
John Luther Adams
Like his Inuksuit, — performed outdoors at Caramoor last summer by more than 60 percussionists — John Luther Adams’ songbirdsongs is a transporting, immersive, encircling experience that requires total sensory surrender. In nine movements lasting just under an hour, it places the listener in the middle of the natural world, the controlled chaos of birds, water, and wind. The piece will be performed at Caramoor on Sunday, July 14 in a free outdoor performance by the Brooklyn-based quartet Sandbox Percussion and two piccolo players: Catherine Gregory and Emi Ferguson.
“This music is not literal transcription. It is translation. Not imitation, but evocation. My concern is not with precise details of pitch and meter, for too much precision can deafen us to such things as birds and music. I listen for other, less tangible nuances. These melodies and rhythms, then, are not so much constructed artifacts as they are spontaneous affirmations.” — John Luther Adams
Composer-clarinetist David Rothenberg is known around the world for his music and his books on the relationship between humanity and nature. He is the author of Why Birds Sing, on making music with birds (later a feature length BBC TV documentary), and the recently published Nightingales in Berlin. On Saturday, July 13 at dusk (prime birdsong hour), he’ll be roaming Caramoor’s gardens improvising alongside our native bird species. “There’s a sense of wonder and mystery to the nature sounds around us,” David Rothenberg said. “It’s not hard to hear these things, you just have to listen.”