Just as there are cyclical forces in nature, there are tides and currents in art, and what we’ve been seeing in much contemporary music is a move away from the austere conceptualism of the post–World War II past. Whether by incorporating elements of popular music, reconceptualizing baroque or classical notions, or adopting musical concepts from beyond the western canon, composers are gleefully expanding their sonic possibilities—and one of the most fruitful new avenues involves music inspired by the natural world.
This is not an entirely new concept, of course. Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is but one example of a composer taking his cue from nature’s rhythm. Ludwig van Beethoven emulated cuckoo song in his Piano Sonata No. 25, and the inspiration behind Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending needs no explanation. But today’s bird- and whale-song-besotted composers—like Emily Doolittle, John Luther Adams, and VSO composer in residence Jocelyn Morlock, all of whom will be featured in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming New Music Festival—are bringing a pointed awareness of environmental issues to their work, along with analytical techniques borrowed from biological researchers.
“I think there’s a lot of people writing new music based on animal songs or other natural sounds,” Doolittle confirms in a Skype interview from her Glasgow home. “A lot of people are looking for that connection in various different ways.”
Given that the Nova Scotia–born composer’s father is pioneering microbiologist Ford Doolittle, one might speculate that she’s predisposed to examining the minutiae of the natural world. Instead, she reports that her interest in working animal song into her music comes from a revelation she experienced not long after moving to Amsterdam to study composition. “One night I heard this really amazing bird singing outside my window,” Doolittle explains. “I hadn’t heard a bird like it before, so I sort of threw open my window and listened. I was interested by the way that what it was saying sounded like human music—but the whole song didn’t sound like human music. I listened for a long time, and the next day I went and asked everyone what the bird was, and it turned out that it was a European blackbird.…I ended up writing a piece called night black bird song in which I transcribed some motifs of what that blackbird sang, and then organized them first the way I thought a blackbird might, and then gradually transformed them into the way I thought a human might.
“At the time, I thought, ‘Okay, that will be my bird-song piece, and then I’ll be on to another topic,’ but it actually started something that I’m not done with yet,” she adds. “Twenty years later, I keep coming back to bird song and other animal songs in lots of different ways.”
Reedbird, which the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will premiere at the Orpheum next Saturday (January 19), exemplifies that fascination. When Doolittle first received the VSO commission, she intended to work with whale song in order to fit in with the aquatic theme of the other pieces on the New Music Festival program, notably Adams’s transfixing meditation on climate change, Become Ocean. But the birds kept calling her back.
“There are actually 5,000 species of songbirds, and they each have their own song, which has its own motivic patterns; they each have their own way of arranging them and juxtaposing those patterns, their own way of structuring the songs. So I think that the more you look at one bird song, the more you become curious about other bird songs,” she says, noting that exploring the alien intelligence of birds is a way of breaking free of her human preconceptions of what music should be.
“Plus,” she adds with a laugh, “listening to bird songs is a less lonely way to begin a piece than just sitting at the piano with a blank page.”
Sometimes the beauty of the song is enough to spark a piece, as was the case with Reedbird, inspired by the burbling call of the bobolink. Although this small, songful blackbird was familiar to her from her Nova Scotia childhood, and although it’s becoming endangered due to the loss of its favoured marshy habitats, Doolittle says her concerns were primarily musical rather than nostalgic or environmental. Still, in the current moment it’s hard to separate the social from the sonic.
“I do think there’s a general, underlying message in my music, which is that these animals are important, and that there’s not just an anonymous mass of birds out there,” she notes. “There’s all these different species, and inside all these species there are all these individuals, and they each have their own song and their own desire to be living in the place they’re in. So the message is that we need to pay attention to these other living beings, and preserve a space for them.”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival takes place at Christ Church Cathedral and the Orpheum from next Wednesday to Saturday (January 16 to 19).