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15 April 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 2:05pm

How a seagull, a short-eared owl and an oystercatcher have released an album

Man has always tried to make music that sounds like birdsong.  Now, composer Erland Cooper has succeeded.

By John Burnside

From the moment we began making music, humans have been trying to recreate the sounds of the natural world. From the mainly imitative (such as Louis-Claude Daquin’s Le Coucou) to the rhapsodic (Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending), our music has drawn on birdsong, in particular, for inspiration. It’s not surprising, when we consider that, in former times, birds provided a steady soundtrack to the daily round, from the dawn chorus at first light, to the near calls of nightjars and owls that punctate the night. No matter how far off they sing, nightbirds always sound as if they are just feet away, invisible in the darkness.

Perhaps the finest evocation of a dawn chorus is the opening of the third tableau of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, a piece that begins in imitation (a call here, a chirrup there) and ends in what can only be called rapture, as each bird joins the others in a highly sensual depiction of wild natural beauty, paving the way for a finale that musicologist Lawrence Kramer once called “the most explicit representation of orgasm in all classical music”.

With the introduction of highly sensitive recording devices, composers no longer had to rely on an oboe, say, to mimic a duck’s quacking (as Prokofiev does in Peter and the Wolf), or a whole quartet of woodwind instruments for the famed birdsong sequence in the second movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (a flute for the nightingale, an oboe for the quail and two clarinets for the cuckoo).

Now, it seemed, anyone with sufficient technical expertise could go out and record the music of the natural world – and many did. Respighi experimented with nightingale recordings in the mid-Twenties, while Alan Hovhaness, still a hugely underrated US composer, used tapes of migrating whales in his symphonic piece, And God Created Great Whales.

Probably the best-known work to combine orchestral music and recorded sound is Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, written in 1972. The piece opens with two flutes (the performers are advised, in the score, to “think of autumn and of Tchaikovsky”) then adds clarinets and actual recordings of Arctic birds, until the entire orchestra is drawn into a massive outpouring of song.

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I thought of this long history of imitation after listening to a new recording that, for me, announces the arrival of a brilliant younger composer in Erland Cooper – a Scottish musician rooted in natural sounds, but with the gift to transform what he has heard into a singular, incomparable music. The album is called Solan Goose (another name for the northern gannet) and each track is named after a native bird in the Orcadian language – “Whitemaa”: gull; “Cattie-Face”: short-eared owl; “Shalder”: oystercatcher, etc. Recordings from the wild are used judiciously, but what shines through is Cooper’s gift for active listening – to what he hears around him, and how he responds to that soundscape.

My old music teacher used to say, “Hearing is a faculty; but listening is an art.” I fear the day when I go out into the hills and, as hard as I listen, hear nothing. As the great bird flocks fade away around us, I fear for tomorrow’s composers, because the time may come when there is nothing to listen to. For now, though, while we still have music like Cooper’s, we may continue to practise the fine art of listening to the world we share with the birds. 

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This article appears in the 11 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war