Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Inspired by birds: the City of London Sinfonia looks at composers' fascination with birdsong

Absolute Bird - City of London Sinfonia
On Friday 3 May 2019, the City of London Sinfonia launches its new concert series Absolute Bird which explores 800 years of music inspired by birdsong. Created in partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the concerts celebrate birdsong in music, looking at the sheer diversity of music in which the composers have been influenced by birds and birdsong. There is music from Rebel's Les Elements to Respighi's The Birds, from traditional English song to Moondog, with instruments ranging from the full orchestra, to harpsichord to Huw Watkins performing Messiaen.

The Creative Director and Leader of CLS is Alexandra Wood and when I chatted to her last week about the series she explained that the birdsong goes beyond the concerts and that birdsong is being used in the orchestra's learning and participation programme as well. CLS has a residency at the Bethlehem and Maudsley Hospital, and their events at the hospital include looking at music which includes birdsong as well as improvising on it. This applies also to CLS work in schools, which Alexandra points out is important because of the limited amount of music in schools. And it is not just music, the use of birdsong brings in the idea of nature too, helping the children to listen in another way.


The current term’s work at the Bethlehem and Maudsley Hospital, led by sound artist Gawain Hewitt, sees pupils responding to the music of birdsong and nature. The pieces they create are recorded and sampled to create an interactive sonic tree sculpture, with 24 interactive birds that perform the music composed in the residency. The tree will be displayed at the Absolute Bird series concerts following the success of soundboards created as part of the CLS's Bach and the Cosmos programme in 2018.

The Absolute Bird series is linked to the RSPB's Let Nature Sing campaign, which includes a CD of birdsong, aimed at highlighting the radical decline in birdsong in the countryside. The President of the RSPB, Miranda  Krestovnikoff will be taking part in the CLS concert at Southwark Cathedral on 15 May 2019, Flocks of Europe, talking about the birds depicted in the music. And in addition to music from CLS the audience will be filling the cathedral with birdsong by playing it via an app on their phones.

At this concert the cathedral will be empty of chairs and people will be free to move around, with the music being performed in different zones. This is something CLS has done before and Alexandra finds that it works well, giving the people in the audience a sense of freedom. It also encourages active listening, and she points out that concert going is generally a rather passive event.

Alexandra explains that one of CLS main aims is to bring music to new audiences and the emphasis on nature and birdsong will encourage people to experiment, to cometo try new things. The series ends with a late-night event in which folk-singer Sam Lee will singing an improvised set in response to a live broadcast of the singing of nightingales.

The idea for the project came about because Alexandra heard Chris Watson's programme on birdsong on BBC Radio 4, and found it fascinating. It got her thinking and she did some research. As a violinist she knew Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and RVW's The Lark Ascending, but found out there was much more from the 14th century onward. Composers have used birdsong in a variety of ways, from just hinting at it, including snippets such as Beethoven did in the Pastoral Symphony to the music of Messiaen where birdsong is all-encompassing.

Alexandra Wood performing with the City of London Sinfonia at Southwark Cathedral (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Alexandra Wood performing with the City of London Sinfonia at Southwark Cathedral (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
City of London Sinfonia's Absolute Bird
  • 3 May 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall: City of London Sinfonia, Jessica Cottis (conductor), Genevieve Lacy (recorder), Alexandra Wood (director/violin) - Hollis Taylor, Vivaldi, Moondog, Erkki-Sven Tuur, Rebel
  • 15 May 2019, Southwark Cathedral: City of London Sinfonia, Miranda Krestnovikoff (presenter), Alexandra Wood (director/violin) - Jannequin, Vivaldi, Couperin, Rameau, Haydn
  • 24 May 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall: City of London Sinfonia, Sian Edwards (conductor), Alice Zawadzki (vocalist), Huw Watkins (piano), Alexandra Wood (violin) - John Luther Adams, Delius, Respighi, Messiaen, Vaughan Williams
  • 24 May 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall: Sam Lee (folk singer)
Full details from the City of London Sinfonia website

Further information about the RSPB's Let Nature Sing from the RSPB website.

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