5 pieces of classical music inspired by birds and birdsong | FEATURE

Kathy Hinde’s Piano Migrations

1.Aaron Jay Kernis’s On Hearing Night birds at Dusk

This contemporary piece for solo harp, characterised by the delicacy of its textures and harmonies, uses the idea of birdsong as a springboard for a reflection on the environment – and the challenges facing it. ‘As the seasons change and flight patterns with them,’ says Kernis,  ‘how much longer can we rely on these sounds around us to invoke the cycles that shape our lives and the flow of Earth’s time?’

2. Kathy Hinde’s Piano Migrations

In this piece from 2014, the inside of a piano is transformed into a kinetic sound sculpture that turns the movements of birds into music. Videos of birds are projected onto the piano, triggering machines to twitch and flutter on the piano strings. ‘I currently find pure sound and noise very appealing and beautiful,’ says Hinde, ‘often more so than melodic and harmonically-driven music.’

3. Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending

No list of bird-inspired works would be complete without this 1920 classic. Inspired by the 1881 poem of the same name by the English writer George Meredith, this ethereal work is on one level an idyll of rural England and the titular bird it depicts. Premiered as it was, however, soon after the end of World War One, it has also been viewed as a nostalgic meditation on lost innocence.

4. Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux

Olivier Messiaen considered himself to be as much an ornithologist as a composer. Unlike most ornithologists though, he found a way of documenting his birdstudies in music. Over several expeditions he combed the French countryside for the songs of birds, finding ever more innovative ways of notating their idiosyncracies. What emerged was literally a musical catalogue: his Catalogue d’Oiseaux, a cycle of 13 pieces for piano solo written between 1956 and 1958, that used transcriptions of birdsong from over 80 different European bird species to evoke the landscape and birdlife of France.

5. Chris Hughes’s Slow Motion Blackbird

This piece by the contemporary composer Chris Hughes involves a cellist attempting to imitate a recording of a blackbird call, then repeating it while gradually slowing down, allowing new facets of the melody to emerge. It was inspired by an idea from the experimental American composer Steve Reich to slow a recorded sound down to many times its original length, without altering the pitch.

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