It’s all about the birds…

Posted on 24th January 2013 by Svend McEwan-Brown

I am not big on themes in festivals. I dislike having my cultural experiences over-mediated: a heavily-themed festival can be like being served by a waiter who insists on listing every technique and ingredient on your plate as the food goes cold in front of you. Better to decide for yourself which flavours and textures to relish. That’s a tough discipline or festival directors – to trust your audience enough to step back: don’t direct them so that they miss not a single one of your nuances or deft touches: let them make their own festival from what you offer.

Having said all that… we have a theme this year. Birds. Nature’s musicians – treasured songsters whose rich chorus is slowly falling silent all over the world, even as we watch and hear. People deep in the country are waking up to find no dawn chorus. In my childhood I woke most mornings to a lawn full of urban birds – finches, tits, blackbirds, thrushes mostly – hard at work farming the worms. Now all I see is the occasional sparrow, gull or starling. Even they are under threat.

So between us, Catherine Lockerbie, Jenny Brown and me, we have focused on this grand tragedy befalling our tiny creatures, and we reflect and celebrate them in music, art, writing and ideas. Every idea has a starting point, and for this one it was the opportunity to present music by American composer John Luther Adams to the UK.

The names can be confusing – there are many John Adams in the USA (check any phone book) but for two of them to be major composers is unfortunate. John Luther Adams is slightly younger than John Adams, and musically he is worlds apart. Both men matured musically at a time of magnificent experiment and adventure in American music – the 1960s and 70s. They share some inspirations – not least John Cage, Lamont Young and Lou Harrison. Both tap into a poetic, mystic vein that runs through American art, starting somewhere near Whitman, Dickinson and Emerson. But where JA is most to be found in the world’s great cities working with the great orchestras, JLA is a nature lover, a desert dweller. He lives in Alaska and fills his work with the imagery and inspiration of nature. He asks for strange instrumental combinations; takes music out of the concert hall and in to the open. He works in visual art as well as music. He is a master at giving his musicians freedom to shape the work within the parameters he sets. And the results are simply beautiful.

JLA’s Inuksuit and Songbirdsongs both feature bird song and Inuksuit actually takes place in the open air so there is a goodly chance that actual birds may join in (the gulls are always trying to get in on the act at ENF anyhow: anyone remember the hushed close of Lark Ascending being disrupted by a raucous cackle from the roof?). I will be writing about those pieces plenty in the coming months, for now though I want to make my thanks to Catherine and Jenny and to the artist Lisa Hooper whose gorgeous prints are on display in Crail Church Hall, for the shared passion that has brought together such a rich array of talk, music and art all about the birds this year. I look forward to seeing you there.