Music

Canon #91, Birdsong

My latest canon takes inspiration from birdsong. It’s my first canon that refers to a sound-world outside itself, and at over six minutes, it’s also my longest canon so far. It’s able to be long because it’s not a single continuous canon but rather a montage of over twenty-five canonic episodes, each one attempting to capture something that I’ve heard in the universe of bird vocalizations. Each episode is a strict inversion canon, where the follower moves in the opposite direction from leader, and most episodes are what I might call “rapid-fire” canons where the follower enters very quickly after the leader. The piece doesn’t have an plot per se, but among the canons I’ve written, it’s the one that might be the most suggestive or accommodating of a plot. It was particularly fun to write, and I’m particularly excited to share it:

After finishing Canon #90 in early December 2020, I thought I’d get started on a sequel right away, but that didn’t happen. Days and then weeks went by and I couldn’t get into a groove of writing again. At some point towards the end of January 2021, I stumbled upon a video of a composer I admire, Olivier Messiaen, talking about a subject he’s famously associated with, birdsong. At that moment, I decided to transcribe some birdsong for myself and see what might come of it. I chose to do this with fresh and perhaps naive ears, without taking guidance from the way composers have approached this material before, aside from any ideas I may have already absorbed in a lifetime of listening to music. So I didn’t listen to any more Messiaen, but instead I listened to dozens of birdsong recordings and any birds that I could hear singing outside my window. I spent three weeks making transcriptions of what I heard, each one a couple of measures of single-line, non-canonic melody.

When I started making these transcriptions, I wanted them to be playable on a keyboard, and of course it’s impossible to recreate the many high-pitched oscillations and glissandi in birdsong on a keyboard, so I was forced to accept that my transcriptions wouldn’t be entirely accurate. This was a blessing because it freed me to creatively interpret what I heard. I find that making musical transcriptions can be a daunting, anxiety-provoking process if you are preoccupied with correctness. However, if you give up the idea of “getting it right” and if you allow and even invite inaccuracies into the transcription process, it becomes a pleasurable, creative activity that can yield something new and unexpected. Transcribing, when approached flexibly, can turn into composing. Since I knew at the outset that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce birdsong faithfully on a keyboard, I took the transcribing-as-composing approach where the birdsong served as a starting place for writing melodies that gave me pleasure. I wasn’t aiming to win the approval of any ornithologists, but rather of my own ear. Still, I kept returning to the original birdsong, using it as an anchor, and trying to bring my transcriptions closer to it wherever I could.

There were moments when I played my transcriptions aloud and heard birds chirping outside my window as if they were responding directly to the music. Were they really? I think it’s unlikely that the sound from my workspace would have been audible to them outside, and they sing every day anyway. But it sure felt to me like they were responding to what I played, so I decided to accept their animated chirping as “evidence” that my transcriptions were good enough to engage these flying musicians. Perhaps my transcriptions were merely bad enough to offend them, but I wanted to look on the bright side!

After three weeks of making creative birdsong sketches, I wondered if the material would amount to anything: what could I do with it aside from maybe (but probably not) getting some birds engaged? In my reading, I learned that songbirds are able to control the right and left portions of their vocal organ — the syrinx — independently, meaning that they can produce two sounds at once. Some birds actually make a rising sound and a falling sound together. The fact that a bird can produce an example of what we know in music as contrary motion set my mind abuzz. It made me wonder whether any of my transcriptions could be molded into inversion canons, where the follower rises when the leader falls, and vice versa. I started taking taking the material and turning it upside down to see how it sounded.

In the inversion canons I had written before, Amber, Carnelian, Sugilite, Graphite – I had needed to do a lot of “melodic engineering” to make the theme sound coherent in its upside-down as well as its right-side-up orientation. To my surprise, many of my bird transcriptions made sense in their inverted form without such explicit planning. I think this is due in part to the fact that I had confined my transcriptions to the octatonic/diminished scale, which is a scale that seems to lend itself to inversion. I chose the diminished scale because it had been fresh in mind from Canons 89 and 90 and also because it seemed appropriate for imitating birdsong: the ample supply of semitones made it easy to create chirps and trills wherever I wanted them, and the ample supply of tritones made it easy to avoid a strong tonal center where I didn’t want one. Certainly there are bird vocalizations that sound almost tonal, but I didn’t want to create the sense that I was forcing something fluid into a contrived or artificial tonal framework.

Having found that many of my themes sounded good upside down, I started fitting them into inversion canons where the original theme is accompanied by its mirror image. This too was easier than expected. In some cases it was easy because I applied the paradigm I had used in Canons #89 and #90 where the two voices play staccato and rarely have a shared hit, so the problem of controlling their vertical intervals becomes less difficult than it otherwise would be. In other cases the voices had many shared hits and perhaps I just got lucky that, for whatever reason, when the lag between voices was set at a particular duration and the interval between voices was set at a particular distance – the combination happened to work.

So I spent a fourth week turning my single-line transcriptions into inversion canons, and once again I wondered what I could do with all this accumulated material. There’s no universal principle that says that if you spend a month transcribing and “canonifying” birdsong fragments you’re going to end up with enough material to forge a coherent composition. But one day, after some hesitation, I forced myself to arrange everything I had collected in a more-or-less arbitrary order, one fragment after the other, with not much rhyme or reason to the transitions between them. I went to bed that night and imagined that the piece was “cooking” — that the individual passages were communicating with each other, maybe quarreling with each other, with one passage expressing its displeasure at being situated right next to another that it disagreed with, while two passages that longed for each other were being kept apart. I imaged that all the assorted passages were together deciding what they wanted their ultimate order to be.

When I woke up the next morning, of course the piece had not magically rearranged itself, but I found that I did have very strong feelings about which passage belonged aside which other passage. I had once feared that there could be no right or wrong order for the passages, only a variety of workable possibilities that would be agonizing to choose between, but by the end of the editing process I was convinced that there was only one right order and I had found it!

Did I keep track of which species I had transcribed? I know I listened to nightingales, sparrows, mockingbirds (which imitate other birds), various wrens, finches, a bird from the Indian subcontinent called the teetar or grey francolin, and dozens of other birds whose names now escape me. At first I kept track, but as I molded and shaped the material it diverged enough from the original song that I decided not to label each passage after the bird that inspired it. If you’re interested to know which birds are “in” the piece, I’d invite you to listen and see if there are any you can still recognize after their vocalizations have been transformed through my listening and rendered into my own musical language.

I’ll mention a few technical details. You might know that there are three possible transpositions of the octatonic/diminished scale. The piece mostly sits mostly in the transposition that includes C and C#, but it maintains a sense of variety by occasionally allowing one line, and sometimes both lines to step into another transposition, or just to borrow a few outlying notes. The opening and closing passages do this in particular. I’ve mentioned that the lag between voices is very short – it’s usually an eight note or a sixteenth note – but there are exceptions – the longest lag in the piece is three quarters plus a sixteenth. When the lag is only a sixteenth note and the tempo is brisk, the voices can begin to seem like they’ve fused together, turning into one single voice with a chorus effect, but because they’re moving in contrary motion, the fusion can never be complete. I’ve sometimes asked myself whether these canons represent the complex vocalizations of one bird, or two birds singing in a duet, and I go back and forth on this question, feeling that some passages are more like a duet and others are more like an intricate utterance from a single source.

If you’ve been following my canons, you know that they’re all named after gemstones, minerals, and metals — like Amethyst, Fluorite, and Platinum — with so far only one exception. One of my canons — Track 24 in my harpsichord album — is titled “Shchedryk” because it’s based on the Ukranian theme with that name. And if you’re really following the details of my music releases, you know that Track 24 in my harpsichord album is not actually the 24th canon I wrote. It’s probably my first canon and it doesn’t have a sequence number (it first appeared in my Christmas album before I had started writing canons in earnest). Well, as you can see, Canon #91 is only the second exception I’m making to my gems-and-minerals naming policy. I couldn’t call this piece anything other than “Birdsong” because, quite simply, that’s what it’s all about. Will there be a sequel? One thing I didn’t attempt to capture in Canon 91 are the non-pitched mechanical sounds that birds produce — a bird can sound like a percussion instrument, you know — so maybe that’ll come next.

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