Away with the Birds

Two years ago, we looked at Away With the Birds/ Air falbh leis na h-eòin, a composition & performance project by Hanna Tuulikki. This week, while we're on the subject of birds, I'd to return to this powerful and unusual piece. Tuulikki, of English and Finnish heritage, studied environmental art at The Glasgow School of Art and is now based in Edinburgh, where she creates interdisciplinary works deeply rooted in myth, folk history, and the natural world.

In an interview by Sharon Blackie, Tuulikki explains:

"Away With the Birds/ Air falbh leis na h-eòin is a multi-artform project exploring the mimesis of birds in Scottish Gaelic song poetry, and at its heart is a vocal composition written for a ten-person female vocal ensemble. The score reinterprets archive recordings, texts, and living traditions, weaving together fragments of songs and poems that are imitative of birdsong into a textural tapestry of sound. Over five movements, the music journeys through communities of waders, seabirds, wildfowl and corvids, evoking sea, shoreline, cliffs, moor and woodland habitats. Within the composition, there is never a soloist -- rather, each vocal part contributes to the whole. The ensemble sing the sea, the winds, and the motion of birds -- wading on the shoreline, swooping before cliffs, and beating skeins, calling to mind the ecotones were species meet. 

"Two years ago, on the Isle of Canna, in the Hebrides, we performed the composition within the harbour -- along the shoreline, in the water, and on a skein-shaped platform -- with speakers set up, to amplify and drift the voices across the water to the audience, mingling and interacting with the sounds of the island. As the music ebbed and flowed, my intention was to create a space for listening and for becoming present, for tuning into a sonic continuum that reaches into the 'more-than-human' world.

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

"The idea for the work emerged from my interest in music from around the world, and noticing that in cultures where people have intimate connection with the land, they are also good mimics of the sounds around them -- their music seems to grow directly out of the sounds of the environment....

"Ethnomusicologist Ted Levin describes this tradition as 'sound mimesis' -- the use of sound to represent and interact with the natural environment and the living creatures that inhabit it, and more broadly the exploration of 'representational and narrative dimensions of sound-making.' He describes a spectrum of sound mimesis ranging from 'sound' to 'song,' from iconic imitation to stylized evocation, and symbolic metaphor or representation. It's my belief that our music, and perhaps even our language, have their origins in 'sound mimesis,' evolving from our listening to the sounds of the animate landscape. And so I began to seek out a musical tradition like this, closer to home.

"I decided to focus particularly on birds because of my childhood interest in them, but mostly because I am deeply affected by their sounds! The complex musical patterns of songbirds never fail to impress, the haunting calls of the waders across the water move me, and the chattering vocalizations of certain seabirds make me laugh! I listen in awe at this more-than-human music."

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

"When I began to investigate traditions in the English-speaking world, I found only two songs imitative of actual bird sounds -- 'The Cuckoo' and 'The Blackbird,' which are actually of Irish and Manx origin. There are plenty of songs about birds -- for example, 'The Birds in the Spring' or 'Polly Vaughn' -- but it appears that the only symbolic and representational aspect of mimesis remains here.

"As my search continued, I discovered a wellspring of Scottish Gaelic tradition, preserved mainly in the Western Isles, which seems to reach deeper into mimesis, perhaps because people's intimacy with the land was maintained for longer. The songs and poem imitate the sounds and evoke the movements of various species of birds -- mainly waterbirds -- which is indicative of the Western Isles landscape. There are songs of seabirds that nest on cliffs -- kittiwakes, guillemots, Manx shearwaters, Leach's storm petrels; waders such as oystercatchers and redshanks; wildfowl such as whooper swans and geese; and poems of corvids and cuckoo. The bird-sounds ghost through the melody of the songs, expressed in the words, vocables (non-lexical sounds) and rhythms and, collected together, reveal a spectrum of mimesis: some are directly imitative and others are more stylized. I think Gaelic lends itself to the mimesis of birds, because I believe the language has evolved through a close relationship with the land and its community of sounds.

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Bird

"As well as imitating the birds, the songs carry symbolic and cultural meaning. One thing that I love about them, and it came as a surprise to me when I realized it, is that they are nearly all matrilineal -- either sung by women, from a woman's perspective, or about women. From work to leisure, birth to death, the songs have a social function rooted in women's activities and domains -- songs about the men out hunting the seabirds on the cliffs, and waulking songs about love; to magico-religious songs such as those about the redshank, a keening song to sing the departed safely over to the spirit world, and the oystercatcher, who does St. Bride's work of caring for children. As much as this project is about birds, and ancient traditional culture, it is also about women and, in the same way that Gaelic culture preserved sound mimesis, I often wonder about the significance of how women's songs appear to have also preserved those older traditions.

"These two aspects, the ecological mimesis and the matrilineal, became the conceptual and compositional framework for the piece, from the macro to the micro, from the wider shape of the project, to minute details. It is no coincidence that the piece is called Away With the Birds, with its double meaning! Contained within this musical portrait of the inter-relationship between bird and human is the recognition of a lineage 'outside' the written word, that stretches back to early hunter-gatherer cultures, for whom bird-calls and animal cries had magico-religious symbolism -- like the slay-toed fowlers who scaled the cliffs of St. Kilda, and the women who bore the song-poems."

Away With the Birds

Hannah Tuulikki

To learn more about Away With the Birds, visit the project's website and Tumblr journal. (The photos in this post are from the latter.) To follow Tuulikki's current projects, visit the artist's website.

To read Sharon Blackie's interview with Tuulikki in full, seek out the March 2017 issue of EarthLines Magazine. The magazine has stopped publication, but backlist issues are still available and I highly recommend them.

Videos above: "Away With the Birds, a taster" (2013), and "Red Bird Red Bird," another exploration of birdsong by Hannah Tuulikki (2014).

Words & pictures above: The quoted text is from "Voice and Gesture: Sharon Blackie Talks to Hannah Tuulikki" (Earthlines Magazine, Issue 17, March 20170); all rights reserved by Blackie & Tuulikki. The photographs are from the Away With the Birds Tumblr page; all rights reserved by Tuulikki.

Related posts: When Stories Take Flight (myths & folklore of birds) and The Speech of Animals.


Little gods of the field

The Haywain by Constable

In her essay "Crex-Crex," Scottish poet & essayist Kathleen Jamie reflects on a print of Constable's The Haywain hanging in her B&B on the island of Coll. When Constable packed up his easel after finishing the painting, she imagines:

"what he would have heard as he walked home through the fields  -- indeed, what we could hear if we could step into his painting -- would be the call of the corncrake. A corncrake is a brown bird, a kind of rail, not ten inches tall, which prefers to remain unseen in tall damp grass. It's call -- you'd hardly call it a song -- is two joined notes, like a rasping telephone. Crex Crex is the bird's Latin name, a perfect piece of onomatopoeia. Crex-crex, it goes, crex-crex.

"Perhaps, as he strolled home, Constable had a bit of fun trying to pinpoint the sound in the long grass. Perhaps he thought nothing of it, the corncrake being such a commonplace. 'Heard in every vale,' as John Clare said in his poem. The vales of Northamptonshire, the New Town of Edinburgh, in Robert Burn's Ayrshire, it was recorded in every county in the land from Cornwall to Shetland. In the last century, though, it has been utterly eliminated from the mainland, and if you'd like to hear or even see this skulking little bird of the meadow, you must set sail to the Hebrides."

Corncrake hidden in the meadow grasse

Ballyhaugh Coastline  Island of Coll; photograph by Allan McKechnie

Jamie does precisely this, traveling to Coll in the Inner Hebrides -- where she is met by Sarah Money, warden of the RSPB reserve on the island. One night, Money takes her to a distant field, which the two women quietly enter by torchlight:

"Hear them?" she whispers, and I nod.

What does is sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile. Crex-crex, crex-crex. We move forward a few paces at a time...it's almost impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. It's obviously on the ground -- you'd swear it was right under your feet, but it seems to jump and flit ahead. We walk on carefully, speaking in whispers until we've crossed the whole field, but the sound heard so clearly from the gate is still, somehow, ahead of us.

"It's unchancy. Fairy music is said to do this; to lead a man on in his confusion and drunkeness, to start, then stop, then begin again from another place, ever luring him on. This was not a beautiful music, it has to be said; hardly the art of the fairies. Mind you, it could be a goblin carpenter, sawing away at his little workbench, if you've had too many at the island disco and were of a fanciful mind."

Corncrake on the Isle of Coll

Explaining the corncrakes' demise, Jamie writes:

"The grim reaper came for the corncrake in the form of the mechanized mower. In the days of the scythe, when hay was long and cut later in the year, then heaped on slow-moving wains, the corncrake had long grasses to hide and breed in. The chicks would be fledged before the meadow was mown, and had plenty of time to escape the swinging blade. With mechanization, however, and a shift toward earlier cutting for silage, corncrakes, eggs, fledglings, and all have been slaughtered wholesale.

"The corncrake has long been in relationship with humans, its fortunes have waxed and waned as our own farm practices changed. When prehistoric people cleared woodland and developed agriculture, the bird's range extended: corncrake bones have been discovered in Stone Age middens. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton gives a recipe for roasted corncrake. You need four, and should serve them, if liked, with a nice bread sauce. But since Clare's 'mowers on the meadow lea' were likewise banished before the machine, the corncrakes' range has been reduced to a few boggy meadows on the islands. They are the same islands, ironically, whose human populations suffered such decline as ideas on farming changed. But old mowing practices lingered longer in the Hebrides, the fields being too small for machines, so this is where the bird is making it's last stand, and where conservation efforts are taking effect."

Corncrakes in the grass  RSPB photograph

The Isle of Coll

Jamie is determined to see, not merely hear, her bird, so she plants herself on an RSBP "corncrake viewing bench," with a view of two lush meadows, and waits.

"Corncrakes don't feature on Christmas cards, or sing after the rain. Their migration has none of the romance of swallows', though they cover the same distance. They arrive in spring, but we've forgotten that they are spring's heralds. They skulk in the grass like guilty things, hardly encouraging us to look to the skies. They offer us no metaphors about fidelity, or maternal dedication; they are just medium-sized brown birds. Nonetheless, I feel robbed -- denied one of the sounds of summer, which all our forebears would have known, that irksome little crex-crex. Why conserve them, other than it being our moral duty to another life form on this earth? If there is no 'clam'rin craik,' no 'noisy one of the rushes,' it betokens something out of kilter with the larger ecosystem on which ultimately, in as-yet-undiscovered ways, we all depend.

"That's what the ecologists and scientists will tell you. But there are things which cannot be said -- not by scientists, anyway. Another person arrives at the viewing bench...a man in young middle age, a holiday maker. We fall into conversation -- he obviously knows his stuff about birds. He has a young family with him on the island and, while they're on the beach, he has slunk off for an hour in the hope of spotting a corncrake. So here he is, an Englishman of higher education with a professional job, a family, a cagoule and good binoculars.

" 'Can I ask you why you like them? Corncrakes, I mean.'

" 'Well,' he said. 'They're like...little gods of the field, aren't they?'

"I could have punched the air. If corncrakes are rare, animism is rarer still. Anyone can clear his throat and talk about biodiversity, but 'Corncrakes...little gods of the field' will not get you published in ornithologists' journals. That's how I picture them now, however: standing chins up, open-beaked, like votive statues in the grass....

"There is talk of reintroducing corncrakes to England, so it might again crex through Constable's Dedham Vale. Till then the mainland's a diminished place; a thousand miles of country without one little god in the field."

Essays by Kathleen Jamie

Last photograph: Tilly snoozing on her fleece on the studio sofa, with Sightlines and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books/Peguin, 2012 & 2005). Both essay collections are highly recommended. The passages above are from Jamie's corncrake essay "Crex-Crex," from Findings. All rights reserved by the author.


Wild communion

Charlotte by Laurence Winram

In a post last week, I recommended Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt -- a fascinating book about Mozart's bird companion (Star), the writer's own pet starling (Carmen), and reflections on this common bird, widely detested in North America for being nonnative and invasive. Today, I'd like to quote a beautiful passage from the latter chapters of the text looking at the nature of our wild relationships with the more-than-human world, a subject that often comes up in our discussions in the Mythic Arts field.

Haupt writes:

"When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw in its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But looking back at the trail that I have wandered with these kindred birds -- one in history and one in my home -- I see also that, as both humans and animals so often are, I have been tricked by my attraction to the shiny little object. For in the end, it is not the exceptionality of this story that is the true wonder. It is its ordinariness.

"In the creatures that intertwine with our lives, those we see daily and those that watch us from urban and wild places -- from between branches and beneath leaves and under eaves and stairwells and culverts and the sides of walks and pathways -- we share everything. We share breath, and biology, and blood. She share our needs for food and water and shelter. We share the imperative to mate and to give new life and to keep our young safe and warm and fed. We share susceptibility to disease and the potential to suffer and an inevitable frailty in the face of these things. We share a certain death. We share everything, constantly, every moment of the day and night, across eons. And in this shared earthly living, when we give our attention to it, we find the basis of our compassion, and our empathy for other creatures....

Each creature has its particular ways and wiles. Each being has its own presence, voice, silence, song, body, place. We are bound by our sameness and uniqueness in equal measure -- both spring from our shared being on a vital, conscious earth. This is wild communion. And it is in this recognition that we move beyond simple compassion to a more certain, more essential sense of relatedness, of kinship.

Mihaela 1 by Laurence Winram

"Mozart felt this, I know. Like me, he was drawn at first to the shiny thing -- in his case it was Star's singing back to him the song he himself had written. But in his elegy poem [written upon Star's death] we see that a different relationship evolved. The bird's mimicry is not once mentioned. This is a poem to a kindred creature whose presence brought play, sound, song, joy, and friendliness to the maestro's life. And in the work that Star inspired, this is what we see too. A shared sense of mischief, music, and delight. The word kinship comes from the Old English -- of the same kind, and therefore related. Kindly and kindness also grow from this root -- the bearing toward others that kinship inspires.

Nikita II by Laurence Winram

"I have always thought of all creatures -- all organisms really -- as relations. Whether wandering alone in deep wilderness or just leaning against a tree growing beside an urban sidewalk, I have no difficulty feeling, as if in a dreamtime, the roots of our relatedness -- ecologically, yes, but also with an overlay of the sacred, the holy. Starlings, though pretty, were a rift in this vision. They fluttered outside this wholeness. But my thinking has evolved. Ecologically, it is true -- starlings do not belong in this country, this city; but relationally, it is not true. We live together in a tangled complexity. I listen to the starlings mimic back to me my own profound ecological shortcomings. Carmen is a creature with a body, voice, and consciousness in the world. In this, we are sisters. And all these unwelcome starlings on the grassy parking strip? Yes, they are my relations too.

Charlotte 1 by Laurence Winram

"The Cartesian belief in the absolute separateness of lives, bodies, and brains maintains a foothold in the traditions of our modern culture. We see it in the ways we are pitted against one another in commerce, in education, and in the small, daily jealousies of our own minds. We see it in the ways that we continue to find it culturally acceptable to diminish animals in agriculture, in entertainment, and in scientific experimentation. And yes, when we are attentive, we find that we are not separate, not alone. We are not isolated little minds wandering on a large, indifferent earth. We are surrounded by our kin, by all of life, beings with whom we are wayfarers together. Instead of walking upon, we walk within, and this within-ness brings our imaginations to life. We are inspired -- literally "breathed upon" -- together.

"Our creativity and our connection to other beings is tangled in a beautiful etymology. The words creative and creature spring from the same Latin root, creare, "to produce, to grow, to bring into existence." It was Ged, Ursula Le Guin's beloved young wizard of Earthsea, who learned after the fall of his individual pride that the wise person is "one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the slow gestures of trees." Through such understanding we arrive at a new wholeness. We become more receptive and free in body and imagination, and our unique potential for creative magnificence is enlivened. We become the listening artists of our own lives and culture."

Yes, indeed.

Fiona I by Laurence Winram

The art today is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram, whose work appears on Karine Polwart's Wind Resistance album (recommended last week). The imagery here is from his Shadow, Conemen, and Mythologos series. Visit Winram's website and blog to see more.

Coneman III by Laurence Winram

"The ancient Greeks made sense of their world not only by logic but by myth too," says the artist. "They saw it was necessary to view things in these opposite ways in order to have a balanced understanding of their lives. I feel we have moved out of that balance, unconsciously letting go of that mythic element to our lives. As a result we've lost touch with our own personal vision and creativity. We let a dogmatic scientific perspective rule everything, from our dreams to our notions of the spiritual.

"I try to reflect on this, creating images that sometimes imagine a world where logic has been sidelined by the mythic, or images that mock our need to analyse and break down those parts of our life that we should truly respond to more intuitively."

Hazel Flew by Laurence Winram

Otto's Flight II by Laurence Winram

The passages above is from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Thanks again to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me; and to Steve Toase for recommending Laurence Winram's work. All rights to the photogaphy above reserved by the artist.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Starling murmuration

Today, music for the birds....

Above: "Seven Hundred Birds" by Monika Gromek's band Quickbeam, from Glasgow, Scotland. The atmospheric video was filmed in the hills of Cumbria. 

Below: "Starlings" by Welsh composer and guitarist Toby Hay. The song first appeared on his Birds EP -- five songs inspired by starlings, ravens, curlews,  and red kites. It can also be found on his fine album The Gathering, which came out last year.

Above: "Song Long Forgotten" by Ye Vagabonds (Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn), from Dublin, Ireland. It comes from the brothers' excellent first album, released last year.

Below: "Hour of the Blackbird" performed by Ninebarrow (Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere), from Dorset, England, accompanied by Lee Cuff (from Kadia) on cello. I recommend both Ninebarrow albums, Releasing the Leaves and While the Blackthorn Burns.

Blackbirds

Above: "Song of the Jay" by Edgelarks (Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin), from here in Devon. "The Californian bush jay," they explain, "has been observed by scientists to give 'funerals' for other birds -- gathering, and giving a special call, known as a 'scold' -- regardless of species."

Below: "Echo Mocks the Corncrake" (audio only) by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart. The song was written for the Songs of Separation project (discussed in a previous post here), in which 10 English & Scottish women folk musicians gathered on the Isle of Eigg to create an album reflecting on "separation" in its many forms. Eigg, in the Scottish Hebrides, is one of the few remaining strongholds for corncrakes in the UK.

Corncrake (photograph by Nick Truby)

Above: "The Wren and the Salt Air" by Scottish singer/songwriter Jenny Sturgeon, inspired by the wildlife and human history of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. (St. Kilda was discussed in a previous post here.) Sturgeon's new work-in-progress is Northern Flyaway with Inge Thomson (from the Shetland Isles): a musical exploration of birdsong, ecology, folklore, and themes of migration. Visit the Northern Flyaway Facebook page to learn more about the project, and to watch it evolve.

Below: Two accomplished young English musicians team up to perform "Wings," written by Brian Bedford. Jackie Oates is a folksinger and fiddle/viola player from Staffordshire; her latest album is The Spyglass and the Herringbone. Megan Henwood is a singer/songwriter from Oxfordshire; her new album is River. Oates and Henwood are accompanied here by video clips of starling murmurations and Pete Thomas on double bass.

To end with: "Hægt, kemur ljósið (Slowly, comes the light)"  by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. The beautiful black-and-white animation is by Esteban Diácono, based in Buenos Aires. 

Detail from a sculpture by Susan Hannon

Images above: A starling murmuration, blackbirds in a hedge, a Hebredian corncrake, and a detail from a paper sculpture by Susan Hannon.