Discovering new intersections between music, science and the natural world is a quest that began with the Renaissance, and it is one that continues to drive the creative mind. For violinist Simone Slattery and cellist Anthony Albrecht, it began by reading the award-winning book Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds And How They Changed The World, by biologist Tim Low, and exploring how many of its ideas have direct implications on human language and music.
Low’s book tells how all the world’s first songbirds in fact originated in Australia, and that this includes European songbirds such as larks and nightingales that have tended to persist over the centuries as a stereotype in classical music. Australian birds, as we know, can be a raucous lot; so it behoves musicians in this country to respond to that and be prepared to change our notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘musical’ accordingly.
This is what drove Slattery and Albrecht to begin devising a multi-dimensional concert that embraces these ideas. Called Where Song Began after Low, it draws together spoken passages from his book, illustrations, photographs and video footage, along with actual recordings of birdsong.
Albrecht explains: “These elements seamlessly integrate and flow with the music, which spans 300 years from Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and J.S. Bach to Arvo Pärt, new Australian works and improvisations, which we start and finish organically as the film progresses.” The result is an immersive experience that is “simply not possible in conventional classical music presentations.”
The Australian works they perform in the concert include Chris William’s Birds, songs, seas (2017) and David Lang’s new, rhythmically pungent Anthochaera carunculata (Red Wattlebird), which Slattery says is “unexpected and entirely fantastic” and “something of a highlight in the show”.
The duo has come to form a close understanding of the relationship between birdsong and music through evolving their project, comments Slattery: “On a basic level, a lot of birdsong can be seen as a precursor to Western music, with similar rhythmic patterns, tonal structures, tempo and dynamic fluctuations et cetera.”
“But there is so much more to it than that. These creatures, capable of extraordinary vocal feats, use ‘song’ to attract mates, to defend territories, to sound alarms, to signal to their mates and their young, and… with evidence of opioid release linked to the act of singing, perhaps even for the pure joy of it!”
“One of the elements I’ve most loved contemplating throughout this creative process is the idea that songbirds have had a direct influence on human development of speech and song – that these extraordinary songsters have shaped what the human race consider to be ‘beautiful’ and ‘musical’ sounds. I think the more we delve into this multifaceted and ever evolving project, the more we realise just how interconnected the various elements are: birdsong and music, nature and art, history and place, art and science.”
Another unusual feature of Where Song Began is that the two performers offer a question-and-answer session at the end so that audience members can ask more about what they have seen and heard. They believe this is a way of deepening the connections people make, and of sharing experiences. “We were thrilled when someone commented after a performance that via this immersion in different mediums they felt like that had been sung to by the country,” says Albrecht.
Where Song Began premiered in Melbourne and to date has toured in the UK, New York, and country NSW, Victoria and SA. A regional tour in WA is being planned in September, and to follow that an education project in Vanuatu and further performances in London. Find all the details here and on the Australian Cultural Fund website.