ANAM: Ten Thousand Birds

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Published: 7th June, 2019

When celebrated pedagogue Mauricio Fuks took three gifted violinists through their paces in an inspiring, master class at the Australian National Academy of Music last week, amongst the many pieces of valuable advice was one that he kept insisting on: “Take a risk”. And that is just what a performance of John Luther Adams’ 2014 composition Ten Thousand Birds involved.

It seemed that Melbourne music lovers were up for a challenge too; South Melbourne Town Hall was arranged to accommodate more than its normal quota of audience members with a couple of rows of traditional seating on three sides, 30 beanbags arranged in three clusters and plenty of standing and lying room. Reserved seating was available for the elderly and disabled. It was reminiscent of those Proms-style concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and John Hopkins, where blankets and cushions were spread on the floor and we could gaze up at the ceiling of the Melbourne Town Hall while listening to some of the more cutting-edge composers of the time.

It is difficult to see Ten Thousand Birds as innovative as some of the music Hopkins brought to Melbourne audiences – Peter Maxwell Davies, Lutoslawsi and, most pertinently, the twentieth century composer most passionately attuned to birdsong, Olivier Messiaen, being among their number. Australian composer Keith Humble re-discovered Percy Grainger’s “Free Music”, which predated the aleatoric or “chance” music of Cage and Stockhausen familiar to more adventurous Melbourne music lovers; so for many in an audience that spanned a heartening mix generations, this was a performance that conjured up the past rather than presenting something new. Nevertheless, further exploration of early avant-garde musical and performance concepts always has something to offer even the most seasoned concertgoer.

Adams lived in northern Alaska for almost 40 years and worked full time as an environmental activist during the 1970s and into the ’80s. His compositions are timely in that they reflect his deep concern for the state of the earth and the future of humanity. The one-hour duration of Ten Thousand Birds is divided into six parts: Morning, Midday, Afternoon, Evening, Night and Morning. Within that framework (enhanced by appropriate lighting) Adams employs 17 musicians to recreate the song of 20 birds and a range of additional sounds including frogs, wing whistles, gusts, calls and winds.

A blackout and the faint sounds of wind gusts signalled the beginning and end of the performance. Musicians were placed around the hall with piano/celeste, percussion, a central pair of marimbas and assorted music stands remaining stationary while wind, string and brass players were free to wander around as they saw fit apart from some precisely choreographed moments. At one point a string quartet sat at one end of the hall to play the calls of the veery in a most beautiful arrangement of dislocated rhythms. All of the birdcalls were fully notated by Adams, but it was up to the musicians to decide exactly when they would be played. There were rough guidelines that specified that there should be moments when all parts would play and others when solitary instruments should be heard.

In the talk and question time that followed interval, ANAM alumnus Tim Munro, now a Chicago-based flutist, writer, broadcaster and teacher, spoke about his relationship with Adams and his work. In response to one question, he said that Adams would have preferred to use Australian birds for a performance of his composition in Australia rather than the North American birds notated for this performance. While an Australian audience had no trouble discerning the woodpecker, dove, owls and frogs, various types of sparrows, chickadees and the wonderful veery were more of a challenge. Would having local birds have added to this immersive experience? Perhaps. On the other hand it could have led to an overly literal distraction of “spot-the-bird”. For my money, it didn’t matter what birds were represented by the horn and trumpet calling to each other across the hall; the birds’ musical essence was the arresting feature.

The audience had been invited to walk around the hall to experience the bird calls in different ways, but very few took up the offer. There was one lady who managed to go out for a glass of red wine, however, and thread her way through the maze of bodies without spilling a drop – slightly bizarre but somehow in keeping with the event. When Tim Munro asked for a show of hands as to whether audience members would have felt more willing to move around for a second performance once they had known what was involved, quite a few hands went up. The three musicians who joined Munro for the talk gave interesting information regarding their musical choices and responses to Adams’ concepts with its emphasis on focussed listening and creative response.

There was no doubt that this was an important part of the educational experiences that ANAM provides for its young musicians. Mauricio Fuks said that he had wanted to come to ANAM for some time, but what he found had exceeded his expectations. What had impressed him most were three qualities: the talent of the students, the atmosphere and the collegiality. He would also have been impressed with their willingness to take a risk in this performance.

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Heather Leviston attended the Australian National Academy of Music’s performance of “Ten Thousand Birds” given at South Melbourne Town Hall on June 4, 2019.