Singer Samples Nature For a Cutting-edge Sound
Birdsong is artist and activist Marie-Juliette’s palette.
Rumor has it that Beethoven's Fifth came from the tune of a white-throated sparrow. If that's true, he wouldn't be the first, or the last, to channel birdsong through music. Artist Marie-Juliette Bird has made birds her muse as well. But she's not just drawing inspiration from them: She's also collaborating with them. With their help she's painting a bleak picture of the future on Earth -- doomed by natural disasters and extinction.
Bird's new album The Water is Rising stemmed from two unconventional ideas. First, Bird harbors the theory that human harmonies are derived from birdsong. She's heard simple melodies come out of the beaks of many songbirds. "It makes sense to me that early civilizations mimicked these," she explains.
Second, the artist had the idea to turn bird sounds into samples after getting restless with dabbling in standard genres of music, such as classical and rock. She stopped taking her cues from the rock gods and turned to nature instead.
So she began to listen. Anytime she heard something beautiful in nature she recorded it with the help of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. She then notated the sounds and looped them into her songs.
Making the transition between the field and the studio was difficult, especially when it came to harmonizing. By recalling her musical training, Bird overcame the challenge. For one, she recognized that birdsongs have microtones that fit into Western scales, making them largely compatible with standard melodies. Juxtaposing bird and human voices also presented a new philosophy, she says, that set a metaphor for the coexistence of organisms: In order for a harmony to work, no one species can be allowed to dominate.
The first single from The Water Is Rising is "Black Crow," an apocalyptic track that casts the crow as a harbinger of bad news. Though the crow's guttural call lacks melody, Bird says that it's the perfect vehicle for rhythm. "Broken Wings" on the other hand, employs a wider variety of field recordings: wind, thunder, crickets, wings. Bird came up with the song after observing a pair of red-winged blackbirds. They gave her insight on her own romantic relationships, she says. "It was an amazing moment where art and life met. The natural world became a mirror of my world."
Though avian art is the main focus of her album, both technically and metaphorically, Bird's lyrics can be adapted to a range of environmental issues. "They have a shadow of plaintiveness and an undercurrent of urgency," says Bird. As a resident of Boulder, Colorado, she has seen first-hand how destructive nature can be. She chose the title The Water Is Rising to communicate her fears about the mounting effects of climate change, a fear that swelled when Boulder was hit by a wall of water in 2013.
"Birds are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to seeing how climate change is affecting our world," says Bird. She feels that it's her responsibility to preserve birds through music. While living in London she received support from the Royal Society of the Protection Birds, and is now working with Denver Audubon to launch a concert series in August. In the future, she wants to thread birdsong into orchestral arrangements and children's voices.
Bird admits that her project has grown to ambitious proportions: she wants to collect every birdsong in Europe and North America. But that won't deter her from pursuing the song that started it all -- with one foot in the studio, and the other out in the wilderness.