“songbirdsongs” is a composition by John Luther Adams, developed during the mid- and late 1970s and first recorded in 1982. It takes bird songs and other environmental sounds and works them into a profound musical statement without taking them too far away from how they sound in nature.
Adams’ love of nature informs the majority of his works, as you can tell from titles such as “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” “How the Sun Came to the Forest” and “Earth and the Great Weather.” The composer grew up in Alaska.
On Sunday afternoon, “songbirdsongs” was adapted as a one-time-only event staged on a specific patch of garden in New Haven’s Science Hill neighborhood as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The project was largely homegrown. The ensemble Le Train Bleu was led by Ransom Wilson, an internationally renowned flute player who’s taught at Yale for decades. Other members of the 11-person ensemble are students at, or recent graduates of, the Yale School of Music.
Le Train Bleu had given “songbirdsongs” its New York City premiere performance just a year and a half ago. For that show, the ensemble was spread out throughout a large concert hall, with images of nature projected around them.
In New Haven, however, Le Train Bleu played directly with nature. Instruments ranging from vibraphones to drums, chimes and a gong were spread out yards apart from each other in the bucolic Marsh Botanical Garden, the Yale-run plant-research facility that beautifies a block of Science Hill between Mansfield and Prospect streets near Hillside Street.
John Luther Adam’s piece is anchored by birdcalls, replicated on flutes and whistles. In the garden, real birds answered back. Audience members were allowed to sit or spread out on the grass wherever they wished, as long as they weren’t too close to the musical instruments. The festival sold both “seated” and “roaming” tickets to the event. If you lay on the ground, you could hear the music, but also the wind rustling through the grasses and the buzzing of insects.
“songbirdsongs” is neatly composed so that it doesn’t build in some obvious orchestral manner, or end in some big crescendo. It’s ambient for a while, then its elements start to break apart slightly so they can be appreciated as parts (movements) of a whole. There’s a bit where a bunch of people work out on vibes, and another where there’s loud crisp drumming. But sometimes there’s just a random tweet, or the subtle brush of a cymbal they draws your attention. A kettle drum solo is following by a calming bout of windchimes.
“songbirdsongs” ends not with a bang but a twittering sound, as the ensemble, which has been scattered for the entire performance, starts drawing together for a beautifully understated bird-whistle finale.
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas has since its inception in the mid-1990s exploited the great outdoor spaces of New Haven for classical music concerts. At some of the earliest A&I festivals, there were outdoor concerts by Chinese Opera vocalists and jazz musicians in the courtyards of the Yale Law School and the Yale Hall of Graduate Studies. Those courtyard concerts became more formalized over the years, and included everyone from the Preservation Hall Jazz Orchestra to Terence Blanchard. Generally it was an act doing its usual set, just in a calming courtyard environment.
Arts & Ideas’ Courtyard Concert Series went on hiatus last year following a festival where every one of the concerts had to be cancelled or moved indoors due to rain. There’s a long history of weather-afflicted A&I shows, whether on the Green or in the courtyards. This year, so far, every big show on the Green has gone off without a hitch. One of the “Noon to Night” local-band shows, on Tuesday the 18th, got rained on, but happened anyway, with supporters sporting umbrellas.
In any case, in more recent years, under the artistic directorship of Mary Lou Aleskie, Arts & Ideas has become more interested in site-specific concerts which blend established works and accomplished artists with environments and themes which resonate deeply with New Haven residents. Beside “songbirdsongs,” other examples this year include the staging of the performance piece The Quiet Volume in the reading room of Yale’s Beinecke Library, and the booking of a locally developed, New Haven history-rooted theater piece, Freewheelers, for which A Broken Umbrella Theater Company has extensively renovated the back end of the old Horowitz Brothers department store near the corner of State and Chapel. The ante has been upped—shows are no longer about simply putting artists on outdoor spaces, but about loading up as many cultural connections as possible.
With all of this year’s other classical and jazz concerts (from Christian McBride’s combo, last Thursday, to two choral groups this week) planned all along to be held indoors, “songbirdsongs” was the only concert with an admission price that was at risk regarding the elements.
What concertgoers got was a resplendent evening in one of the most beautiful gardens in the city. The sun had been hotter earlier in the day, but by the time “songbirdsongs” started tweeting after 5 p.m., the warmth was just right, and there were even breezes. Audience members ranged from local celebrities to music professors to wealthy patrons to just plain folks. It was a modern-day park social, with people wearing straw hats and parasols and relaxing on the grass while listening to a non-melodic modern music played in an arrangement so spread apart that no one person could have heard every note. Birds and bugs were in on the excitement, and among the human sounds emitted were gasps of delight and the laughter of children.
In New Haven, bastion of class and ethnic and cultural diversity, a city bordered by hills and parks and rivers and oceans, “songbirdsongs” just felt natural.
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas continues through June 29.