Last night Richard and I went to an extraordinary concert at the Roundhouse put on by Music on Main (MoM). The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams' Ten Thousand Birds is a work for chamber orchestra. As its title suggests, it is based on the sounds of birdsong. However, rather than stage the work in a traditional proscenium setting, MoM Artist-in-Residence Vicky Chow and her all-star ensemble put together a roving musical installation. That is, the Roundhouse's main presentation hall was stripped of its seats, and apart from a few fixed stations for piano and percussion, the rest of the musicians move with their instruments around the space. Likewise, we are invited to do the same, experiencing what MoM Artistic Director suggests in his program note is the equivalent of "an enchanting forest walk."
It was indeed a magical experience, as much for the opportunity to be so up close to the musicians as for the richly ambient saturation of the sound. On the former front, I can only marvel at the poise and sangfroid of the artists, as they were not only negotiating our unpredictable locomotive pathways, but also our sometimes intensely proximate and scrutinizing gaze (on the way in, running into Nancy Tam, who was playing the melodica, I couldn't help myself from waving hello). Then, too, the environmental distribution of the sound meant that it was possible for one to close one's eyes (as I saw many patrons in fact do) and follow the acoustic direction of the various instruments as they came in and out--except that navigating the intersecting trajectories of other audience members would have been a bit dangerous.
I'm gathering that as music director of the piece, Chow reset Adams' score to allow for improvisation among her ensemble members. No one was using sheet music, but they did all have timers that they'd consult at various moments that no doubt cued them as to when it was their turn to come in or to fade out. But judging from the call and response between the various instruments/musicians, this framework seemed flexible. I was especially taken by the interplay between Alexander Cannon on trumpet and Jeremy Berkman on trombone: both with each other, and with the other ensemble members. Their variously short and sharp or elongated honks and beeps and toots suggested everything from an airborne gaggle of geese to a waddling group of ducks to a tree full of crows having an animated argument. The more whistling notes of Liesa Norman on flute, Terri Hron on recorder, and Tam and Nicole Linkasita on melodica conjured robins and bluebirds and other smaller avian beings. When the wind instruments were combined with strings (Newsha Khalaj on viola, Mark Haney on bass, and Nicole Li on the delightfully resonant erhu) and/or percussion (Katie Rife and Julia Chien, playing a variety of instruments), multiple symphonies burst forth in a manner of seconds, and then just as quickly disappeared--as with the birds outside our bedroom windows who both awaken us and put us to sleep.
One especially memorable sequence occurred near the end when Rife, playing the marimba in the centre of the Roundhouse space, was riffing in response to all the other calls from the other instruments swirling around her. Special mention also needs to be made of the moving duet between Chow at the piano and Liam Hockley on clarinet, their slightly more mournful tones suggestive of what it might mean if the daily toll of our birds' sounds were to stop.
If and when that ever happens, we're in real trouble, and the fact that last night's concert was presented in conjunction with the Vancouver International Bird Festival (!) and the 27th International Ornithological Congress is a reminder that, aesthetic representations aside, the music birds make is something we should all be deeply invested in maintaining.