Don't feed the birds


So far, everyday sounds as field recordings and isolated samples have been used as direct sound materials. In the main work Landscape with figures II, spectral analysis of tam-tam sounds were used as musical materials, while I found methods of scaling and distortion through trajectory curves, with work on tuning systems, suffient in most cases. Translations from everyday sounds to musical materials could have been more present in the final work, even though such structural connections are more below the surface level than the actual sounds used. For this reason, I will present examples from the work Don't feed the birds, which was composed in parallel with the main concluding work, using methods developed as part of the project.


Don’t feed the birds was commissioned by Sjøforsvarets Musikkorps, Bergen, and written for:


  • High Soprano with percussion instruments
  • Violin
  • Piccolo/Flute
  • Oboe   
  • Clarinet in Bb
  • Bassoon
  • Horn in F
  • Trumpet in C
  • Tenor Trombone             
  • Tuba
  • Percussion
  • Live electronics


Spatial distributions of the ensemble were planned for specific locations. The church Korskirken in Bergen has been explored by ensemble Lemur[1] through a site specific improvisation, and I initially planned the piece for this church. Some sections of the piece are composed directly from irregular circular trajectories,[2] following the spatial order of this heterogenous ensemble, the same approach as used for the antiphonal fragments described above.



I found the piccolo position, close to the wall, one of the most resonant spots in the room. I had in mind that the piccolo could be naturally amplified by the room. Bjørnar Habbestad suggested from his experiences with the Critical Band project that playing against the walls, standing in an angle where sound will not be damped by your body, also would amplify the sound. The violin and soprano is placed on the organ gallery, and a muted “offstage” tuba could better balance the middle register piccolo.


I made an alternative plan for Håkonshallen, Bergen, which is a very different room. Similar ideas of spatial movement could be realized mirroring the setup. A gallery is available for the soprano and violin, while the “offstage” tuba rather would be amplified at this new position, as the stairs down from the hall are very resonant.
















Don't feed the birds alternates between sections where instrumental spatial trajectories are prominent structuring principles, and instrumental interpretations of spectral analysis of sounds of birds being fed. The second type comes closer to a search for musical ideas drawn from concrete everyday sounds.


In past works I have been attempting to transcribe everyday sounds by ear. The following sketch was an attempt to capture tones and sound qualities in an airplane before takeoff.



























The sketch was composed out for a short moment in the piece Circles (2006).


Airplane transcrition in Circles.




























































Breathy and noisy qualities of the experienced sounds were transcribed through slightly exaggerated bow bressure and slow bowing for the violins, while the lions roars and tuba multiphonics (the high note is sung together with the played note) created a deep rumbling.


 Components of everyday sounds, or purely imagined instrumental sound terrains, can be imagined and visually sketched. I tried the approach of deriving materials directly through spectral analysis for Don’t feed the birds.


A crowd of ducks, goose and swans were being fed at the small lake Tjörnin in the centre of Reykjavik. I made recordings of these birds fighting over the food, forming a concrete basis for many parts of this piece. 




Recorded birds by Tjörnin, Reykjavik, 2011.




The field recordings were partial tracked through the pm2 library for Open Music.[3] The massive amount of information needed filtering and selection.


  • Selecting only partials longer than 50 milliseconds eliminates much of the traffic noise, and allow a focus on the birds.



































Possible notes on the instruments are defined, and limited to particular registers.


  • For oboe and clarinet, only the 75% deepest notes are used.
  • The 30% lowest register of the bassoon is avoided.
  • For the tuba, the 10% lowest and 60% highest register, notes are excluded.

Choices are made to reduce technical difficulties of register jumps, and find homogenous ensemble sounds from these chaotic materials.






























The birds go through a set of filtering processes adapted to instruments in the ensemble. The soprano voice was not part of this transcription.


  • Notes less than 1/8-tone away from notes on the instrument are extracted and approximated.
  • Notes are selected between a minimum and maximum dynamic limit. Not much differentiation is done here, but it would be possible to extract a dynamic range suitable for a particular instrument.
  • The notes are split in 1/8-tone hockets.
    • The violin plays 1/4-tones.
    • The woodwinds play only halftones, with piccolo and clarinet tuned a 1/4-tone down. How instruments respond to detuning is complicated, and should be subject to further studies. Nevertheless, detuning will be closer to the idea than using only halftone approximations.
    • All 1/8-tones pass to the brass instrument, but tuba is already limited to halftones, and trumpet to theoretically possible overtones with a detuned 3rd valve. Microtonal trumpet is also a complicated subject.
    • Melodic octaves and the last note of "forbidden" triads were removed from the material.[4]






































The result is a heterophony of nine instrumental parts. Unisons will happen, while the parts all follow different paths through analyzed sound events, by instrumental range, random selection, filters and microtonal hockets.





































A MIDI performance of raw materials based on the Reykjavik birds.

Chronology and tempo was not altered (except for a shorter sections towards the end), the readings are rough scannings of everyday sounds, translated to an instrumental medium, through choice of idiomatic instrumental techniques and sounds. During the composition process, it was possible to choose between multiple paths through a dense material. Goose offer high partials to be performed by the high piccolo or string harmonics. Where a lot of partials had to be cut, sounds could be interpreted by percussion sounds with high frequency spectral energy. Bird concerts were split in shorter and longer parts, alternating with sections of purely spatial ideas. Raw materials above can be traced in the following score excerpt.






























































































In the work Quadraturen IV("Selbstportrait mit Berlin"), Peter Ablinger composes out spectral analysis of traffic noises in a deliberately mechanical manner, speaking about hobbling behind the complexity of reality.


“To be precise, in terms of a very rough scanner which hobbles far behind the complexity of reality. But at the same time such hobbling reflects the truth of the observation process as well as being an aesthetic phenomenon in itself. Hobbling IS what is tangible. It IS our possibility.”[5]


Composing Don’t feed the birds, the intention was not to reproduce the original soundscape, but transform (’morph’, if understood in a wider definition) events to gesture, like the Joyce texts were hidden and obscured spoken through instruments or electroacoustic transformations, converted to gesture and energy.





[2] Using the Ruben-OM method ensemble-circles-lists-gliss.

[4] These are more personal preferences, and not included in the public Ruben-OM library.

[5] “Als sehr grober Raster  sogar, der der Komplexität der Wirklichkeit weit hinterherhinkt. Aber dieses Hinken ist gleichzeitig die Wahrheit des Beobachtens, als auch selbst ästhetisch. Das Hinken IST das Faßbare! Es IST unsere Möglichkeit.”Peter Ablinger, 2000, Quadraturen IV ("Selbstportrait mit Berlin").