Jon Rose works with the collected recordings of partner, Hollis Taylor, to compose music where the pied butcherbird, composer and performers share equal billing in an innovative project.

Sleeping under the stars in the Northern Territory, I was lulled to sleep by the less than quiet braying of donkeys and awoken the next morning at around 5am by an extraordinary call and response duet of two pied butcherbirds, one close by, whose beautiful melody was elaborate, and then the response, much further afield and less effusive. These were the only sounds in a landscape with the second most extraordinary dawn I have experienced, the other at close proximity to Uluru.

I was not only taken by the beauty of the caller’s melody, but of the regular rhythmic pacing and spacing between caller and respondent. The visual display, the stillness, the space, all added to the potency of this conversation – this musical conversation which seemed filled with joy.

Many composers are drawn to the music of birds as a source of inspiration, most notably Mozart, who bought a pet starling and held an elaborate funeral when it died several years later. He is also said to have transcribed the song of his starling. The third movement of his 17th Piano Concerto is said to reflect this transcription, though there is some conjecture as to whether it was based on the particular call of this starling. His most famous bird reference occurs in The Bird Catcher from his opera, The Magic Flute. Messiaen is renowned for his transcriptions of bird songs and articulations and their influence on his music. Of particular note is his Catalogue d’oiseaux.

I was once told by a university lecturer, that I would ‘get over’ Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ compositions when I was more mature but obviously I have never matured. The Lark Ascending is still a fave. It was based on the following poem by George Meredith:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

 It depicts ‘bird’ in a different way to bird song. We inhabit bird being in this piece. There are a myriad other dedications and explorations of birds across musical genres. But the pied butcherbird has a particular resonance. Hollis Taylor, a zoömusicologist has written extensively about the musicality of the species and, in the tradition of previous composers, has transcribed individual calls and interpreted them or (re)composed them for varying instruments, of note, her and partner, Jon Rose’s Absolute Bird, a concerto for recorder, written for the renowned Genevieve Lacey, recently subject of the extraordinary, The Recorder Queen. Taylor has also worked with Ensemble Offspring and some of her and Rose’s compositions appear on the ensemble’s recent CD, Songbirds. This album includes superb works by others including Kate Moore, Gerard Brophy and Fiona Loader.

People do amazing things in altered circumstances, particularly artists. It is part of the creative drive to meet the challenges that life thrusts upon us. Taylor and Rose embarked on what has become a COVID project. Some of Taylor’s collection of field recordings of pied butcherbirds, gathered over a sixteen-year period, have been arranged by Rose in what are described beautifully as an ‘interspecies collaboration’. With this perception comes rigour and respect for all participants in the project. Rose seeks to get inside the sonic world of a bird in his alliance with them here.

These pieces, combining bird song, and human interpreters, include renowned performers such as percussionist Claire Edwardes, violist and composer, Brett Dean, oboist, Cathy Milliken and saxophonist James Nightingale. Hollis Taylor also performs on violin. Some aspects of the calls have been enhanced for example by changing the tempo or inverting the melodic pattern. Cathy Milliken’s ‘conversation’ with the pied butcherbird, sometimes in unison with the call and then accompanied by her virtuosic playing, enhancing the call, is really lovely. The relationship established in the work for guitar by Alexander Garsden is also special, with its slow, tranquil, responsive pacing. Indeed each instrument provides a different compositional opportunity such that the conversations established between these different species are wonderfully diverse. Zubin Kanga’s interpretation of Rose’s piano work is quite contrasting in its interplay and also highly effective.

 Composers have long been inspired by birds, but in this venture, there is an equal partnership forged between bird and human. This is explicit in the respect shown for both in Rose and Hollis’ works and in the eclectic performances. It’s a wonderful project.

[This article is one of a series by Mandy Stefanakis, published in Loudmouth magazine.]


Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor – Whistling in the Dark. Right click on:

Mozart – The Bird Catcher

Messiaen on Birds 1

Four Pied Butcher Birds

Hollis Taylor speaks with Claire Edwardes about her practice

Ensemble Offspring – Songbirds. Go to:

Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra

Mandy Stefanakis is a sessional lecturer in music education at Deakin University. She was previously Director of Music at Christ Church Grammar School and Essex Heights Primary School. She is a member of the Advisory Council of The Music Trust, Assistant Editor of the Trust’s e-zine Loudmouth, past-President and a Life Member of the Association of Music Educators. She lectured in music education at the University of Melbourne where she received her Master of Education degree. She has contributed to many arts curriculum initiatives and conducted professional development to assist implement these curricula over several decades. Mandy is the author of the Australian music focused education kits, Turn it Up! She has conducted extensive interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive, is an avid composer and her obsession with piano and cello continues.

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