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Imaginary Birds

from Retrospectacles by Chris Brown

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Imaginary Birds, Chris Brown (2009)

“I have always thought that Birds were great masters and that they had discovered everything: modes, neumes, rhythmics, melodies of timbres, and even collective improvisation”
(Messiaen, Traité V:1, p.11)

Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques, for piano and small orchestra (1956), was composed entirely using melodic material from his transcriptions from recordings of the songs of forty-seven species of birds from Asia, South and North America and the Canary Islands. Messiaen’s transcriptions are remarkably evocative of their sources, but the whole idea of translating the sounds of birds’ voices to European orchestral instruments, with their tempered tunings, range of sounding materials and timbres, and sheer amplitude,produces a kind of fantasy world populated by hyper-real, imaginary birds. I made this piece to extend Messiaen’s nature-inspired project one step further – I wrote a computer program that listens to my improvisations on themes in his score and generates real-time synthesized responses to them. I used electronics to imitate the birds’ timbres and flexible tuning, and to let them “fly” around the performance space as they sing. Using computer models as both instruments and improvisers made it possible to engage in the natural impulse to both listen to and play music with the birds.


from Retrospectacles, track released October 7, 2018
Recorded at Mills College in Oakland on June 11, 2015 by Jesse Austin.


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