Cowie’s Australian Bird Songs

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COWIE: 24 Australian Bird Portraits: Raven, Wood Duck, Masked Plover, Eastern Whipbird, Willy Wagtail, Golden Whistler, Superb Fairy Wren, Brolga Crane, Pied Butcher Bird, Bush Stone Curlew, Wedge-Tailed Eagle, Australian Magpie, Bell Birds, Wampoo Pigeon, Golden-Headed Cisticola, Tawny Frogmouth, Pied Currawong, Kookaburra, Mangrove Kingfisher, Helmeted Friarbird, White-Breasted Sea Eagle, Green Cat Bird, Sooty Owl, Lyrebird / Sara Minelli, fl; Roderick Chadwick, pno / Métier MSV 28620

British composer Edward Cowie, like Olivier Messiaen before him, loves birds and bird songs. Lots and lots of them. Thus here he presents his impressions of two dozen Australian birds and their songs, transcribed and transformed into modern classical music.

This cycle, like the one of British birds that preceded it, were the result of his begin cooped up during the Covid-19 pandemic. The first set, Bird Portraits, was based on British birds and written for violin and piano. This one, based on Australian birds, was composer for flute and piano. According to the notes, Cowie intends to write two more such cycles, one based on American bird songs and the other on African birds. We shall see how he scores these.

Although there is a certain kinship between Cowie’s bird music and Messiaen’s, his manner of writing is different. Messiaen aimed for a sort of ambient sound in which the songs of birds, sometimes fragmented and sometimes complete, made up the basic material of each piece he wrote. Cowie, it seems to me, superimposes the bird songs as played by the lead instrument over harmonically fragmented piano lines. The piano and the lead voice (violin or flute) is thus pitted against the atonal piano meanderings whereas Messiaen aimed for a sort of fusion. The composer may well disagree with me, but at least that’s how I hear it.

Without a set rhythm, then, the music follows the strange and uneven meter of each bird’s individual song. Many of them end abruptly; some, like Willy Wagtail, have somewhat extended piano introductions, but most just jump right in to each individual bird call and let the chips fall where they may. Sara Minelli is an excellent flautist who plays each piece with vigor and an appropriately bird-like sound, although at times she is called upon to make some strange sounds on her instrument, as she does near the end of Willy Wagtail. Since I know none of these birds and, frankly, can’t really identify many domestic bird calls other than the whip-poor-will or the robin, I can’t really say how close these are to their original models, but I’ll take Cowie’s word for it.

Due to the sparse instrumentation and Cowie’s atonal/bitonal method of composing, these are not pieces that will appeal to everyone. I liked some of them very much—I found the call of the Superb Fairy Wren very interesting. and the Pied Butcher Bird had a strange, asymmetrically uneven and somewhat edgy sound—but to a certain extent, many of them sound similar to me, or at least like bird call variations that one listens to as the program moves from track to track. It is, however, fascinating and creative music, although playing just a few of them in a flute concert program would probably gain more audience acceptance than hearing all 24 pieces in sequence.

Nonetheless, this is clearly an interesting and innovative program that should be heard at least once.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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