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Of minstrels, bards & birds

‘For The Birds: The Birdsong Project’ is a mammoth project, involving more than 200 artists contributing 242 tracks, mostly new and original

Detail from artwork of ‘For The Birds: The Birdsong Project', which involves 200 artists. Image: courtesy Bird Song Project/Instagram
Detail from artwork of ‘For The Birds: The Birdsong Project', which involves 200 artists. Image: courtesy Bird Song Project/Instagram

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Of the many musical projects conceived during the pandemic and its lockdown-induced isolation, For The Birds: The Birdsong Project must be the most unique and impactful. And, I might add, most delightful. It is also a mammoth project, involving more than 200 artists contributing 242 tracks, mostly new and original.

It all began when winter was approaching in 2020. Think back to that time. The pandemic was in full sway, and wherever you may have been in the world then, it was a period of deep gloom and depression. But even in the darkest of times there can be rays of shiny inspiration. And so it was for Randall Poster in New York. Poster, a Grammy-winning music supervisor for the movies who has worked with top-notch film-makers, including Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, found his inspiration in birds. In the lockdown-induced silence of the otherwise bustling, insomniacal megapolis, Foster began to discover the sounds of the city’s birds—sounds that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Fascinated by the range he heard, Poster conceived an ambitious project. He reached out to a myriad musicians, poets and actors to collaborate on what would become a 20-LP box set comprising 242 tracks and nearly as many artists. The box set will be released later this year but the tracks have been released in four volumes since last spring and are available to stream digitally. Each volume is gobsmackingly impressive. Like Foster, the musicians and others have been inspired by bird sounds, composing and performing tracks that celebrate the joy and beauty of birds.

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The project is so massive and the number of tracks so many that it can be difficult to get into the minutiae of each. A stunning list of performers responded to Poster’s invitation. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis were the first to get back with their composition, Wood Dove. Ellis made field recordings of bird sounds and Cave recorded his vocals—apparently on his iPhone in a taxicab on the way from Brighton to London. Wood Dove, a characteristic Cave song sung in his inimitable half-spoken, half-sung style, opens with these lines: “Take my hand, my darling/ The snow is softly falling/ Walk out into the field/ Morning doves are calling/ Calling to you and me, my love/ As the sun rises on the hill/ Morning doves are calling/ They are calling, always calling.”

Featured as the first track in Volume I, Wood Dove sets the tone for the project. And as you listen to the rest of the tracks, you will likely be mesmerised by the range and creativity. There are surprises galore. The film director Jim Jarmusch, who has the self-described “enthusiastically marginal rock band” Sqürl, has a track titled Dawn Chorus, an ethereal minimalistic instrumental track laid over a background of bird sounds that Jarmusch is believed to have recorded at the break of dawn.

There are familiar names such as Beck, Jeff Tweedy, The Flaming Lips, Kurt Vile, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Jarvis Cocker and Elvis Costello (who does a singular interpretation of The Beatles song And Your Bird Can Sing). But there are lesser-known ones who will surprise and delight you with their compositions. For instance, Terrence Mitchell Riley, the 87-year-old minimalist composer and exponent of jazz and Indian classical music. Or Kaoru Watanabe, a leading practitioner of the Japanese transverse flute known as shinobue; and Rudresh Mahanthappa, the New York-based saxophonist whose short track, Oreals, is like a jazz interpretation of bird songs.

Then there are the poems. The actor Wallace Wolodarsky reads Migration Of Birds, a poem by Gary Snyder, now in his 90s; Sean Penn reads Counting Birds by the late Jim Harrison; Tilda Swinton reads Sparrow by the late Scottish poet Norman MacCaig; Jonathan Franzen reads his poem, California Towhee; and Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist teacher, reads When The Birds Were Banished From The Palace by Saoirse Stice, which she wrote when she was five.

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As I mentioned, For The Birds is such a huge assemblage of music, songs and poetry that to write about all the gems you can find in it is impossible here. There is, however, so much to discover that the four volumes can lift you to musical bliss for hours, if not days. I discovered Uwade, a Nigerian-born, New York-based singer,whose song, Mine Is Not Your Beauty, is transporting. I found Ray Young Bear, a Native American poet and novelist whose song, A Grandchild’s Song For Robins In Year Two Of Pandemic, is chanted in the language of the Meskwaki tribe. And I heard Ry Cooder’s son, Joachim Cooder, drummer and percussionist, who did an instrumental track, Carolina Turtledove, for the project.

There is a reason why the project is called For The Birds. The main beneficiary of the project is the National Audubon Society (an American non-profit environmental organisation dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats), which will receive a percentage of the revenue the box-set sales generate as well as all the royalties from digital streaming. It’s a great way for musicians and artists to do their bit for conservation.

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