At the onset of spring 2012, chatting across the boardroom table with the Tate Liverpool education folks and the steering group for Our Liverpool Landscape, Bird Sheet Music seemed like a wonderfully whimsical work, weaving together sky and earth and sounds, the materials for which could be easily collected during the Running Wild park performances. The project aimed to create a musical score by leaving blank score beneath the trees where birds roosted. A series of musical notes would then be transcribed according to where the birds’ droppings had fallen on the paper, creating a composition that could later be performed.
Naively, I thought that I could just lay lengths of blank score (1 metre wide on rolls of 150 metres) under a nearby tree, leave it for a few hours while performing something else, and return to pick it up, embellished with bird droppings, ready to hand to Jon, our composer. But, sat with sound artist Helmut on National Dawn Chorus Day (6 May) as he recorded sounds as daylight broke across the city, reality hit home. Whilst the air filled with bird song the 10 metres of score, suspended under trees, remained awash with silence.
Birds are creatures of habit. They like to eat at certain times, and eat from specific trees. They roost in particular trees, and not just any tree. It just so happened that none of the Running Wild performances were anywhere near trees that the birds were choosing. Equally importantly, trees in summer are lush with leaves. So, to gather sound of this order, I needed to be diligent, not wilful. Time needed to be allocated to observe, and learn about, bird behaviour in Liverpool: which were the trees ripe for Bird Sheet Music resonances? Also, I needed to lay the score out in autumn; a time when the trees would be full of fruity bird treats and leaves were falling, leaving barer branches and free fall opportunity for the birds’ poops.
With open eyes I looked for telltale signs of bird activity; with open ears I listened out for bird song, and with an open disposition I chatted to local people about bird activity in their neighbourhood. My perceptions and experience of the city were heightened. I discovered trees favoured by our feathered friends, and I learnt their eating trends. For example, on tree-linedMadryn Streetnear Prince’s Park (coincidently, the street where Ringo Star spent his childhood years) was one Rowan tree that was visited daily, at 14.00, by blackbirds and thrushes. They fed for around twenty minutes. And that was the only window of opportunity at that tree. And that was the only tree – of the many on Madryn Street – they fed from.
And so, during the autumn months, I perched next to laid out score in selected spots across Liverpool, chatting to passers-by about nature and the nature of birds, sharing experiences, knowledge, and chuckles. And so we learnt that our perception of bird movement is not necessarily the reality. Nature is beautifully poetic in its absence of compliance.
And so it was. Silence, notes, and sounds have been collected – discordant nature in harmony – conveying the essence of the task, the art: to understand and appreciate, a little bit more, nature in our Liverpool landscape.
The premiere of Bird Sheet Music: A Movement In Three Parts will be performed live at Tate Liverpool on Sunday 20 January.
A sound installation by Helmut Lemke, integrated with bird sheet score as collected by Kerry Morrison, will also be on display.