A composer who famously appropriated birdsong into many works was Olivier Messiaen, and later composers such as Harrison Birtwistle have claimed that his Messiaen’s style oiseau had a direct and lasting impact on modernists searching for more naturalistic – or at least less formal – musical structures. It is perhaps fitting that Messiaen’s last completed work should incorporate the bird widely regarded as having the most extraordinary song of them all.
Éclairs sur l'au-delà… [Illuminations of the beyond…] is an orchestral piece composed in 1987–91. Messiaen visited Australia during that country's bicentennial celebrations in 1988, enabling him to use the sounds of Australian birds notated in the wild. The third of eleven movements is called L’Oiseau-lyre et la Ville-fiancée [The Lyrebird and the Bridal City]. Whereas traditional Australian music features vocal and didjeridu imitations of birds, Messiaen's works attempt to reproduce the extreme complexity of bird song through notated music. L'oiseaux-lyre et la Ville-fiancée is among his most complex, with 67 changes of tempo and a dizzying variety of motifs.
This morning, on Tweet of the Day, we heard how the Lyrebird – a bit like Edward Cowie - is an avid borrower of sound, listening, choosing, and replaying echos of its own immediate environment.
Recently, while preparing a talk about birds and music, I ran a search for samples of lyrebird song. The best was from a captive bird in Adelaide Zoo. The lyrebird enclosure was in need of repair and a pair of local builders had been brought in. Some days later Chook, the dominant male lyrebird, gave a recital of his latest composition, based mainly on the sounds he had borrowed from the builders. In a remarkable recording we hear the hammering of a hammer, the whirr of an electric screwdriver, a power drill, and an old-fashioned hand saw cutting through a plank. We also hear one builder greeting the other and we can surmise that Chook’s neighbours included a whip-bird and a kookaburra, because we hear a perfect imitation of them both – simultaneously!