October 13 found me doing something very unusual, even for me: learning about birds while watching an orchestra. The University of Montana Symphonic Wind Ensemble, to be precise. At a concert called “Winged Messengers”, which included a piece called “Chickadee Symphony” by Craig Naylor.

Plenty of composers have been inspired by bird song – it’s possible that even the first musicians were. But Chickadee Symphony doesn’t merely use the vocalizations of the Black-capped Chickadee in music. It uniquely places those vocalizations in a behavioral context. Alarm calls are paired with the calls of owls — not only that, but the Great Horned Owl evokes a mild alert note while the Northern Pygmy Owl brings on a shrill of terror. Mating calls spice up the dawn chorus, but by the end of the movement one lonely unpaired schmuck of a Chickadee is still phee-beeing for the mate he hasn’t found.

This blending of fact and artistic innovation, a sort of musical creative nonfiction, is something very near to my heart. I’ve long held that there’s no reason why something accurate can’t be beautiful, and vice-versa.

Naylor introduced this, the first public performance of the piece, together with UM professor and bioacoustics researcher Erick Greene. They were also joined on stage by Kate Davis and a pair of educational owls, Jillian and iPod, to the delight of the audience.

And the music itself? Well, the first three movements, very modern and perhaps slightly experimental, sounded a bit disjointed from the last movement, which had a far more swinging jazzy sound. But on the whole, it was a very enjoyable evening, and I hope that this work inspires more composers to look to science and the avian world for inspiration.

Chickadee image courtesy of Donna Dewherst.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at DaysAtDunrovin.com.