Twittering While Chattering

Twittering While Chattering

Greetings from the road in Texas. The exigencies of touring preclude a detailed column this week, but I wanted to check in and share at least one thing I’ve found here in the Lone Star State (besides the fabulous barbeque of Central Texas, which I’m keeping all for myself).

Last weekend I was in Fort Worth for two concerts produced by upstart organization Other Arts, at the Van Cliburn Recital Hall in the downtown area. How delicious to perform in a place named after the city’s local classical hero, and present some decidedly non-Rachmaninoffian (nor Saint-Saënsean) pieces.

As is my custom, rather than sit in what is almost always a depressing green room while waiting to go onstage, I took a walk around the block before the first concert to clear my head. Upon opening the stage door onto the street, I immediately stumbled upon some amazing sounds being emitted by a large colony of birds, all roosting in four trees that dotted a parking lot across the street. Without exaggerating, there must have been many hundreds of them.

I suppose anytime you scale a flock of birds to that size you are going to have interesting sounds, even if they only have one call. These birds, however, seemed to have twenty or thirty, all of them different, and many profoundly electronic sounding. I felt as if I had stumbled into a massive ornithological rendition of a David Tudor Rainforest installation. In Tokyo the crows have aggressively pushed out most of the other birds, and while I don’t mind their cawing, these birds in Texas had them well beat in terms of sheer variety.

I regretted that I didn’t have my trusty Zoom H2, currently my favorite portable recorder, handy. But then I remembered that my small digital camera has a video recording function that includes stereo sound, so I dug it out and “rolled movie” for a few minutes. It was too dark to capture any images, and the sound of the birds competed with the city’s traffic, but I could still get something worthwhile.

Later I found out the birds I heard where the infamous Great-Tailed Grackles, the variants that colonize and roost in Texas, mostly to the dismay of its citizens who regard them as utter pests. I guess some people see the glass as half-full and some see it half-empty. Some see an aggressive agricultural scourge which eats every seed in sight and whose acidic droppings tend to damage whatever they fall upon. I see—and hear—a gregarious and lively group of birds which produced some of my most enjoyable sonic moments in a long while.

Have a listen for yourself. This recording is by no means optimal. There is the traffic noise I mentioned, not to mention wind sound, camera handling, and other flaws, but still plenty of beauty to be found. At least by this birdbrain.

See you next week.

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9 thoughts on “Twittering While Chattering

  1. Rod Jones

    I had a siimilar experience early one morning about twelve years ago at St. Nicholas’ chapel, which sits on top of a promontory overlooking the Atlantic in St.Ives, Cornwall, UK. Several dozen starlings (the UK’s version of Grackles) were making their version of old school Elektronische Musik; like a particularly frenetic piece by Herbert Eimert. I didn’t have a recorder with me at the time but the memory of that performance is very dear to me.

  2. petebox

    For several weeks last spring, as I walked through Madison Square Park on my way to the AMC office in the mornings, I would sometimes hear a loud choir of unfamiliar birdsongs. They seemed to come from the trees in the park, but there didn’t appear to be enough birds in the trees to account for all the singing. The songs turned out to be part of a sound installation by Bill Fontana ( that was being projected from unseen parabolic speakers mounted on buildings across the street. I found the experience conceptually interesting but somehow profoundly disturbing as well.

  3. rskendrick

    Carl – no joke these are electric sounds. I found it quite spooky listening to this clip, because I have an early musique concrete piece that shares the bird texture almost identically. The only difference is that my texture is more in the background with long textures in the foreground, while this recording has the opposite spatial affect. If I remember correctly, I recorded the sound of sneakers stopping on a basketball gym floor…transposed the recording a multitude of times, then made a huge web of the transpositions overlapping with each other at random intervals. The end result sounded a lot like this – looks like I could have saved myself a lot of time!

    What a wonderful soundscape – thanks for sharing!

  4. scottleee

    Minimalist Birds
    Just the other day I was walking to class and I heard two birds calling back and forth across a field to each other. One would sing a few notes and then the other would respond with the same pattern only the middle note was a half step higher. They kept repeating this call and response song almost in time, except sometimes the second bird would come in a beat or so different. It sounded just like some old Reich. Both my experience and yours lead me to believe that birds are ahead of us in all aspects musical.

  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I have a series of bird pieces, but the most amazing was “LowBirds” when it was played at the Deep Listening Space in Kingston back in 1999. It was a warm summer day, and at the peak of the performance, with the clarinets and flute screaming and the piano sliding around, the tree outside filled with birds calling and singing and screeching. It was fantastic — and, yes, recorded. Birds do it!


  6. carlstone

    I’m reminded of a time years ago when I did a performance with the sculptor Mineko Grimmer. This was 1980 or so, and I was performing with cassette tapes of environmental recordings I had made from the veranda of my home in the hills of Los Angeles, mostly night sounds with crickets, an owl and an occasional dog barking far in the distance. One of the audience members had brought her german shepherd which obediently lay quietly on the floor beside her chair during the performance. But when the taped dog started barking, the live dog’s ears perked up and s/he began to woof in response. It was such a wonderful spontaneous moment and provided a great spatial layer to the evening.

  7. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz


    I’ll send you a CD or upload an MP3, whichever your preference. Drop me a note to my email above.



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