Endangered Bird Songs for the Cello

June 28, 2016

ellist Siobhán K Cronin rubs a block of wax onto the horsehair of her bow, then puts bow to string. A series of quick sharp notes fly from the cello, reminiscent of the background to Psycho’s infamous shower scene.

This is Cronin’s musical interpretation of the Ridgway’s rail, an endangered bird that lives only in the marshes of the San Francisco Bay. It’s one of three iconic species whose natural notes of birdsong she’s translated into the language of the cello: the rail, the Peregrine falcon, and the western snowy plover.

Bird calls vary depending on the message they mean to convey. Cronin’s ears pick out these differences and hone in on key pieces of auditory information. Are the bird songs low or high? Do they have a specific rhythmic pattern? What’s the shape of the melody? “I would do the same thing if I was transcribing a Beyonce song,” she says.

The Peregrine falcon by way of Cronin’s bow sounds equally ominous, if a touch bassier with a gentle wobble to the sound, like a slowed-down version of the Jaws theme song. In contrast, the high-pitched snowy plover call feels light and airy, its sonic whimsy created by two cello techniques, the trill and the tremolo. “I’m rapidly sort of oscillating between two fingers on the string, and then I’m also quickly moving the bow across the string together,” Cronin says.

Artist and cellist Siobhan K Cronin in her Mission District studio. (Photo by Lucy Kang)
Artist and cellist Siobhán K Cronin in her Mission District studio. (Photo by Lucy Kang)

Cronin’s musical demonstrations are part of Bird Songs for Cello, a site-specific interactive project created for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) Public Square earlier this spring.

Julie Potter, the Creative Ecosystems senior program manager at YBCA, said that the spring Public Square provided a space for collaboration on ideas about labor and ecology. Many of the works showcased were the result of a year-long series of meetings that paired artists with professionals from fields like science, medicine and architecture. “We ask people to collaborate and kind of dream up how they would take over YBCA’s campus and reveal through installation, performance, poetry, chapbooks, nature walks — all and any form — what they want to say,” Potter said.

Cronin envisioned a project that “explores how translating birdsongs into a classical instrument might show us something about how we hear, how we approach birdsongs in nature, and perhaps even how we approach music,” she says.

A few days before the live performance, I meet Cronin at her home in San Francisco’s Mission District. I’m struck by her kinetic grace as she moves through the kitchen in orange socks, making coffee and tea. Cronin has a background as a dancer, and once spent four years mimicking the movements of plants and animals as part of the Somatic Natural History Archive. The videos from that project show her rolling on the ground like a cat, or stoically holding a moss-like side-plank over an icy river in winter, or on her back waving her limbs in a windy field of tall grasses.

Not long after, interpretive guide Bruce Hartsough (who sits on the board of Bay Nature) joins us in Cronin’s sparse, white bedroom-turned-studio. He’s the other half of this project, the keeper of naturalist knowledge and field wisdom gleaned from two decades of hiking experience. “I think for a lot of us, we hear birdsong, and we assume it’s just there, it’s something in the environment,” Hartsough says. “Birds have a purpose oftentimes for why they sing or why they make calls. There’s warning calls. There’s mating calls. There’s territory defenses.”

Cronin and Hartsough chose bird songs from species found in the Bay Area that demonstrate a variety of vocal sounds. “We wanted to provide people with maybe some examples they can really sink their teeth into,” Cronin says.

All three species are also listed as threatened or endangered on state or federal lists. “There’s some urgency when you’re exploring something that has threatened presence in our world because of our impact,” Cronin says.

When I listen back to the Audubon and YouTube recordings Cronin worked from, they sound worlds apart to my untrained ears from her cello compositions. Even with all of her attention to sonic nuances, there’s still an undeniable mental leap between reality and art.

“When you have to render something in another medium, you have to make choices about what you’re going to include and not include,” Cronin says. “You want to draw a picture? Well, there’s all the things you’re not drawing. It’s the same for music.”

Chasing the unique timbre of birdsong, Cronin pulls, scrapes and plucks her bow in different, sometimes unorthodox ways, forcing her to explore outside of standard classical notions of music. Ultimately, she sees her role as challenging the parameters of music, even as the sounds of the biophony – the sounds made by all living non-human creatures on the earth – are themselves being altered by the human world.

Hartsough brings up the Lombard Effect, known colloquially as the cocktail party effect. “When you’re in certain loud environments, we tend to either change our pitch a little bit to be heard, or start speaking a little more loudly to be heard,” he says. “That is a good analogy to what, at least in some environments, a bird or set of birds might experience in trying to find their place in the soundscape.”

Birds, including those in the Bay Area, are now changing their calls to higher ranges, so as not to compete with the low frequency rumblings of human machinery and urban noise. Acoustic ecologists warn of entire soundscapes at risk and the wide implications for the man-made intrusions into the biophony. Musician-turned-soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause (about whom a documentary Nature’s Orchestra was screened in tandem with Bird Song for Cello) argues that the health of an ecosystem can be heard in the richness of its soundscape.

“Wild soundscapes are full of finely detailed information, and while a picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, a natural soundscape is worth a thousand pictures,” Krause writes in The Great Animal Orchestra.

But the biophony is fragile. Even the sound of a single plane flying overhead can break the nuanced, organized music of the soundscape, causing a breakdown in animal communication and making animals more prone to predation without the group masking of the chorus. Cronin and Hartsough — and Krause — champion the practice of mindful, observant listening to the natural world. With that type of open-eared attention, they say, comes a priceless enrichment of our landscape, both natural and artistic. “Once I’ve explored a birdsong in a part of my cello,” Cronin says, “whenever I’m passing through that part of my cello again, it has a bird living there now. I’ve put some other species into my music.”

About the Author

Lucy Kang is a writer, radio producer and sometimes artist based in San Francisco. 

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