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Cowie birdsong MSV28620
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Edward COWIE (b.1943)
Where Song was Born: 24 Australian Bird Portraits (2021)
Sara Minelli (flute)
Roderick Chadwick (piano)
rec. 12-13 July 2021, St George’s Headstone Lane, Pinner View, Harrow, UK
MÉTIER MSV28620 [67:12]

I note with thanks my dependence on the liner notes and correspondence with Edward Cowie during the preparation of this review.

It may be thought that anyone who has not been to Australia will find it hard to relate to the music on this CD. This is in contradistinction to Edward Cowie’s previous ornithological exploration, Bird Portraits, (reviewed here and here) which featured species native to the United Kingdom and Northern Europe. The only two birds from the Antipodes that many Northern Hemisphere listeners will have come across by name are the Lyre Bird and the Kookaburra.

In fact, it is the numinous quality of this music that transcends the need for a deep understanding of the local birdlife. It comes down to the didgeridoo, that most characteristic of Aboriginal instruments. During my first run through of Where Song was Born, I was conscious that Cowie had made considerable use of extended techniques for the flute (including vocalisation). One of these innovations sounded very much like the didgeridoo. He agreed with me, but more than this, Cowie has been influenced by singing which he experienced at several major ritual ceremonies he attended. The piano too sometimes “paints” both indigenous wind and percussion Aboriginal instruments and music. He reminded me that “Aboriginals have animal ancestors which transmit spirit messages and guard the families.”  It is this mystical and sacred element that infuses Where Song was Born more, perhaps, than in Bird Portraits.

The genesis of Where Song was Born was back in 1981, and again in 1982, when Cowie first visited Australia. This was further developed during his extended stay there between 1983 and 1995 as an academic. At that time, he made many drawings, sketches, paintings and notations of birds he had seen and heard. Equally important is the location, giving a definite sense of place. Cowie writes that compared to the more circumscribed territories of British birds, “Most Australian habitats – especially those inland from its extraordinary coastal habitats – are vast. Many have either seemingly infinite horizons or in the case of the great jungle rainforests, no horizon at all. In both cases, there is an often overwhelming sense of the primal and elemental. Many places feel like they have never been seen by a human eye at all.”

Edward Cowie told me that he never imagined that his research would be used on such a scale as the present work. Initially, his Australian residence resulted in only a handful of pieces, including the 15 Minute Australia composed for the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, the Lyrebird Motet for 24 Voices, the Bellbird Motet for SATB choir and finally the String Quartet No. 3, "In Flight Music" with the first movement suggesting hang gliders in Stanwell Park, on the mid-eastern coast of New South Wales.

The structure of Where Song was Born falls into two main sections and is presented in four “books.”  Cowie suggests that “Part 2 breathes a rarer air than Part 1. There is more a sense that the birds are not only being placed in a musical setting, but that the setting has become more mysterious, with an element of ritual and meditative mediation between subject and music and between landscape and our emotions.”

I do not intend to write comments on every “section” of this work. What is clear is that this is a concept album (as we would have said back in the day about Prog. Rock). Sometimes there is a psychedelic feeling here. However, it would be wrong to label any of this “new age” or a pastiche of “world music.”  It is a synthesis of many things, not all of which I have fathomed. Here and there, jazz seems to emerge, there are ritualistic sounds and the above noted vocalisations by the performers. The pianist Roderick Chadwick is correct in suggesting the composition’s raison d’être is to link “our modern sensibilities with the earliest songsters,” the birds. Equally satisfying is the sense of continuity between the earliest sonics of humankind and the post avant-garde musicality of the 21st century.

Why did the composer choose the flute? First, it is one of the most ancient instruments in the history of humankind (possibly only the drum is earlier). Cowie notes that “wind instruments form an integral part of the instrumental music of the Aboriginals of Australia.” Furthermore, “virtuoso didgeridoo players often incorporate the songs and movements of birds into their ceremonial music.”  Another reason is the relation between birdsong and breath, hence the flute – a wind instrument. There is a sense of timelessness which makes it an ideal solo instrument at the “conjuring of a natural sound for the Australian birds being portrayed.”

Typically, (but not exclusively) the piano provides the “landscape” where the flute majors on the birdsong. Edward Cowie told me that “the scale, vastness and strangeness of this cycle is intentional. I want, more than ever, to take a listener into an elemental experience of the music. To feel carried to the New World...which is in fact…as far as birds are OLD world...”

Conceivably Cowie’s achievement can be summed up by an old African saying, cited in the liner notes: “Birds sing not because they have answers, but because they have song.”  This sums up perfectly the two already written, and the two projected cycles (see below), where the emphasis is always on the “birds and the places where they fly, dance, fight, nest and sing…”

As expected with Métier products, the liner notes are beyond reproach. The booklet opens with a long and detailed “Introduction” by Cowie. This is followed by a postscript, where amongst other things, he outlines plans for the two further ornithological cycles. One will major on the United States and will be called Where the Wood Thrush forever sings and the other, But Because they have songs, will be an exploration by percussion, marimba and piano of birdlife in (mainly) Zambia and Botswana. Interesting additions to these notes are the two essays by the performers, Sara Minelli, flute and Roderick Chadwick, piano. Both give helpful interpretive suggestions for this music. There are detailed biographical notes about the performers and the composer. For more information about Cowie’s life and achievement, see his excellent new website. A particular highlight of this booklet is the beautiful cover artwork, Eruption of Cockatoos, by Heather Cowie, Edward’s wife. It is an evocative masterpiece. Finally, there is a broad selection of photographs of the composer, the performers and two of the feathered folks featured on this album – the Superb Fairy Wren and the Golden-Headed Cisticola.

In an ideal world, the CD booklet would contain a selection of the underlying sketches, as well as photographs of each one of the 24 avian subjects. Over and above, it would be helpful to have some images of the background landscape. Feasibly, a webpage could be devoted to this work. Interestingly, Cowie’s new website devotes several pages to images of the artwork that explains his process of writing music such as the present composition and the earlier Bird Portraits. These illustrations are beautiful.

It will be clear to the reader that I consider Where Song was Born to be a multi-media piece that would benefit immensely from visuals.

The performance by Sara Minelli (flute) and Roderick Chadwick (piano) is stunning, beautiful, revelatory, often moving and thoroughly committed, both in creativity and technique. The listener can sit (or even lie) back and enjoy and appreciate this transcendent journey through the ornithological landscape of Australia. The sounds and music evoked will play strongly on the imagination, even if the species are unknown quantities - and there is always the Internet to find out more information about the flora and fauna of that great country.

John France 

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