ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — Just before sunset on a hot weekday in early May, Avey Tare – a member of psychedelic pop group Animal Collective – adjusted his glasses and squinted into the fading daylight. He could hear a woodpecker high in the Appalachian foliage along Blue Ridge Parkway, pounding a tree for dinner.
As Tare gazed into the verdant tops of the spring trees, half a dozen songbirds interrupted her search with their evening serenades. “I love it when they all sing,” he said, smiling and peering into the branches where wrens and juncos scurried. “It reminds me of an orchestra chord, just before they play. There is room for everyone. »
Tare added that he loves getting up early in this mountain town and listening every morning. “That’s when you hear the most, before people…” Just then, a motorbike streaked down the promenade, and Tare didn’t finish thinking.
Randall Poster had never noticed the songbirds in the Bronx, where he lived for most of his 60s, until people began to calm down earlier each day as the first pandemic winter approached in 2020. He admitted with a wink during a recent video call that his childhood knowledge of birds was limited to “You know, the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Eagles.”
But when Poster – a powerful musical supervisor for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes and Wes Anderson – started talking about the birds he could hear, an environmentalist pal delivered grim news. Human interactions only possibly killing over 500 million birds each year in the United States. According to a 2018 report, one in eight people world bird species now in danger of disappearing. Common chemicals can ruin the songs themselves Suddenly loved poster. These statistics sparked an idea: What if he leveraged a quarter century of industry connections into a fundraiser for bird conservation, incorporating the tunes he heard?
On Friday, Poster will release the first volume of “For the Birds,” a 242-track collection of original songs and readings inspired by or incorporating birdsong; later this year it will be bundled into a box set of 20 LPs to benefit the National Audubon Society. The project expanded, he said, because the birds seemed to be on everyone’s mind. “People were spending a lot of time looking out the window,” said Poster, one of the legions of birdwatching insiders during the pandemic. “There were so many unknown and unknowable things that we took comfort in the fact that nature was still doing its job.”
“For the Birds” plays out like a version of a soundtrack Poster might design for an Anderson film, cycling through moods and styles at will. There are elegies and aubades, fiddle tunes and field recordings. A radiant electronic trance by Dan Deacon and an interpretation of the Beatles by Elvis Costello share space with a reading by Jonathan Franzen; Laurie Anderson, Alice Coltrane (remixed), Yoko Ono and a Wendell Pierce reading open separate LPs.
“It’s a joy to hear other people experience the wonders of birds,” said Elizabeth Gray, Audubon’s chief executive, from her home in Maryland. “Just being able to watch birds fly, build nests and feed their young – it reminds me of what makes us human.”
The fascinating world of birds
Yet “For the Birds” is the boldest entry in a dawning new chorus of charity recordings that use birdsong as fodder or as an entire track itself. In 2019, “let nature sing” – a poignant mix of 24 talkative species – broke into the UK Top 20; in February, an album by 53 Threatened Australian Bird Calls beat international pop stars to land there at No. 2.
“Of all the things we have to work harder to protect, birds, like music, speak to everyone,” Anthony Albrecht, the Australian cellist whose Bowerbird Collective led that effort, said via video chat. “They are such a visible – and audible – indicator of what we stand to lose.”
Birdsong, current fossil records suggest, is at least 66 million years old, contemporary with the last dinosaurs. Humans have most likely been incorporating their sounds into music for as long as we have. Indian instruments evoking chirps, African tribal songs incorporating cries, compositions by Olivier Messiaen including avian transcripts: Birdsong has been a cornerstone of musical development across cultures and centuries.
“The range of sounds they use is pretty much the same as the range we use, which is part of why we love them so much. We can to listen them,” musician Jonathan Meiburg said from his home in Germany. For two decades he recorded as Shearwater; last year he released his first booka sort of personal story of “the most intelligent bird of prey in the world”, the caracara.
Several “For the Birds” musicians have spoken of their experience with birdsong as epiphanic. Tare wrote Animal Collective’s “Brown Thrasher,” part of the Poster set, after a recent morning of field recording in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but he recalls discovering the mechanical clicks of a crow – imagine the sound of your car with a dead battery, but graceful – while living in Los Angeles as a musical stage. “I never thought they could sound like thishe says, his eyes wide.
Composer Nico Muhly remembered the nightjar that sang for his family at dinnertime in rural Vermont and how it shaped his early listening skills. Whistler Molly Lewis was still laughing when she remembered swapping (and changing) tunes with an invisible songbird outside her window years ago. “I knew we were talking, and I just burst out laughing, thrilled and amazed,” Lewis said over the phone.
Yet projects like this run instant cynicism. To what extent can musicians actually influence individual behavior, let alone challenge industrial forces that destroy the environment? What is all this effort worth?
Such questions prompted Albrecht, the Australian cellist, to compile “Songs of Disappearance.” After years of performing pieces inspired by birds, including a work based on the potential Australian origins of songbirds, Albrecht wondered what difference he was making. “It’s a real challenge to connect with audiences that aren’t already aligned with your values,” he said, frowning. “It’s the idea of preaching to converts.”
Despite Albrecht’s lack of scientific training, a Charles Darwin University professor, Stephen Garnett, encouraged him to enroll in the school’s PhD program in conservation biology. When Garnett told Albrecht he was posting a major report indicating that a sixth of Australian bird species were endangeredAlbrecht suggested a compilation showcasing the richness of sounds that might be lost, preemptive praise.
They got tracks from the country’s prominent wildlife recorder and enlisted an Australian music industry expert. At Christmas last year, department stores were asking for more copies. In six months, Albrecht’s lark has raised over $70,000 for bird conservation. However, the feeling that people care about him motivates him more than money.
“It flew off in a way that gave us a lot of hope that there is potential for audiences to engage with these critical issues,” said Albrecht, who hopes to release a North American sequel. “You can do something crazy and make people react.
Robin Perkins also sees the wisdom in such wacky projects. For a decade, Perkins worked for Greenpeace, whose sometimes divisive activism often made the organization a punchline and lightning rod. But thanks to his label, shika shika, Perkins paired dozens of musicians with the song of an endangered bird from their home country and asked them to turn it into a song. The effort has already raised over $50,000.
To be published in June, the third volume,West African Birdsong Guidefeatures wildlife protection pleas from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars and rising techno from Bissau-Guinean producer Buruntuma, interspersed with the prismatic chirping of a gray parrot Timneh.
“You have to give people something they can understand. 1.5 degrees: what does this mean for me? Perkins said by phone from Paris, referring to the frequently cited number as a dangerous threshold for global temperature rise. “Chaining yourself to a building has a role, and music has a different role – to help people imagine.”
Long familiar with the vagaries of the entertainment industry, Poster won’t estimate how much money “For the Birds” could make or if its star power can even propel it into the charts. But he’s optimistic about additional elements of the project — a birdhouse display planned for June in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardensound baths and concerts, programs in Miami and Marfa and London.
The poster even convinced eyewear company Warby Parker to design and distribute at least 20,000 branded “Birdoculars” to school groups nationwide, the item that seemed to excite him the most. If someone had given him a pair, after all, when he was a kid in the Bronx and watched five movies every weekend, he might have listened to his surroundings sooner.
“It’s like when you’re making a movie, and you’re hoping there’s a kid in the audience who gets enough out of it to go and make a movie — or just feel less alone,” Poster said. “We will empower young people by giving them the basic tools to go bird watching, to help develop a young generation of concerned citizens. This is how we progress. »
Sound produced by Adrian Hurst.