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Technically Exemplary

Music for birds,
planes and cello
heard by

Solitary B    SB-002

For Birds, Planes & Cello, composed by Miya Masaoka. Cello performed by Joan Jeanrenaud. © 2005 Solitary B

For Birds, Planes & Cello is an early-morning recording of birds in a canyon near San Diego with planes flying overhead, mixed in the studio with cello sounds created by Joan Jeanrenaud to the composer's prescription. It is technically exemplary: the field recording is commendably clear and the cello has been seamlessly integrated into it.

Listen -- For Birds, Planes & Cello
(track 1, 0:05-2:15 fade out) © 2005 Solitary B

However, the cello participates in the sonic environment, rather than entering into dialogue with it. The aircraft provide a ground-bass to the bird calls, and the cello, deep in the mix and/or imitating the birds and aircraft, does little more than intensify that soundscape. The casual listener will hear only 'birds and industrial noises'. (That may seem unduly harsh but is a direct quote from one who heard the piece from the next room. Moreover, he happens to be a cellist and therefore picks out the instrument's sound instinctively.) The attentive listener will hear the cello more often, of course -- at 25 to 30 seconds into the extract above, for instance. Here is another sample, one in which the cello is uncharacteristically distinct:

Listen -- For Birds, Planes & Cello
(track 1, 20:10-22:10 fades) © 2005 Solitary B

There are many excellent discs which combine instruments with field recordings. One of my favourites is Sarah Hopkins' Sky Song, now twenty years old but still gorgeous and still, compared to Masaoka's work, adventurous: cello and telegraph wires, anyone? Another is Peter Mummé's New Day, in which his gentle piano improvisations interact with birds recorded in Australian national parks: merely trivial, conventional filigree over an appealing background, some would say, but at least it is very pretty.

But For Birds, Planes & Cello does not attempt to use the environmental recordings either to extend the possibilities of instrumental composition or as background to conventional music. As a feat of technological sleight-of-hand it is impressive, but I'm sorry to say that I can find little more in it. The aircraft sounds are not, of themselves, particularly interesting or attractive -- after all, most city-dwellers can hear something similar just by opening a window. And if Masaoka is simply encouraging us to listen to the environment in the same way we listen to music, she is repeating a valuable lesson, but it is one taught by Murray Schafer a generation ago.

Copyright © 31 December 2008 Malcolm Tattersall, Townsville, Australia




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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular series of shorter CD reviews