Schmid and Golia's <i>Birdology</i>

Schmid and Golia's Birdology

by Stuart Broomer

copyright © 2003 Stuart Broomer

An Exaltation of Larks / A Rapture of Reeds

There is in English a tradition of naming groups of birds with sometimes fantastic nouns that dates back to at least the fifteenth century. Thus, a parliament of fowls, a bevy of quail, a bouquet of pheasants, a brood of hens, a dole of doves, a kettle of hawks, a murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows, a charm of finches, a covey of partridges, a dissimulation of birds, a pitying of turtledoves, an unkindness of ravens. The list goes on (see Terry Ross's "Group Names for Birds: A Partial List" at, an odd series of whimsical collocations--whether meaningless or inspired. No other animal species appears to warrant such playful and extended invention, and it seems to speak to the very complex relation of birds to human language and sound, from the inspiration of bird song to the miraculous mimicry of parrots.

It speaks also to the music that Peter A. Schmid and Vinny Golia make together on Birdology, these improvisations that touch in so many ways on the characters and relations of bird sound to the human, to the love of catalogues and categories, of playful extension and the play of freedom. This is about dialogue, about two masters of many reeds discussing the possibilities of their instruments and using their instruments to discuss the universe of sounds, including the very special world of bird speech and behaviour. They also touch on the special tradition of improvising multi-reedists, most notably Eric Dolphy, who liked to practise with birds, and Anthony Braxton.

Getting Acquainted

Birdology was born of Peter and Vinny's shared fascination with both the variety of reed instruments and their high and low extremes, in this case the recent invention of the tubax (see, a kind of bass saxophone that Schmid previously used with Evan Parker and September Winds on Alder Brook.

"Peter and I got in touch with each other because we both had tubaxes. It turned out he was coming out here to the west coast and I invited him to come down and stay so we could do some informal playing and talking about horns, etc. He seemed to have a lot of instruments and possess a lot of information, plus he was a taragoto player and there aren't a lot of those you can improvise with in a freer setting.

"So he came down, we had some fun with the instruments, and he suggested the next time I was coming to Europe I call him and maybe we could play and do some more duos. We did some concerts and recorded this project in a beautiful studio in Switzerland."

"I got in contact with Vinny because we both play the tubax and we wanted to share our experience with this new instrument. I had known and appreciated Vinny's music for years, from CDs and from concerts he played at the Willisau Festival. Because we both play lots of wind instruments, I suggested we do some concerts in Switzerland in duo (and one concert with a rhythm section) when Vinny was in Europe in March 2003. Between the concerts we did the recordings on one afternoon in a studio near my home."

"This whole project unfolded with an elegance and grace that aren't usually found that easily. Peter and his family were very kind and hospitable to me and the music seemed to function around our interaction with his family and friends and some of the friends I had made on previous trips to Switzerland. It was really a little community that had a wide variety of interests. Of course, varieties and models of various woodwinds was a big topic with Peter and I."

Bird Speech

According to Peter, "The title for the CD became obvious in the first duo concert when a small girl said to her mother, 'This is very strange music.' The mother told her (and later told me) 'Listen to it as if there are two birds speaking to each other!'"

For each musician there is a lifelong fascination with birds. Peter says, "I personally have -- since my early childhood -- a great fascination for bird watching all over the world. I graduated in Biology more then 20 years ago." Vinny recalls, "I grew up in the Bronx where my dad worked for many years at the Bronx Zoo, so these bird calls and animal sounds are something that I grew up with and are a part of my musical history."

There's a long-running tradition of birds and music intertwining. There's an ancient Chinese piece, "Birds returning to the Forest," for the bowed Erh-hu that imitates birds. There are European violin and flute pieces that do it as well, even Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf". Olivier Messiaen carefully transposed birdcalls, turning them into piano pieces. The apotheosis comes in his opera St. Francis of Assisi with a large orchestra imitating a myriad of different birds.

Each musician is deeply aware of the range of bird associations in music. For Vinny, "It's hard for me to get away from bird call, especially the Charlie Parker kind, as he's such a pervasive influence on all of us in terms of phrasing and rhythm. When I learned later that Dolphy and Messiaen were into the birds as was Takamitsu I was ecstatic. I felt somehow vindicated or validated. Funny isn't it? So since the flute was the second instrument I picked up, I naturally gravitated to making those sounds and effects. You can really learn a lot from the animals, I just hope we don't kill off everything bigger than a chinchilla from our planet."

Peter adds, "Albert Mangelsdorff, John Cage and Dave Holland [his Conference of the Birds has the great multi-reedists Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers] to name some others."

The sheer variety of birdcalls is echoed in the number of reeds heard here, the two musicians bringing a forest of clarinets, flutes and saxophones. One pattern that marks their dialogue is the three pieces in which they overdub with a single family of reeds. Peter mentions that "we decided to do three instant compositions for multi-layered flutes, clarinets and saxophones. Without further preconception or notation we began with the two lowest voices then added two times two voices to them immediately."

Vinny adds, "After hearing the first cut and the sound of the room, I suggested we overdub a few things to make a more orchestral approach to offset the pure duets of just the two horns. We also decided to use the natural sounds of untempered instruments to offset the intonation of some of our western instruments."

He continues, "With "Clarinet Choir" I wanted an orchestrated feeling like a mini-suite. The flute piece with all the whistle tones is something I always wanted to do again, since I had done a little of that kind of sound with Bertram Turetzky on one of our duo CDs. On "Saxophone Choir" it was Peter's idea to have me solo on the saxello over the other saxophones. That was really a lot of fun. It was also his idea to get a kind of pulsating groove going underneath with the tubax and the baritone."

Beyond the orchestral breadth of the overdubs, there's the wonderful affinity between Schmid and Golia that arises in the immediacy of the duos, like the twinning and intertwining of bass clarinets that occur on "Blackbirds." "Moventanz" is alive with the bird and insect buzzing of the glade, noteworthy for the density of harmonics that the two achieve with clarinets.

Listeners will make their own routes through these pieces, but Peter offers some guidance. "All the music is fully improvised and we only decided for each piece which instruments we would play. Unlike Messiaen, who took bird calls as basic material for his compositions, I chose the titles for the pieces afterwards, depending on what associations I had during listening to the music."

Here are some of his associations and translations, with some of my own elaborations. Peter explains that the "'madenhacker' is a bird that lives in Africa and feeds on insects that it finds on the surface of big animals like elephants or rhinos. In our two pieces a very small instrument (sopranino sax and saxello) plays over the sounding ground of a big beast, the tubax." You might extend the analogy to include Kropotkin's Mutual Aid and the anarchist bliss of interdependency, a fundamental analogy of improvised music. In Peter's association the great mound of flesh becomes a walking ecosystem. There is here a very specific play on the notion of flight versus gravity, with frequencies so low they can become discernible as rhythm.

"Taubenbalz" is the courtship of the dove, while "Widehopf" is the hoopoe.

"Pharaona" is the Italian name for pheasant, though its sound suggests instead the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, the call of the muezzin strongly conveyed in Schmid's tarogato. The same sense of flight extends still further east in "ameisen and b-meisen" where there's a distinctly Indian caste to the flute playing, though Peter describes it as "a play with words that only works in German: Ameise, ant; Meise, tit." Two pieces refer to gulls, "Möventanz," or "dance of gulls," and "Mövenschrei, "the cry of gulls."

"'Frässerbiine" is what my little daughter called the Bienenfresser (bee-eater) when she first saw this wonderful coloured bird in Italy. As you can perhaps imagine, the association between music and birds is multi-dimensional, involving the sound of the name, shape and appearance of the bird and the play of words and their meaning!"

The concluding saxophone choir re-circulates the music to the opening clarinets continuing the CD's ongoing proliferation of meaning and sonic images. Consider a building of rooks, a cast of hawks, a colony of penguins, a company of parrots, a congregation of plovers, a cover of coots.

C o m m e n t s

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