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Emily Doolittle Seven Duos for Birds or Strings (2012) 15'
Vn Va

All Contributors: Emily Doolittle (composer)

Programme Note:

Seven Duos for Birds or Strings

1. Cyphorhinus arada

2. Branta canadensis

3. Gymnorhina tibicen

4. Myadestes occidentalis

5. Cossypha heuglini

6. Alectoris rufa

7. Thryothorus euophrys

For Annette-Barbara Vogel, written with support from the Erik Stokes Fund,

the Culture and Animals Foundation, and the Canada Council for the Arts.

Please notify the composer of any performances,

In temperate regions of European and North American, most bird songs are sung by

males, typically in the context of attracting a mate or defending territory. The females of

these species are often very selective about which songs (and thus which birds) they find

attractive, and play a large role in determining the direction in which the songs develop.

In tropical regions, however, duet songs are common, and the females of many species

sing as often as the males. In some species, duets occur between mated pairs: a tightly

coordinated duet indicates a well-bonded pair. Sometimes when one bird of these birds

dies, its mate will take over singing both parts of the duet. In other species, pairs sing a

more loosely coordinated-call-and response, perhaps keeping track of each other in a

dense forest through the alternation of songs. In a few species, birds gather in groups of

more than two, with all males singing one part and all females singing the other.

In Seven Duos, Iíve explored many different ways two singing birds can relate to each

other. Some of the birds Iíve chosen to represent here are true duetters Ė each bird has its

own part, and the two interlock in a specific way. In other cases, Iíve simply chosen a

species where two or more birds may sing together, but not in a coordinated way. As

well, each duo explores a different way that music can relate to birdsong. In some Iíve

transcribed the song as accurately as possible (though Iím keenly aware of the difficulties

of notating exact rhythms, pitches, and timbres Ė some bird-like particularities are always

lost, while human musical and instrument-specific particularities are always added.) In

other Iíve used a transcription as a starting point, from which I have allowed the music to

develop in its own direction, or have tried to recreate the general atmosphere of hearing

the song, rather than trying to transcribe it accurately.

1. Cyphorhinus arada (musician wren, or uirapuru) is a small brown wren native to the

Amazon. The bird is an important character in Amazonian mythology, and its song has

inspired much music in South America and elsewhere. It is unknown whether musician

wrens sing interlocking duets, but recordings suggest that they do antiphonally alternate

complete songs. The violin part is a direct transcription of the song of a musician wren

(recorded by Patrick Ingremeau and available on the Xeno-Canto wbsite) Ė one which,

amazingly, fits almost perfectly into a Lydian scale. The viola part is a song Iíve

composed to complement it, adhering as closely as I can to Musician Wren style. When

the piece opens, one bird is depicted as being the background, but it gradually approaches

until the two parts can be heard equally, combining to make a musical composite.

2. Branta Canadensis (Canada goose) came close to extiction in the first half of the 20th

century, but revised game management plans and a program of introducing captive-rasied

Canada Geese into the wild has led to such a substantial regrowth in population that they

are now considered an invasive pest in some areas. (Border Collies are sometimes

employed to encourage large groups of geese to leave lawns and public parks!) Though

Canada Geese arenít duetters, they are usually found in large groups, honking together.

The thing I love about goose sounds is that an individual goose sounds ridiculous, but in

groups they sound hauntingly beautiful.

3. Gymnorhina tibicen (Australian magpie) is a medium-sized, crow-like bird native to

Australia and Southern New Guinea. Their song is rich in overtones and sounds a bit like

a modem connecting up, but when it is slowed we can hear that it is full of wild

arpeggiations and modulations. Though these birds do duet, their song is so complex that

I ended up needing both instruments simply to capture one birdís song. I transcribed a

slow version, and then expanded it through repetition of motives, and the occasional

addition of harmonic notes to try to capture the bright, rough timbre of the Australian

Magpieís sound.

4. Myadestes occidentalis (brown-backed solitaire) is a bird in the thrush family, native to

montane and lowland evergreen forest in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El

Salvador. Like the song of the Australian magpie, this song has to be slowed considerably

for human listeners to hear that it is made of harmonic-sounding arpeggios. However the

Australian magpie leaps from one arepggiated chord to another, while the brown-backed

solitaire gradually glissandos up and down.

5. Cossypha heuglini (white-browed robin chat) is a member of the Old World flycatcher

family, found in sub-Saharan Africa, and known for its beautiful song. In this species, the

male and female sing distinctly different parts. The male sings a repeated warbling

motive, which increases in volume as the song progresses. When it is sufficiently loud,

the female adds a bright, trilled descant.

6. Alectoris rufa (red-legged partridge). This could really be any of a number of small or

medium-sized ground birds, clucking as they peck at the ground. Though these birds do

not duet, interesting cross-rhythms and textures may arise when two of these birds are


7. Pheugopedius euophrys (Plain-Tail Wren) These small wrens, native to the Andes,

gather in groups of two to seven to sing tightly interlocking duets. All the males sing one

part and all the females the other. The parts are so well-coordinated that they sound like a

single song.

Although the Seven Duos are conceived as a whole, they could also be performed in

subsets, and the order can be arranged as desired.

The composer would like to thank the Erik Stokes Fund, the Culture and Animals

Foundation, and the Canada Council for the Arts for commissioning this work, and for

providing the funding which enabled me to research the songs of duetting birds at the

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. Thanks to ornithologist Dr.

Henrik Brumm and his lab for being my hosts in Seewiesen, and to Annette-Barbara

Vogel for her input as I was working on the piece.