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Emily Doolittle Seven Duos for Birds or Strings (2012) 15'
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, email@example.com.
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
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
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.