Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Birds Playing Guitars

It's a double April Fool's—I'm posting to the blog for the first time in months, and birds are playing guitars. Actually, both of these are not tricks at all. Here's a piece I wrote in response to an amazing installation that I recently saw in Salem.

Birds playing guitars? That is something to see—and hear. When my friend told me about From Here to Ear at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, I didn’t really believe her. She said, “There are musical instruments, and birds, and they interact somehow.”

It was the “somehow” that perplexed me. How can you play a guitar without hands? I imagined a complicated set-up. Maybe the guitars were attached to something that reacted to the birds’ actions, like a cable or another apparatus. I couldn’t picture the interaction between bird and guitar happening without an intermediary of some kind in the system. But that’s exactly what we saw: birds playing guitars. When it was 10:20 a.m. and the guards let us into the gallery, we saw small, colorful zebra finches going about their normal bird business—eating, preening, flying, perching—and thereby playing guitar.

I’d made a lot of assumptions about what it means to “play” a guitar. The instruments weren’t oriented in a typical, vertical guitar-playing position. Instead, they were mounted horizontally on drum stands so they provided an ideal surface for the tiny birds to perch on. Expensive guitars doubled as tree branches and finch feet became guitar picks. The birds’ tiniest movements became sources of melody, electronic but peaceful. The guitars were tuned in harmony with each other, and there was nothing dissonant in the random, reverberating notes.

The effect was an odd but affecting combination of nature and industry. My friend pointed out how noisy it was in the gallery and that the finches didn’t seem to mind it. They also weren’t bothered by having a group of people gawking at them. They just flew around, ate, perched, and sang their own songs—much as I imagine they would amid ambient sounds in nature, especially if they lived near a particular source of noise, such as a waterfall or a highway.

I wanted to spend the whole day there. I wanted to live in there. I wanted to be tiny and have a finch’s eye view of the world. But soon our 15 minutes were up and we were ushered out of the gallery, birdsong and guitar chords reverberating in our minds. 

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