Recapping on Cowie’s methodology in creating these cycles, it is important to realise that there is a long pre-compositional process. He recalls that before he was able to write down crotchets and quavers, he could “draw sounds from nature.” He explains that he uses four notebooks in the “field” to develop the music. Number one records the “shape” or “form” of what surrounds him. The second majors on prevailing colour schemes, and how they “blend or clash.” Notebook three is devoted to representational drawing which will embrace items in the local landscape such as insects, flowers, and the birds. These are usually developed in full colour. Finally, the fourth notebook details the musical notation of what he hears. These “being in the form of a translation or relocation of those natural sound-sources [are made] into a potentially musical outcome.”
The literary inspiration for this new work came from American author Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). Cowie explains: “During the 12 months of writing it, these words from Thoreau’s Walden have helped me to keep focus on my ‘in-field’ experiences - “I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the Wood Thrush forever sings””. Cowie does not actually state when and where he did the observations for this present composition. However, he notes previously driving down the Shenandoah Highway, and a trip along the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains. These places were “a continuous revelation of new kinds of forest and new forms of avian choral music at the same time.” He has made subsequent visits to Alabama and Tennessee as well as Florida, California, and the Deep South. During these explorations he has filled many notebooks “with responses to different kinds of American habitats and bird-scapes.” He pulled together this “field work” during 2022-23.
The key to enjoying/appreciating these twenty-four pieces is to consider them holistically. They are not just “transcriptions” of birdsong from the Americas but are designed “to create an immersive tapestry of avian dramas.” This, I understand, incorporates landscape, background, and human interventions. For better or worse, “We are transported into a world where nature’s symphony collides with human musical expression…” Equally important is the bird in action: “the way they fly, display and use their coloured plumage in their ritual dances.” To this end, Cowie calls upon resources such as Indigenous cultures and the vivacious spirit of jazz. There is even what I imagine to be musical onomatopoeia of landscape features such as water and geological features and vegetation.
I explored Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings slowly, by taking a Book at a time (there are four in all, each with six “birds”). Else, the near-ninety-minute unremitting sound of clarinet and piano may pall. It is possible to put the avian titles of each Book aside and enjoy these pieces as absolute music. Yet, the evocative nature of the birdsong and the landscape-song are ever present.
It would have been helpful if the
location of Cowie’s study of each “birdsong” had been noted. The USA is a big
place, with many different bird habitats. For example, the Great Road Runner
is native to the south and west of the States, and the Least Bittern
winters in the Baja California Peninsula, breeds in the Eastern Seaboard States
and lives year-round in the Northeast parts of South America.
The performance by Anna Hashimoto (clarinet), Roderick Chadwick (piano) is subtle, nuanced and always creative and revelatory. The duo is clearly committed to Cowie’s visionary and numinous achievement. The recording is ideal and enhances the recital.
As with previous releases of Cowie’s “nature” music the booklet for Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings is a model of design. The main contextual and descriptive notes are by the composer. Both soloists contribute their thoughts on the performance and recording of this repertoire. Biographies of Edward Cowie, Anna Hashimoto and Roderick Chadwick are given. Of outstanding value are the illustrations. As noted above, Cowie’s compositional methodology involves a fusion of representational art and musical sketching as preparatory material. Several examples of these are printed in full colour: Northern Goshawk, Great Horned Owl, Broda Tailed and the Blue Throated Hummingbirds. I have said before that these preliminary sketches are works of art in their own right. Further examples of this process can be viewed at Cowie’s website, here. (See the Four Stages links on the left of the page). The booklet includes photographs of the performers and the composer “in the field.” Finally, the beautiful “quilt-like” landscape painting on the cover is Square moves in Green by Heather Cowie.
The liner notes close with a sobering thought. Cowie expresses his fear that Thoreau’s use of the word “forever” is potentially problematic. He reminds the reader that in the past 40 years, Great Britain has lost 80% of its bird population. It may well be an analogous situation in Australia, the United States and Africa. He concludes by suggesting that “This cycle should stand as a wonder, but also warning. We need birds far more than they need us…”Track Listing:
Edward Cowie (b.1943)
1. American Fish Crow
2. Wood Thrush
3. Eastern Meadowlark
4. Common Loon
5. Belted Kingfisher
6. American Winter Wren
7. Broad tailed and Blue throated Hummingbirds
8. White winged Dove
9. Common Nighthawk
10. Greater Roadrunner
11. Least Bittern
12. Great Horned Owl
1. Blue Jay
3. Yellow Crowned Night Heron
4. Northern Goshawk
5. Say’s Phoebe
6. Red Winged Blackbird
7. Northern Cardinal
8. Virginia Rail
9. Turkey Vultures
10. Yellow Breasted Chat
11. Horned Lark
12. Bald Eagle
Anna Hashimoto (clarinet), Roderick Chadwick (piano)
rec. Undated, Recorded at Ayriel Studios, Whitby