Edward Cowie — Where Song Was Born
March 28, 2022 (No Comments) by Ganved14

Bird Song has played a significant role in the history of music, beginning as far back as the 14th century and extending into the present day with composers such as David Rothenberg and Olivier Messiaen. Wikipedia has an excellent essay on the subject in which they describe the influence birdsong has had on composers: “. . .  they can be inspired by birdsong; they can intentionally imitate bird song in a composition; they can incorporate recordings of birds into their works; or they can duet with birds.”

While the flute, or perhaps the piccolo, would seem to be an excellent candidate for the representation of birdsong, it is by no means the most prominent instrument among composers who venture into this field. So it is of considerable interest to learn of a new recording which finds prominent UK flautist Sara Minelli joining forces with composer Edward Cowie.

The work, Where Song Was Born, takes its shape from discoveries made by Edward Cowie in his role as an ornithologist as well as a composer, as does his 2021 piece Bird Portraits. However, while the earlier work is scored for violin and piano and features bird song from his native Britain, Cowie‘s new release stems from time he spent in Australia and is written for flute and piano.

It is a remarkable recording and we are very pleased that the editor of MusicWeb International has agreed to share a review written by one of their writers who is very familiar with Edward Cowie‘s work. His name is John France. His review follows:

Edward Cowie (b.1943) Where Song was Born: 24 Australian Bird Portraits (2021) — MÉTIER MSV 28620 [67:12] Sara Minelli (flute), Roderick Chadwick (piano) 

“This performance is stunning, beautiful, revelatory, often moving and thoroughly committed both in creativity and technique.

Edward Cowie

“I note with thanks my dependence on the liner notes and correspondence with Edward Cowie during the preparation of this review. 

“It may be thought that anyone who has not been to Australia will find it hard to relate to the music on this CD. This is in contradistinction to Edward Cowie’s previous ornithological exploration, Bird Portraits, (reviewed here and here) which featured species native to the United Kingdom and Northern Europe. The only two birds from the Antipodes that many Northern Hemisphere listeners will have come across by name are the Lyre Bird and the Kookaburra. 

“In fact, it is the numinous quality of this music that transcends the need for a deep understanding of the local birdlife. It comes down to the didgeridoo, that most characteristic of Aboriginal instruments. During my first run through of Where Song was Born, I was conscious that Cowie had made considerable use of extended techniques for the flute (including vocalisation). One of these innovations sounded very much like the didgeridoo. He agreed with me, but more than this. Cowie has been influenced by singing which he experienced at several major ritual ceremonies attended. The piano too sometimes “paints” both indigenous wind and percussion Aboriginal instruments and music. He reminded me that “Aboriginals have animal ancestors which transmit spirit messages and guard the families.”  It is this mystical and sacred element that infuses Where Song was Born more, perhaps, than in Bird Portraits. 

Mangrove Kingfisher

“The genesis of Where Song was Born was back in 1981, and again in 1982, when Cowie first visited Australia. This was further developed during his extended stay there between 1983 and 1995 as an academic. At that time, he made many drawings, sketches, paintings and notations of birds he had seen and heard. Equally important is the location, giving a definite sense of place. Compared to the more circumscribed territories of British birds, Cowie writes that: “Most Australian habitats – especially those inland from its extraordinary coastal habitats – are vast. Many have either seemingly infinite horizons or in the case of the great jungle rainforests, no horizon at all. In both cases, there is an often overwhelming sense of the primal and elemental. Many places feel like they have never been seen by a human eye at all.” 

“Edward Cowie told me that he never imagined that his research would be used on such a scale as the present work. Initially, his Australian residence resulted in only a handful of pieces, including the 15 Minute Australia composed for the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, the Lyrebird Motet for 24 Voices, the Bellbird Motet for SATB choir and finally the String Quartet No. 3: In Flight Music with the first movement suggesting hang gliders in Stanwell Park, on the mid-eastern coast of New South Wales. 

Where Song was Born
Part 1 Part 2
Book 1 Book 2 Book 3 Book 4
Australian Raven Superb Fairy Wren Bell Birds Mangrove Kingfisher
Australian Wood Duck Brolga Crane Wampoo Pigeon Helmeted Friarbird
Australian Masked Plover Pied Butcher Bird Golden-Header Cisticola White-breasted Sea Eagle
Eastern Whipbird Bush Stone Curlew Tawny Frogmouth Green Cat Bird
Willy Wagtail Wedge-Tailed Eagle Pied Currawong Sooty Owl
Golden Whistler Australian Magpie Kookaburra Lyre Bird

“As can be seen, the structure of Where Song was Born falls into two main sections and is presented in four “books.”  Cowie suggests that “Part 2 breathes a rarer air than Part 1. There is more a sense that the birds are not only being placed in a musical setting, but that the setting has become more mysterious, with an element of ritual and meditative mediation between subject and music and between landscape and our emotions.”

Lyre Bird

“I do not intend to write comments on every “section” of this work. What is clear is that this is a concept album (as we would have said back in the day about Prog. Rock). Sometimes there is a psychedelic feel here. However, it would be wrong to label any of this “new age” or a pastiche of “world music.”  It is a synthesis of many things, not all of which I have fathomed. Here and there jazz seems to emerge, there are ritualistic sounds and the above noted vocalisations by the performers. The pianist Roderick Chadwick is correct in suggesting the composition’s raison d’être is to link “our modern sensibilities with the earliest songsters,” the birds. Equally satisfying is the sense of continuity between the earliest sonics of humankind and the post avant-garde musicality of the 21st century.

“Why did the composer choose the flute? Firstly, it is one of the most ancient instruments in the history of humankind (possibly only the drum is earlier?). Cowie notes that “wind instruments form an integral part of the instrumental music of the Aboriginals of Australia.” Furthermore, “virtuoso didgeridoo players often incorporate the songs and movements of birds into their ceremonial music.”  Another reason is the relation between birdsong and breath, hence the flute – a wind instrument. There is a sense of timelessness which makes it an ideal solo instrument at the “conjuring of a natural sound for the Australian birds being portrayed.” Typically, (but not exclusively) the piano provides the “landscape” where the flute majors on the birdsong.

Willie Wagtail

“Edward Cowie told me that “the scale, vastness and strangeness of this cycle is intentional. I want, more than ever, to take a listener into an elemental experience of the music. To feel carried to the New World…which is in fact…as far as birds are concerned…an OLD world…”

“Conceivably Cowie’s achievement can be summed up by an old African saying, cited in the liner notes: “Birds sing not because they have answers, but because they have song.”  This sums up perfectly the two already written, and the two projected cycles (see below), where the emphasis is always on the “birds and the places where they fly, dance, fight, nest and sing…”

Sara Minelli

“As expected with Métier products the liner notes are beyond reproach. The booklet opens with a long and detailed “Introduction” by Cowie. This is followed by a postscript, where amongst other things, he outlines plans for the two further ornithological cycles. One will major on the United States and will be called Where the Wood Thrush forever sings. And the other, But Because they have songs, will be an exploration by percussion, marimba and piano of birdlife in (mainly) Zambia and Botswana. An interesting addition to these notes are the two essays by the performers, Sara Minelli, flute and Roderick Chadwick, piano. Both give helpful interpretive suggestions for this music. There are detailed biographical notes about the performers and the composer. For more information about Cowie’s life and achievement, see his excellent new webpage. A particular highlight of this booklet is the beautiful cover artwork, Eruption of Cockatoos, by Heather Cowie, Edward’s wife. It is an evocative masterpiece. Finally, there is a broad selection of photographs of the composer, the performers and two of the feathered folks featured on this album – the Superb Fairy Wren and the Golden-Headed Cisticola. 

“In an ideal world, the CD booklet would contain a selection of the underlying sketches, as well as photographs of each one of the 24 avian subjects. Over and above, it would be helpful to have some images of the background landscape. Feasibly, a webpage could be devoted to this work. Interestingly, Cowie’s new website devotes several pages to images of the artwork that explains his process of writing music such as the present composition and the earlier Bird Portraits. These illustrations are beautiful. 

Roderick Chadwick

“It will be clear to the reader that I consider Where Song was Born to be a multi-media piece that would benefit immensely from visuals. 

“The performance by Sara Minelli (flute) and Roderick Chadwick (piano) is stunning, beautiful, revelatory, often moving and thoroughly committed, both in creativity and technique

“The listener can sit (or even lie) back and enjoy and appreciate this transcendent journey through the ornithological landscape of Australia. The sounds and music evoked will play strongly on the imagination, even if the species are unknown quantities. And there is always the Internet to find out more information about the flora and fauna of that great country.”

Review by John France. This review appears in Music Web International.com and is used with their kind permission

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