What better way in February to hasten the approach of spring, than to cast our minds to the dawn chorus of birds. There has been talk in government circles of using its presence as an indicator of quality of life; and with growing noise pollution and the collapse of some songbird populations, the trend is not good. The focus of this exhibition is timely in more ways than one.
There are no actual bird songs to be heard, however. Instead we are offered a kind of synaesthetic journey into other ways of reflecting on the codes, patterns and functions involved, and a gentle moral challenge – to consider how art may celebrate and engage with the science-stretching and spirit-stretching world of birds, without converting its language into our own by a colonising act of anthropic appropriation.
The celebration comes first. Geometric screen-prints, digital prints, colour schemes, onomatopoeic texts, adaptations of sonograms and ancient musical notations range in tasteful groups around the walls. These various presentation media almost dissolve in a sensory fusion, undistracted by curatorial explanation (although an account of the elegant complexity of the work is available in a handout). Binding it all together is a soundtrack based on the same underlying patterns and composed for a ‘chorus’ of seven pianos.
Mike Collier is an artist, curator and academic with a deep interest in experiential interrogations of place and language. Bennett Hogg is a composer and cultural theorist. Together they were inspired by one morning’s dawn chorus at Cheeseburn in Northumberland, where much of this work was subsequently exhibited in 2017. Wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample brought a further array of skills to the collaboration, and Alex Charrington helped to produce the superb prints. A joint publication and music CD are in preparation.
Transcriptions of birdsong date back to antiquity, imitations of it feature in every culture’s music, and contemporary artists like Marcus Coates, Hanna Tuulikki and Chris Watson have experimented with more transformed adaptations of the natural sounds. The many-staged deconstructions and re-workings in A Dawn Chorus, however, studiously avoid implying that the orchestration and meaning of birdsong can simply be ‘translated’ into some existing human lexicon. What emerges is not a literal translation of the dawn chorus, but an internally coherent layered evocation of it, every ingredient of which can nevertheless authentically trace back to the wild source.
‘Seeing music in birdsong’ is, in a way, to project our own codes and conventions on to the natural world. This exhibition effectively does the reverse, acknowledging the degree of unknowability in what science increasingly refers to as the ‘culture’ of non-human species, and producing homage, not imitation. In this, it may be one of the most sensitive and respectful treatments of the subject yet. We can but hope that each dawn’s ‘chorus’ of human commuters catching their trains next to Platform-A will pay close attention.
A Dawn Chorus is at Platform-A Gallery, Middlesbrough Railway Station, until Thursday 7 March. Open Tuesday to Friday 10am – 4pm, and by appointment.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.