In the early days of Covid, when lockdowns held tight, even the loudest cities fell into silence. With all that clamor cleared away, other sounds filled the air. For New York City native Randall Poster, the most enchanting of them came from the hawks, cuckoos and warblers that could finally be heard above the din. “Amid the quiet, I became more aware of all the birdsong around us,” Poster told the Guardian. “Also, during a time when so much was unknown and dark, looking out the window and watching nature’s creatures continuing to thrive was comforting.”
It was also inspiring. For Poster, one of the film world’s most prominent music supervisors who has worked with directors like Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes, the hoots and caws of birds inspired him to ask his wide range of musical contacts if they would be interested in creating their own odes to aviary life.
The question struck a deep and immediate chord. More than 200 artists enthusiastically agreed to create new pieces to salute birdsong. They ranged from Elvis Costello and Beck and Jarvis Cocker to Nick Cave, the Flaming Lips, and Kamasi Washington. The result is a 242-track behemoth titled For the Birds, that, starting today, will arrive in five installments released over as many months. All proceeds will go to the Audubon Society.
For Poster, the project has as much to do with the activist movement to protect birds as it does with an appreciation for the sounds they make. “I see this project as a great way to draw attention to the crisis around bird life,” he said from his office overlooking New York’s Gramercy Park. “Birds are under tremendous threat from the overdevelopment of the planet. It’s destroying their habitats and disrupting their migratory patterns. There’s also a problem with all the glass buildings that keep their lights on at night. Millions of birds get killed smashing into them.”
Urgent as those issues may be, much of the music for the project luxuriates in calm. Many tracks strike a meditative tone and their arrangements tend toward the spare, the better to leave room for the birdsong to alight on the music. Some of the aviary contributions come from samples, others from field recordings the players made to capture the gulls, wrens and cockatoos around them. Interestingly, few of the mixes of human sounds and birdsong feel imposed or ornamental, despite the fact that the birds had no say in the matter. To musical contributor Jonathan Meiburg, whose group Shearwater took its name from a long-winged sea bird, the connection between the species couldn’t be clearer. “Birds make music for the same reasons we do,” he said. “They do it to communicate. Sometimes they do it just for the joy of it. Other times for the sensation of it. The more attuned you become to the natural world, the more you understand that it’s not alien to your own experience.”
Poster goes further, declaring that “we are birds. Like them, we’re fragile and we’re threatened,” he said. “We’re beautiful and we don’t want to be alone. We go from place to place and we want to take care of our children. The connections are profound.”
The For the Birds project is far from the first musical venture to employ birdsong. According to composer Nico Muhly, who contributed a track to the project, “you can hear it as far back as pre-baroque music, where stringed instruments were used to imitate natural sounds”.
In a more literal way, the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen incorporated the sound of winged creatures into many pieces he wrote. Likewise, the contemporary musician Paul Winter has used nature sounds in his music for decades. In a new song by Shearwater, Meiberg let a toucan take a solo. For Poster, role models for the project were the tweets and coos in classic rock songs like Layla, by Derek and the Dominoes and Blackbird, by the Beatles. He began reaching out to musicians for their contributions in the fall of 2020, knowing he had to act fast, before Covid restrictions loosened and the stars were able to get back on the road. The first artist he contacted was Nick Cave who, along with Warren Ellis, created a piece featuring the sounds of mourning doves. From there, artists spread the word, paving the way for a wide wake of contributors. On some tracks, artists collaborated with each other remotely. For one piece, Mark Ronson kicked things off by creating a beat. Then he invited Damon Albarn to add a chorus before bringing in Wale to layer on a rap. Some pieces have firm structures; others go for an ambient feel, such as Muhly’s track May Birds. “There’s no clear beginning, middle or end to it,” he said. “It’s like a garden of sound you sit with.”
The artists on the project cover a broad landscape of genres, from modern alternative stars like Devandra Banhart, to vintage folkies like Loudon Wainwright, to avant-gardists like Terry Riley to jazz artists like Rudresh Mahanthapp. While many of the pieces maintain a quiet and enraptured mood, those by Riley and Mahanthappa capture nature’s racket. “Birds don’t just sing,” Meiburg said. “They screech and scream, and some make sounds so deep, they’ll rattle your breast bone if you stand right next to them. The sheer variety of sounds birds can make is staggering. Some can even make multiple sounds at once. Compared to them, human music is pretty primitive.”
Meiburg’s track on the set, Kwitaro Backbone, includes birds from a field recording he made some time ago while standing on a sandbank overlooking a river in Guyana. “To hear bird voices – all of them present and equally loud – is a beautifully democratic experience,” he said. “It can become a spiritual experience when you marinate in it.”
All of the set’s tracks were newly recorded, though a few pre-existing pieces were remixed to feature birdsong, including those by Yoko Ono, Philip Glass and Alice Coltrane. Similarly, Elvis Costello created a fresh medley out of vintage songs, linking his rapturous 1993 piece The Birds Will Still Be Singing to the Beatles’ This Bird Has Flown.
The contributors don’t all come from the world of music. There’s also a visual component to the package, with architects like Nina Cooke John and artists like Andy Holden offering their innovative renderings of bird houses. Actors took part, too, by reading related poems. Sean Penn voiced Jim Harrison’s Counting Birds, while Tilda Swinton delivered a wry ode titled Sparrow, written in 1968 by Norman MacCaig. In biting verse, the poem describes this dark creature as a “proletarian bird” with taste “in clothes more dowdy than gaudy”.
Another witty piece came from Jarvis Cocker, whose Cuckoo Song includes the lines: “I try to love you/but I guess I’m out of practice/and practicing is strictly for the birds.”
One of the sparest tracks came from the Native American artist Ray Young Bear whose piece consists entirely of Indigenous chants and a stark drum to create a fleet, sonic pas de deux. Another piece translates the movement of birds into sound: the harmonies of the Haden Triplets swoop and sail, as if wafting through air. In Karen O’s piece, Hum Hum Hum, she connects onomatopoetic human language to the hypnotic thrum of birds.
Poster plans to use the project to connect, and amplify, the educational efforts of various ornithological groups, including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the American Bird Conservancy. To help with that, the eyeglass company Warby Parker will manufacture 20,000 binoculars (or, what they call, “bird-noculars”), to encourage kids to get into spotting, and appreciating, these creatures. The goal is to achieve a community of concern for birds that Poster likens to a Buddhist sangha. Beyond that, Poster hopes the project will encourage everyday people to become more aware of all the flying life around us. “Put a bird feeder outside your window,” he said. “You’ll be amazed by what comes your way.”