Michael Pestel and Syrinx Ensemble  •   Performance at National Aviary, Pittsburgh (2006)



Martha Rial, Post-Gazette

Michael Pestel, a former Chatham College professor who now teaches in Connecticut, plays for a grey-winged trumpeter yesterday at the National Aviary. "I don't want to overpower the birds, but to respond to their sounds and rhythms," he said. "I want to be a bird among birds."

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette

A grey-winged trumpeter chirps along with Ben Opie's alto saxophone.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette

Sound Poet Eden McNutt calls out to the birds residing in the National Aviary's Tropical Rainforest exhibit on the North Side. McNutt was adding his vocals to the Syrinx Ensemble's interactive concert with the birds at the Aviary.

Listen in
An earlier interactive instrumental performance with birds may be found on Michael Pestel's Web site, www.michaelpestel.com.


For the birds:
Ensemble gives concert for National Aviary residents, guests

Monday, January 09, 2006
By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

     A most peculiar concert took flight yesterday at the National Aviary. But it was not until a petite and prideful trumpeter joined the jam session that it really took off.
     That's because this was no ordinary musician, but a grey-winged trumpeter, a native bird of South America's tropical forests. It was responding to the musical musings of the Syrinx Ensemble, performing a concert literally for the birds at the North Side sanctuary.
     Led by flutist Michael Pestel, the quartet of musicians sought to liven up the birds' day with a peripatetic concert he hoped would stimulate them, even to the point of interaction.
     "I don't want to overpower the birds, but to respond to their sounds and rhythms," said Mr. Pestel, a former professor of art at Chatham College and current visiting lecturer at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "I want to be a bird among birds."
     While the exotic birds of the spacious Tropical Rainforest and Wetlands of the Americas exhibit rooms likely weren't fooled by the local musicians -- Mr. Pestel, singer Eden McNutt, saxophonist Ben Opie and bassist Tracy Mortimore -- they seemed to enjoy the tones.
     "They are definitely responding; the birds are more vocal." said Erin Estell, manager of animal programs at the aviary. She said the birds' general chatter level in the rooms was significantly increased. "It seems to be enriching for the birds."
     Some of the birds were more than just stimulated by the improvisatory serenade. A few chose to interact with the performers, who used extended techniques on their instrument to mimic bird song. By forcefully blowing air into his flute and by inserting a dowel inside the instrument, Mr. Pestel was able to create a whimsical sound that attracted the attention of that curious grey-winged trumpeter. Chirping and tweeting made for a strange duet with the dulcet tones of a modern flute.
     Later another trumpeter arrived, crooning to the accompaniment of the saxophone.
Elsewhere, an emerald green macaw took a keen liking to Mr. Mortimore's walking bass line. "He likes to follow me around," said the bassist.
     The affair engaged aviary patrons, too, including several children who Mr. Pestel encouraged to participate by shaking various noisemakers and birdcalls.
     "A good time was had by all species," said Patricia Carpenter of Squirrel Hill.
     While this is the first such interactive concert by the Syrinx Ensemble, Mr. Pestel has visited the aviary for years on his own and with other musicians. Another group now called panTonal has worked with him on sound installations and performances in the Pittsburgh area. Mr. Pestel's work with the Australian lyrebird was celebrated in the book and CD "Why Birds Sing," by David Rothenberg, which attempts to further understand the evolutionary reasons for bird song.
      The concert yesterday also served to show bird song's influence on humans.
     "There is a definite connection between bird song and human music," said Mr. Pestel. For instance, "the liocichla sings a perfect pentatonic scale."
     Composers and songwriters have long been intrigued with imitating bird song, from folk songs to Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" to Messiaen's "Reveil des Oiseaux." Einojuhani Rautavaaras' "Cantus Arcticus," a concerto for birds and orchestra, and Lee Hyla's "Wilson's Ivory Bill" are recent examples of ornithological works incorporating recordings of actual birds singing.
     But few Western composers actually write music that is to be performed with and for real birds. It is more of an Eastern tradition. Judging from this performance, it should happen more often.
     "I think they enjoy it," Mr. Pestel said.

(Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.)