John Middleton - Bird Symphony (Symphony No 2)

Bird Symphony (Symphony No 2)


Symphony orchestra

Recording, click here

John Middleton - Bird Symphony (Symphony No 2)

Other Information

I wanted to write something abstract, that is without human voices and words. This piece uses abstractions of the songs of birds in different environments and seasons, which provide the basis for symphonic development.

The structure of the seasons and life cycle gave it a philosophical and spiritual dimension as the composition proceeded.

In April 2011, the music was used as a theme (Birdsong) for an exhibition of works by Artspace at Charnwood Museum. The MIDI audio file was played at the private view and was available during the duration of the exhibition (3rd movement Autumn in the saltmarsh is available on the link). The image of part of the score was painted on a distressed gilded background by Erica Middleton. (65 mins)

Programme notes: Bird Symphony 2004-2009

My first idea was to move away from music generated by words to something with a degree of abstraction, based on the sounds of nature. Having listened to and internalised bird song over many years, it was initially very difficult to develop the mental transcriptions into other forms, but I eventually freed myself from the primary motifs. Movements 1-3 start with images from nature, but develop in an abstract fashion.

It became apparent that there is an analogy between developing bird song material and gardening. Humans have this tendency to try and create order from nature which is sometimes chaotic. The minute you turn away, the disorder starts to creep back. This happens continually in the music. Not that the dawn chorus is completely chaotic, but it is undisciplined.

Parallel with this idea is the concept of abstraction from nature and freeing the higher consciousness or spirit from the shackles of the body and everyday existence.

The bird songs, that interested me, came from different ecological environments, each with associated seasons. This was not a preconceived programme and the movements are not intended as tone poems.

In the final movement, I wanted to abstract the abstractions from each of the other three, and to explore their relationships in a free way. To discover inner truth by lowering the barriers of inhibition, as in the creative act or the dream state, was the key idea behind this movement. My perspective on the seasons, death and renewal was influenced by the death of my father in March 2008, during the final stages of the composition.

1. Spring over the Village

Early spring at dawn: the sun comes up over the village roof tops. First a Blackbird, then a Song Thrush are heard, before the dawn chorus erupts. The movement is based on sonata form which contrasts the Blackbird s lyrical and the Song Thrush s rhythmic themes. The former is developed into three related panoramic ideas and the latter becomes simplified and pervasive.

The Blackbird s song is in two parts, the first one lyrical, and the second probably picked up by mimicking someone like a builder whistling. For the second part, I took the rhythm out, slowed the phrase down and supplied harmony, so that it became, for me, a transcendental motif (in the 4th movement the voice of God).

Disorder is never far away and jazz-related elements infiltrate the middle section. The lyrical elements become integrated with the simplified background thrush rhythm and the movement ends with a short coda and a minor seventh chord (meaning unfinished business, except in a jazz club?).

2. Summer in the Woods

These woods have a sultry feel about them, though the birds are still in full song. The Wood Pigeon is represented only by a repetitive rhythm. A slightly sinister Cuckoo is heard, before the show is taken over by the warblers, newly arrived from Africa: Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff, both chromatic and descending, the latter staccato and disjointed (nature at its most undisciplined?). From the maelstrom emerges the lyrical song of the Blackcap, which is developed further. The disruptive Chiffchaff keeps returning, eventually as pizzicato strings. Just as tonality starts to become distorted, the original Pigeon rhythm returns and the movement deconstructs to a single line of violins.

3. Autumn in the Salt Marsh (with memories of spring)

This movement is built around the minimalistic calls of waders, starting with the Seven Whistler or Whimbrel (literally seven short repeated notes) and rapidly incorporating Greenshank, Redshank and Ringed Plover. A repeated ascending triplet represents the song of the Curlew (very complex in real life), a motif which undergoes significant transformation in form during the movement.

Underlying the calls of the waders is a heavier theme (actually related to the Curlew) which seems to become the song of the earth and which, in another guise, brings the movement to a close.

The movement is punctuated by a noise resembling a ship s foghorn, or the sound produced by the Bittern in spring, which is where the reminiscence of spring/youth idea comes in.

4. Elysian fields

The majority of the final movement is characterised by the absence of double bass or brass involvement. A feeling of dancing playfully without earthly constraints is emphasised, in the introduction, by pizzicato strings. Above this, the important motifs are arranged in series, but not in their original order, and similarities become apparent as they are blended and interchanged. Thus the structure of the movement is established.

During the exposition of the time-line of motifs, there are opportunities for further development of each one. Following a fugue-like section, the music becomes more dischordant and chaotic, with a return to raw bird calls and polymodality. This is followed by a small voice of calm based on the second half of the Blackbird song.

Subsequently, the music becomes more organised and lyrical, though with restless tonality. In the final section, the Blackbird and Song Thrush, the voice of God , a jazz-derived bass riff from the third movement and the song of the earth are all prominent. The reintroduction of double bass and brass reconnects with earthly influences and the coda theme from the first movement reappears to more purpose, leading inevitably to the relative major chord: renewal and optimism.

John Middleton 30.11.07 (movements 1-3) and 27.4.09 (final movement)

CD with the virtual orchestra is available - please contact me if you are interested: