Night Songs: Pied Butcherbird, centre-stage

Keith Gallasch

Superbly carrolling and chorusing all day long, the resident magpies in our inner city suburban street constantly bring to mind Night Songs, performed as part of Performance Space’s Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art in October 2022. Magpie song and my recovery from a long illness have finally brought me to write about a deeply engaging work that celebrates birdsong as music and reminds us of the ecological and emotional significance of our kinship with other species.

In Night Songs, Hollis Taylor and Jon Rose express their admiration, aesthetic and empathetic, for Australia’s Pied Butcherbird, placing it centre-stage. The bird dominates our vision in large-scale projections and envelops our hearing with the extraordinary interplay of human musicians with the beauty and daunting complexity of birdsong.

Of a previous, related project, Whistling in the Dark, the artists write that “in working with the songs of Pied Butcherbirds, we set ourselves the task of meticulously taking on the sonic constructs of another species. With imagination, we endeavour to either ‘be bird’ or consider ‘what if bird could’.”

At the same height as the projected birds, eight members of Ensemble Offspring perch tree-height on scaffolding that angles out either side of the screen. From the floor we gaze up at birds and players engaged in an imaginary dialogue, a rich call and response conjured by Taylor (recordings, transcription and analysis of the birdsong) and Rose (arrangement). We get to share in a generous act of ecological attentiveness that convincingly asserts that birdsong is indeed music and kin to human music-making.

The artists write of the sundown-to-sunrise traversal of Night Songs, “Pied Butcherbirds sing their long form songs at night in spring, and this performance shrinks a twelve-hour period into a one-hour concentrated audio-visual encounter.” Across that hour we watch the birds in small clusters atop branches communing lyrically in, as Taylor writes, “ensemble singing.” In another moment, on a rare wet night in Alice Springs, bathed in blue night light, a lone bird on corrugated iron roofing surprisingly rattles off brisk imitations of the calls of other avians.

For most of Night Songs the birds, male and female, are joined by the musicians in a complex interweaving of voices. A gentle trumpet fanfare is paired with warbling and trilling. The trumpet again, long-breathed, its cries are almost elegiac against the sweetness of the birdsong that inspires it. Bird-like utterances from bassoon and clarinets hover over a double bass pulse with a flute in flight above. Elsewhere the bassoon clucks gutturally. A bird sings, the flute takes flight, singing that learnt song — “This bird is virtuosic, and so becomes the flute part,” writes Taylor. Vibraphone, marimba, woodblocks and other percussion too do their dance with birdsong, evoking environment and, like the other instruments, capturing intricacies of the song otherwise often too fast for our hearing to catch (Taylor says that sometimes, “I actually simplify the birdsong in order for humans to be able to do it”).

The flow of projected images is correspondingly embracing: starry night skies, moon, rain, lightning, ghost gums, sun rising, its gold fanning out across the musicians as the morning chorus starts up, birds and musicians singing a multi-layered fanfare. In the performance’s calming night-time “postlude,” writes Taylor, “the bird at Ross River sings (a lament?), floating above chord changes in another cosmology but connecting with our sense of musicality.” It’s a beautifully tender composition, pairing perfectly bird and vibraphone. As often in Night Songs’ 13 episodes, the bird gets the last notes, its song lingering within us. For a wondrous while we have become part of the “interspecies engagement” that Rose and Taylor aspire to.

Musician Jim Denley, responding warmly to Hollis Taylor’s 2017 CD Absolute Bird, aptly writes of “the transformation of the (birdsong) material,” that “it enters the human realm. Hollis has become a medium — her sustained forensic listening has opened up a wormhole to another world.”

A standout in Performance Space’s 2022 Liveworks, Night Songs is perfect festival fare: celebratory and communal in spirit and immersive staging, and blessed with a welcome sense of ecological sensitivity and purpose. Hollis Taylor’s faithful transcriptions effectively become co-compositions, sharing in the complex splendour of birdsong, while Jon Rose’s incisive arrangements — pairing birds and instruments in duets, trios and larger ensembles — give rich body to this beautiful co-creation. Ensemble Offspring brought together birds and composers in their wonderful 2020 CD Birdsong. In Night Songs, the ensemble does full justice to Rose and Taylor and the birds that the musicians emulate and applaud with their superb playing.


The first segment of Episode 36, Series 2 of ABC TV’s Art Works on ABC iView includes scenes from Night Songs in rehearsal alongside interviews with Rose and Taylor.

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations are from the Jon Rose website and the Night Songs program.

Read Chris Reid’s review, “Is birdsong music? Ask the butcherbird”, of Hollis Taylor’s book Is Birdsong Music? (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2017) and Taylor’s double CD Absolute Bird.

Performance Space: Liveworks 2022, Performance Space & TURA, Night Songs, John Rose & Hollis Taylor with Ensemble Offspring: percussion, conductor Claire Edwardes, clarinet, bass clarinet Jason Noble, flutes Lamorna Nightingale, double bass Benjamin Ward, double trumpet Callum G’Froerer, trombone Rhys Little, bassoon Ben Hoadley, oboe Ben Opie; audio recordings, transcriptions, analysis Hollis Taylor, video recordings Jon Rose (except Cape Range NP, Carolin Kleehaupt), arrangements Jon Rose; Carriageworks, Sydney, October 26-28

Top image: Jon Rose, Hollis Taylor, Ensemble Offspring, Night Songs, Liveworks 2022, photo Prudence Upton

19 July 2023