Bird Songs (2007-9)

  1. “Fifty-Nine Swans” (Yeats)
  2. “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” (Plath)
  3. “The Hierarchies of Sound” (Evans)

I’ve uploaded 3 performances of my song cycle for mezzo and piano, “Bird Songs”. Each time working on this song cycle from scratch with a different singer was extraordinarily fun, and a tremendous challenge and learning experience.  I played the outrageously tricky piano part in all of these performances:


As far as I’m aware, the first complete performance was given by Danae Eleni, at my Composer Portrait Concert in Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, 14th May 2012:



Video of my and Danae’s performances:


The second complete performance of the song cycle was given by Julija Karaliunaite in a Druskomanija Festival recital, Hotel Regina 20th May 2012.

I was honoured to be invited to perform a concert with soprano (and doctor of mathematics) Julija Karaliunaite at the 2012 Druskomanija Festival. I turned up in Vilnius a week early to rehearse with Julija, and we embarked on an intense week preparing songs by Cage, Gelgotas, Vitkauskaite, as well as Bird Songs. I also performed (for only the second time in my life) some piano pieces by Michael Finnissy.  The recital took place in Druskininkai.  On our return to Vilnius we were equally honoured to be able to repeat the programme at the Lithuanian Composers’ Union– a place which has a very special place in my heart.  This recording is from the Druskininkai performance:



The third complete performance was given by Lucy Williams in my second composer portrait concert in 2012, “Music for Voices”:


Lucy Williams was the dedicatee of the cycle, and it was in fact she who introduced me to Yeats’ “Wild Swans at Coole”. Lucy individually premiered all the songs from the cycle, but this performance from my second Composer Portrait concert in Southampton was the first time we’d performed the entire cycle together. It was an exhilirating experience.



Last year I made a Chinese translation of the beautiful poem “Hierarchies of Sound” by Paul Evans, the third song from the cycle (thanks to Stella Zhou and Emma Zhang for helping with it):





正当我在聆听那诗中火焰的声音时,煤渣的声音 – 又或者是罐子?使我陷入那河的寂静。


My notes from 2012:

Bird Songs (2007-9) is a cycle of three songs for mezzo-soprano and piano, setting poems by W.B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, and Paul Evans.  The cycle traces a progression from dominance of the voice (in “Fifty-Nine Swans”), through equality of voice and piano (in “Black Rook…”), through to dominance of the piano at the beginning of “The Hierarchies of Sound”.  Through this third song, the voice breaks free again. 

All three poems feature birds.  Yeats imagines a flock of swans that have returned to the same lake for nineteen Autumns, and wonders whose eyes they will delight with their beauty when they’ve flown away.  For Plath, the sight of a black rook arranging its feathers in the rain stimulates transcendent visions, and imagines one day the sudden appearance of an angel before one’s eyes.  The passing image of a sea gull and the sound of its wing-tips hitting the water is at the heart of a confusing melange of sound-memories: what is the present experience of the narrator, what is the memory, and what is an image in a poem? 

You might hear certain pictorial elements in the music: the sudden leap to a high note in the vocal part at the end of the first song, suggesting the departure of the swan; the explosive music in the piano at the end of the second song, suggesting the arrival of an angel; in the third song, the crackling of cinders in a fire, a tin hitting the stone edge of the river, and the swirling depths of the Thames, which are also the swirlings of our memories.


Tianjin December 2016 notes with my Chinese translation:

Bird Songs is a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano setting poems by Yeats, Plath and Paul Evans, describing different natural and urban scenes featuring birds, and the psychological state of the viewer as he or she watches them.  The music does not imitate songs of specific birds, but evokes in sound the flight and appearance of the birds as well as the atmosphere of their environment.  The first song sets “Wild Swans at Coole” by W. B. Yeats, in which the poet describes seeing a skein of swans return to the same lake every Autumn for nineteen years in a row, only to find in the twentieth year that they have not returned.  He imagines where they have flown to.  The second song sets “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” by Silvia Plath, in which she describes the appearance of a simple rook in visionary terms, as if it were an angel or something magical; she describes the way many everyday phenomena can create such a sense of the metaphysical.  The third song by English poet Paul Evans, “The Hierarchies of Sound”, describes walking beside the Thames in London, and watching seagulls floating high above.  He describes the sounds of the river, and how they excite in him memories of other sounds and places; as he sleep by the river, the sounds of the river mix with the sounds of his dreams.  The three songs together evoke and celebrate the beauty of birds and their ability to inspire in us visions, emotions and memories.

《鸟之歌》  是为次女高音、钢琴而作的艺术歌曲, 由叶芝(W.B.Yeats)、普拉斯(Sylvia Plath)和保罗·伊万(Paul Evans)的诗组成, 描述了在大自然与城市这两种不同场景下鸟的特征, 以及看鸟的人的不同的心理。音乐并没有特别的去模仿鸟类, 但是用声音去表现鸟类的飞翔与出现, 以及他们生活的环境氛围。第一部分是叶芝的诗”在库勒的野生天鹅”, 这首诗描述了一群天鹅排成一队,十九年间每年秋天都会回到同样的一片湖中, 然而第二十年, 他们没有回来。诗人想象他们将飞去何处。第二首歌是普拉斯的“雨天中的黑乌鸦”, 她用幻想的语言描写了一只乌鸦, 就好像它是一个天使或有魔力的鸟, 她描述了每天都发生的普通现象怎么能创造出玄妙景象。第三首歌是英国诗人保罗伊万的作品, “声音的层级”, 描述了他漫步在泰晤士河畔, 看到海鸥飞翔在河面上。他描写了河水的声音, 这种声音如何唤醒了他记忆中的其他声音和地方; 当他在河边睡着, 河水的声音与他梦境的声音混合在一起。这三首歌都赞美了鸟类的美丽和它们激发我们的视觉,情感和记忆的能力。