Surrounded by the landscape paintings and natural scenes that characterize the flora and fauna room of the “Natural Selections” exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art, audience members sat in anticipatory silence as visiting poet Mary Pinard, Professor of English at Babson College, took the podium to begin reading her poems.
Pinard’s performance was part of “On the Wing: A Celebration of Birds in Poetry and Music,” an inventive performance that blends music, spoken word poetry and ornithological commentary. “On the Wing” featured two segments of poetry reading, two segments of music and a brief scientific commentary on the presence of snowy owls in New England.
“Because ornithology is about birds, and birds are the premier singers on the Earth, there is a really clear connection between [art and] the lyricism of how you make poetry imitate those sounds. There is a really strong connection [between the arts and ornithology] just in what birds do,” said Pinard.
“On the Wing” also featured pianist George Lopez, Artist-in-Residence at Bowdoin College, vocalist Kristen Rivers, composer Andrew List, Professor of Composition at Berklee College of Music, and ornithologist Wayne Peterson, Director of Important Bird Areas at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The performance showcased 12 original songs by List, infused with poems and lyrics written by Pinard and commentary by Peterson.
“On the Wing” was performed on Sunday afternoon in the Addison as a complement to “Natural Selections,” an exhibition curated from the Gallery’s permanent collection. “Natural Selections” focuses on “the artist’s relation to the natural environment,” according to the Addison’s website.
“[Rivers’] lyrics and the composer’s and the poet’s affinity for birds really fits in with a lot of the ideas that these artists are sort of getting at, which is being inspired by the natural world,” said Rebecca Hayes, Curator of Education at the Addison.
Though they were all created with the intention of being used in “On the Wing,” each aspect of the program was independent from the others — there was no music playing while Pinard was reading, for example. The performance was very informal, with the spoken parts delivered in a conversational tone, helping to engage the audience.
“On the Wing,” for which composition was completed in 2012, is still in its early stages. The performance at the Addison was only the fourth for the performers, who began working in 2008. As of now, the show has also been performed at the Berklee College of Music, Bowdoin College and Babson College.
According to List, who originally conceived the idea for the show, the process of creating “On the Wing” began when he identified Pinard at another poetry reading. Having already worked with Rivers and Lopez in other settings, List recruited them to work on the budding project.
For Pinard, who wrote both the poems and songs featured in “On the Wing,” the process proved to be a challenge. As someone who was used to “writing poems the way she wanted to write poems,” Pinard had to consult List, who oriented her thinking around practical musical matters, like when to include breaks for Rivers to take breaths. Throughout the process, Pinard strived to preserve her own originality while capturing the personality of each bird.
For instance, Pinard performed a poem dedicated to the goldfinch in a sing-song voice, as canaries are known for their pleasant voices.
“Of Sparrows,” another one of Pinard’s poems, was performed in a choppy style, with long spaces between each line.
“In. Just in. Now out. Off, up/up. But back in, in, in. Fuss/flip, in. Flibbertigibbet, bet, et, et,” Pinard read.
In particular, Pinard struggled to write about the eagle, a bird that is often associated with clichés. For inspiration, she watched recorded footage of an eagle over the course of several weeks.
Eventually, her work, along with the work of the others, became “On the Wing.”
The most compelling musical performance came at the end of the program in a jarring, eulogy-like piece that referenced the passenger pigeon, a North American bird that went extinct in 1914. By contrasting the dark subject matter with light consonant and vowel sounds, Pinard emphasized that one should enjoy nature, but also invest in preserving it.
“People have been connecting with birds through poetry and music since ancient times. Because birds can fly, sing and have beautiful and diverse appearances, they seem to lend themselves to creative expression. From a conservation perspective, ornithological science, especially now when many species are threatened and declining in population, can often be paired with music, art and other creative expression to inspire people to help or take action,” said Sam Hagler ’16, who enjoys birdwatching, in an email to The Phillipian.