THE PLEASURE OF
Conserving the Pandemic Soundscape
The song of the dawn chorus is an invitation back to a conversation with the non-human inhabitants with whom we share our cities.
Of the many unforeseen consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, one was a greater awareness of the urban nature in our midst. As the lockdown forced us to remain apart, we became more aware of the wildlife around us, particularly urban birds and their songs. This project aims to preserve this awareness, so that as we come together once more, we also maintain our new relationship with the non-humans with whom we share our cities.
This project will collect recordings of the urban dawn chorus, taken from parks and backyards across the GTA, in collaboration with University of Toronto faculty and students in music, wildlife biology, and ecology and religion. These recordings will be musically analyzed and transcribed, inspiring a new composition that reflects upon the pleasure of hearing birdsong.
Musically, the themes of COVID-19 and rediscovered biophany—displeasure and disconnection, pleasure and reconnection—will be explored and contrasted in the composition. Not only will the recording express the joy of reconnecting with nature’s music, it will also explore the hope that this renewed connection can be maintained and strengthened as we emerge from the pandemic.
The project will culminate in a lecture recital, and music and educational videos, involving faculty and students from across the disciplines, sharing their work on bioacoustics, musical composition, eco-spirituality and vocal performance.
Bioacoustic rhythms, most noticeably birdsong, usually drowned out of our soundscape by our anthrophony, have re-entered our collective awareness. This project aims to preserve this regained awareness as we emerge from the pandemic and employ it to further the aims of conservation. The pleasure we take from birdsong, and the feelings of connection to nature it evokes, can empower us to better care for our environment. When given voice, these feelings can affirm conservation’s aim of protection, its task of restoration, and its end of preservation.
At the centre of this project is the question of how our feelings of connection to nature and the pleasure they evoke in us can empower us to better care for our environment? Such experiences involve a sense of nature’s own inherent meaning and value. The song of the dawn chorus, and the pleasure that accompanies it, is an invitation back to a conversation with the non-human inhabitants with which we share our cities.
The pleasure of hearing birdsong invokes a sense of nature’s own inherent rhythm with which we can harmonise. The ability to give greater expression to our feelings of pleasure, to communicate our sense of connection with nature, is essential to the aim of environmental conservation. Music, across cultures, religions and throughout history, has been a primary means in forming a human-nature dialogue. This project will continue this tradition through the creation, performance, recording, and critical reflection on our renewed awareness of nature.
Instructors from across the university, and all disciplines, are invited to involve their classes and students in the project. Participants and volunteers are asked to make recordings of the dawn chorus.
These will be musically analyzed and transcribed and employed by the project’s composer and musicians to inspire a new composition that reflects upon the pleasure of hearing the dawn chorus in the context of the pandemic.
Birdsong recordings will be rendered though spectrographic analysis. The analysis of pitch frequencies will then allow these samples to be transcribed into musical notation, yielding the raw material that our musicians will work with.
DEBUT PERFORMANCE AND VIDEO RECORDINGS
Following the composition and rehearsal of a new musical score for solo voice and piano, inspired by the GTA dawn chorus, a debut performance lecture recital will be held for the University and wider community (health measures permitting). The event will be live streamed and recorded.
An optimized musical video recording of the composition that integrates the performance footage and photography of the sampled bird species will also be produced and made publicly available online. This will be accompanied by an educational video on the project.
Alexander J. B. Hampton
is an Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Toronto (2018-2022), specialising in metaphysics, poetics and nature. He is the author of Romanticism and the Re-Invention of Modern Religion (Cambridge 2019), and editor of Pandemic, Ecology and Theology: Perspectives on COVID-19 (Routledge, 2020), and Christian Platonism: A History (Cambridge, 2021). He is currently writing a study of nature and metaphysics and is the editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Christianity and the Environment (Cambridge, 2021).
has sung at Santa Fe Opera, Minnesota Opera, and the Banff Centre. A graduate of Yale Opera, Percifield is pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Toronto with Wendy Nielsen. A recipient of the SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship, Percifield's research examines the role of mimicry and creative agency in vocal performance. Recent highlights include performing Debussy’s Chansons Baudelaire at Carnegie Hall with Yale in New York, and premiering Felipe Téllez’s vocalise, You and I, Here and There, with the UTSO under conductor Uri Mayer. www.npercifield.com
is a Doctoral Candidate in Composition at the University of Toronto. His music “often balances on a tightrope between static beauty and violence;” and has been described as “fresh" with "pithy modesty” (NY Classical Review ‘17). He most recently collaborated with Barbara Hannigan on a new short chamber opera titled Penelope, and was commissioned by Jonathan Crow for a new work premiered at Toronto Summer Music (’21). Fraser is currently working on a U of T Student Engagement Award funded project which unpacks the mental health impact of COVID-19 on different generations. www.gfrasermusic.wixsite.com/composer
is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, specializing in extended piano techniques and music for prepared piano. He is a faculty member at The Royal Conservatory’s Phil and Eli Taylor Academy where he teaches chamber music and applied piano. An active collaborative pianist, he recorded repertoire for The Royal Conservatory’s 2021 Violin Series, performed with Lincoln Center Stage on Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam, and worked as a repetiteur for the world premiere of Tapestry Opera’s Shanawdithit. www.youtube.com/user/conqgeo/videos
This project is supported by the Jackman Humanities Institute, Program for the Arts, 2021-2022.