The Wire: For Birds, Planes and Cello

by Brian Morton, The Wire
August 2008

Messiaen talked about the”sovereign freedom” of birdsong. Through the open window to my right I can hear the calls and songs of a white throat, a willow warbler, more distantly nesting sandpipers, and a solitary depressed buzzard, all working together in an extraordinary (if presumably accidental) counterpoint. I had to close the window to listen again to For Birds, Planes & Cello, Masaoka’s virtuosic reworking of a field recording from a San Diego canyon in which the sovereign freedom of migratory birds, driven by the unfreedom of pure instinct, is aurally contrasted with our ambiguous freedom when we take flight in a commercial aircraft, aloft but bound by schedules and security and with our knees round our ears.

Successive waves of aircraft noise wash over the birdsong, and out of the resultant overtones and juxtaposition Masaoka has chosen materials for cellist Joan Jeanrenaud to reproduce using various extended techniques. What’s immediately striking is that within moments of the piece beginning, it becomes impossible to distinguish between field recording (‘found’) and instrumental (‘made’) sounds.

It’s a glorious piece, but magnificently trumped by While l was walking, I heard a sound…, which deploys nine spatialized soloists on balconies and three choirs including boy sopranos and male falsettos to create the most astonishing and most breathtakingly beautiful ‘choral’ work of recent times. Again, the underlying theme seems to be the conjunction or clash of human and non-human. If laughter is supposedly definitive of our condition, then the edgy, near hysterical laughter (not the mannered explosions of “Schrei”, but something more…’Asiatic’ is the only word) that punctuates “While…” cements the piece’s great humanity while around it simulated birdsong (again), insect twitter and buzz, complete with odd mineral sounds and sirens.

There was a car ad which attempted something similar: every clunk, rev and whoosh rendered vocally, but this is way beyond that. The hocketing is more precision-timed than in the most refined turbo engine, and the two and a half second delay in San Francisco’s St Ignatius Cathedral adds a whole new spatial dimension that seems to unfold in four dimensions. The ending is simple and beautiful: four strong exhalations that could be the music expiring, sighing in pleasure at itself, or simply registering effort. It lasts a little over half an hour, and in that modest span repositions contemporary choral singing. One instinctively hears this as “post-11 September 2001 music,” an outwardly bland designation that, via Masaoka’s handling of planes, people and freighted spaces, unexpectedly acquires rich meaning. Essential music.