The Birdsong Project
“I SHALL GO SINGING -- Until the leaf of my face withers, Until my veins are blue as flying geese, And the mossed shingles of my voice clatter In winter wind, I shall be young and have my say. I shall have my say and sing my songs, I shall give words to rain and tongues to stones, And the child in me shall speak his turn, And the old, old man rattle his bones. Until my blood purples like castor bean stalks, I shall go singing, my words like hawks. ” - James Still
This project, completed in 2012, is one woman’s modest experiment in responding to birdsong as a unique portal to re-inhabiting a more primal singing voice. It also explores ways to promote voice recovery in the larger community through improvisational song forms and vocal techniques more attuned to non-human music-- in this case the sound and song of birds.
The project offers personal and theoretical context for ten original musical improvisations and compositions inspired by and derived from intent listening to birdsong in a variety of natural settings. The ten song-samples were conceived and incubated over a period of about nine months between 2011 and 2012 and serve as the centerpiece of the project. They are intended to provide insight into how sound and song in the natural world may help humans access a more ancestral, spontaneous, innate singing voice embedded in deeper understandings of place and identity. A series of Vocal Improvisation Forms created through response to birdsong are also provided as practices tools for community and workshop settings.
Cool Bars of Melody
One day I discovered some old Roger Tory Peterson 45s in the attic. I put one on the turntable and the first song to play was the hermit thrush. I turned the revolution rate down to 70 RPMs. Not slow enough. I slowed it further with my finger and listened again.
“Eee-oh-lay, Eee-oh-layeee” came the long clear tones. "Cool bars of melody from the atmosphere of everlasting morning and evening," Thoreau says. I slowed the song down even further. Amazing. Maybe this is how birds hear one another I thought—in music so pure and intervals so stunning, they simply have to answer each other. I was hooked. I slowed and listened to other songs and decided then and there I needed to learn how to sing more like a bird.
Breakfast With Ravens
“Look for holes in the fabric of the air and find the one that's missing. That's your song. Sing that one. That's the one the world needs.” - Deb Hensley
— I Shall Go Singing
Excerpt from the Birdsong Project Narrative
Breakfast With Ravens
One day last spring a raven flapped in and landed beside our new deck. He whooshed off when he saw me come out the back door.
“Nice deck,” he said, lofting onto a branch. "But why you want to cover up all that soft grass is beyond me."
“I can hear your thoughts,” I responded.
“Good trick,” he thought back.
"Have some toast," I offered, tossing him a crust. After a few head tilts and careful eyeing, he hopped forward and snatched the bread.
Ravens and crows are apparently the smartest of the bird world, with a language of their own that includes specific vocabulary, grammar and syntax. They are way smarter than geese who can’t hold the location of a bread crumb tossed out by a human, in their short term memories. Crows exploit this by covering such offerings with nice fat leaves. The geese are baffled, the crows get rich.
Like a raven, the voice of the crow packs a powerful punch. Their edgy voices jazz up the forest. They trick, scold, and cajole until we sit up finally and wonder what the ruckus is about.
At a time when I needed some serious vocal medicine to start singing again the Raven was my guide. He led me laughing into a cavern of despair where my lost voice was lurking about like an angry ghost. Once there, he clamped on to my scalp with his sharp talons and didn’t let go until one day I let out a scream long and loud enough to finally shoo him off. When he was gone and my neck straightened out again, a hoarse chirp escaped my throat
From that point on, I made a pact with myself to listen to birds for a whole year and understand what they had to teach me about singing. I learned about the reasons they sing, how their double voice boxes allow them to sing duets with themselves and how extensive their repertoires can be. I watched them fly around in an ether of music conducting their lives in an undulating ocean of air, sometimes full of sound, sometimes full of silence. I learned how intertwined their songful communities and economies are and how they ebb and flow.. And I watched them just hanging out-- bartering beauty for beauty—mostly at dawn, sometimes at dusk and more or less in between.
There were many other teachers in the woods. The winter wren, for instance, a small, brown, visually unassuming bird. His song song is rhythmically complex, tonally compelling, incomparably energetic, endlessly varied. I’m pretty sure he’s Italian. If he had hands he'd be using them for emphasis. His song trails off like a comet through morning air.
What do these birds know that I don’t? For starters, they know for absolute certain who they are. Their voices constitute their identity as much, if not more, than their feathered bodies do. They sing for a specific purpose, "weaving their peculiar patterns of sound into a powerful force field of polyphonic colors, every utterance an answer to preceding utterances...related to an attitude towards answering, and every utterance produced in anticipation of an answer." (Bakhtin, Bertau)
Maya Angelou has said, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” I disagree. I've come to believe birds sing both questions and answers all at once. They sing AS answer to the thousand questions posed by a thousand dawns and a thousand other birds, AND because they have a song. Moreover they must sing to survive.
“If you really want to learn to sing," they said to me over the course of the next full year, "listen to us first. Look for holes in the fabric of the air and find the one that's missing. That's your song. Sing that one. That's the one the world needs.”
The IMprovox Project
In 2006, Deb co-founded the improvisational singing collective eventually named Improvox. This grew out of her study of vocal improv with Rhiannon Watson and her desire to share spontaneous singing more widely. The group went through a variety of iterations but ended up in 2009 as a five member ensemble consisting of Deb, Martin Swinger, Fred White, Kathy Slack and Matt Loosigian. These five performed and presented workshops together as Improvox for over 10 years until their lives flung them each into new musical adventures. But not before they were lucky enough to stir up many wildly joyful circles of song in Maine and other parts of New England. Here's a sample workshop and performance.
The Brio Project
When Improvox shifted focus to become a wider collective for vocal improv artists, Matt, Martin and Deb became Brio, (https://www.facebook.com/briosingers/) an a cappella trio fusion project sharing their love of vocal improv and performing original songs, world and traditional music and offering school residency programs.
Brio blended Deb's background in early childhood education and songwriting, Matt's family focused ecological songs and Martin's work as an arts educator / award-winning songwriter. Brio celebrated and promoted the vital roll singing plays in community building including schools. Their music raised spirits, inspired joy, and promoted personal and ecological wellness.