Tag Archives: birdsong

What can you experience in Absolute Bird?

Absolute Bird is a London concert series like no other. Sure, we want our audiences to experience incredible live performances of exciting, inspiring and thought-provoking music by our musicians and guest artists, but we also want them to be part of the performances; to help us create sweeping soundscapes of birdsong and nature.

We’re creating a soundscape together—a way of experiencing the music that you wouldn’t normally get.

What’s unique about our concert series?

We’re making the concerts in Absolute Bird unique in a number of ways: there are three very different formats, we’re playing with the space in each of the halls; there’ll be musicians dotted around the place, there’ll be live broadcasts in, and we’re playing very different music right from early medieval music right up to the present day.

At Southwark Cathedral, we’re offering ‘Free as a bird’ tickets that encourage our audience to join in and have fun; to experience live classical music in a nontraditional way. It’s something a bit different; a bit unusual.

Just as we do in the work we might do in a school or a hospital or a care home, where we’re inviting people in those environments to create music with us, we’re inviting the audience to create the experience with us.

How can audiences be part of the performances?

When you turn up on Friday 3 May at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Sounds of the Outback, one of the first things we’re going to ask you to do is help us create an Australian soundscape. Then, when you turn up to Southwark Cathedral a couple of weeks later for Flocks of Europe, we’re going to ask everyone – audience, musicians, artists, but perhaps not the Cathedral cat – to be flocks of birds.

But “how?”, we hear you wonder. We’ll do all this using recordings of birdsong and calls related to the music we perform in each concert. For Sounds of the Outback, it’s Australian birds from all over the country such as pied butcherbirds, common blackbirds, laughing kookaburras and eastern whipbirds. For Flocks of Europe, it’s flocking birds from the British Isles, including cuckoos, nightingales and hens.

Translating Nature (Friday 24 May) is completely different, and full of variety through its three events. There is a chance to learn, a chance to sit back and relax to a mixed-tape programme, and there’s a chance to do some late-night fun with nightingales. It’s a three-part mini-festival of nature and music.

When are the concerts and where can you book tickets?

You can book your tickets for our Absolute Bird concerts on our website at cls.co.uk or by phone at 020 7621 2800 (Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm). Tickets for Queen Elizabeth Hall performances are also available at the Southbank Centre Ticket Office via their website at southbankcentre.co.uk or on 020 3879 9555.

  • Sounds of the Outback: Friday 3 May 2019, 7.30pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall
  • Flocks of Europe: Wednesday 15 May 2019, 7.30pm, Southwark Cathedral
  • Translating Nature: Friday 24 May 2019, 8pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall
    • Pre-concert Talk with Miranda Krestovnikoff: 7.00-7.40pm
    • (Late night!) Singing with Nightingales Live with Sam Lee: 10.00-11.15pm

CLS presents Absolute Bird

For more information on our May series, you can listen to our podcast on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast providers. You can also keep up to date at #AbsoluteBird on Twitter or by joining our Facebook events.

Absolute Bird is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, and by David and Molly Lowell Borthwick, The John S Cohen Foundation, Derek Hill Foundation, John Ellerman Foundation and Kirby Laing Foundation.


City of London Sinfonia joins the RSPB’s campaign to celebrate birdsong through music in concert venues, hospitals, schools and day centres

In partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and RSPB President Miranda Krestovnikoff, City of London Sinfonia (CLS) joins the call to celebrate birdsong in music. In their Absolute Bird spring concert series and wider social programme, CLS explores the wondrous sounds of nature at a time of growing environmental threats.

Featuring diverse artists including vocalist and violinist Alice Zawadzki, recorder player Genevieve Lacey, folksinger Sam Lee, and conductors Jessica Cottis and Sian Edwards, the Absolute Bird series culminates in three concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Southwark Cathedral in May 2019 celebrating 800 years of awe-inspiring music.

The Orchestra’s London series supports the release of the RSPB’s Let Nature Sing recording, a specially created track of pure birdsong highlighting the loss of 40 million wild birds and their calls from our skies. The charity is calling on the public to download, stream and share the single to indicate that they are passionate about nature’s recovery, with the aspiration of entering the Charts. The track, to be released on 26 April, was directed by Sam Lee who performs with CLS on 24 May, and co-composed by Bill Barclay, who is currently touring King of Ghosts with CLS and Soumik Datta following their 2017 recording on Globe Music. Continue reading City of London Sinfonia joins the RSPB’s campaign to celebrate birdsong through music in concert venues, hospitals, schools and day centres

The influence of Absolute Bird

Our three Absolute Bird programmes in the spring are influencing the majority of the work we’re doing in 2019, challenging and marvelling audiences and project participants alike. As our chairman, John Singer explains in our participation brochure, our artistic programmes – such as Absolute Bird and, previously, Bach and the Cosmos – are not limited to our concert series. We also explore the relative themes, music techniques and pieces from these programmes to enthuse participants’ enjoyment in our daily activities in hospitals, hospices, specialist care centres, care homes and schools.

In Absolute Bird, we’re performing a vast range of birdsong- and nature-inspired repertoire, from medieval rounds and canons such as Summer is icumen in to modern-day naturalistic sounds of the Outback by Hollis Taylor – some of the music being used to inspire multiple age groups in our wellbeing and education projects.

Here is just a taster of how we are using nature, namely birdsong, to inspire creative music-making beyond our concert series this year.

How birdsong is inspiring our projects

In our music-making workshops at St Christopher’s Hospice, patients are drawing inspiration from bird-related classical repertoire such as Couperin’s Le Rossignol en amour (featured in Absolute Bird: Flocks of Europe) and Les coucous benevoles, and excerpts of Stravinsky and Vivaldi to from their own creations of music and word with CLS musicians and workshop leader Sam Glazer.

St Christopher's Hospice visit January 2019
CLS musicians at St Christopher’s Hospice, Jan 2019

The young people at Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School get to create something a bit special with Sound Artist Gawain Hewitt and CLS musicians this term: they’ll leave a legacy of birdsong-inspired sounds in the form of an interactive sonic tree sculpture. “How?” we hear you gasp. Well, the plan is to create a tree as large as six feet tall to house 24 interactive birds that, when touched, play back music composed during the sessions. “Naturific!” And audience members at our Queen Elizabeth Hall and Southwark Cathedral concerts in May will get to see this in action.

The “nature-niche” continues with members of Headway East London, a centre for survivors of brain injuries, who will create and perform music composed in response to Absolute Bird repertoire during their five-week project in March. Imagine a sonic flotilla of these recorded creations, shaped as river birds, floating down the canal – this is what Gawain is aiming to construct for a Headway EATS event.

Recently, our participation dream-team met with vocal leader and workshop facilitator Jessie Maryon Davies to get the creative juices flowing for our summer term Creative Primaries projects in Tower Hamlets and Harrow. There are lots of possibilities for bird-related stories and repertoire for pupils and our musicians to collaborate on in Key Stage One classrooms, so watch this space for their new music.

Creative Primaries Dec 2018 Suzi Corker
Primary schools engaged in Bach and the Cosmos in Dec 2018 (image: Suzi Corker)

We’re in the thick of creative music sessions at University College London Hospital (UCLH). In the first session this term, guitarist Jack Ross led the session with clarinettist Mel Henry and CLS Violin Clare Hayes, trying out some trios with bass clarinet, violin and guitar. They based the session on the story of a little chick, about which, with the help of our musicians, the young people created an original piece in response. Staff were loving it and people were passing by the classroom often – hopefully it brightened up their Monday morning!

Where else are we using birdsong?

The subjects of nature and birdsong are also at the centre of our Comfortable Classical concerts in February and March at the Albany, Deptford, and Canada Water Theatre. Our wind and string ensembles are going to be playing and introducing the music in three relaxed lunchtime performances for anyone and everyone, from young children to older adults. Audience members are also encouraged to take up other relaxing activities (such as drawing, colouring or knitting!) while listening to the music.

Be sure to keep up to date with all our activities on Twitter @cityldnsinfonia, and on Facebook and Instagram (@cityoflondonsinfonia). You can also visit our website for information on our wellbeing and education projects, and our upcoming performances.

Retrospective: CLoSer and the Quartet for the End of Time

We don’t know about you but we’re still buzzing from last week’s CLoSer at Village Underground. Featuring one of the most profound and important works of the 20th century, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, the concert showcased not only the poignancy of its original composition (the work was composed during Messiaen’s imprisonment in Stalag VIII Prisoner-of-War camp in Gorlitz) but also Michael Collins and our Principal Players’ extraordinary playing. With birdsong on entry, atmospheric lighting inspired by Messiaen’s synaesthesia and fascinating “talking programme notes” to begin, this was truly a night to remember!

“I could think of nowhere I’d rather have been… and with no better company” – David Nice, ArtsDesk

As usual, we got our fantastic photographer James Berry to take a few snaps of the concert which we thought we’d share in this post, along with some of our favourite comments from our Twitter page.


Our next CLoSer event will be The Entertainments in October with a programme featuring two re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays: Korngold’s incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing and Shostakovich’s outrageous re-working of Hamlet. Tickets, including £1 early bird tickets for a limited period only, are on sale now!


Go-to facts about Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony

Going to the pub with your music buff friend? Want to impress them with your abundance of classical music knowledge? Dying for an opportunity to show off your enormous classical-music-fact-filled brain? Recently ranked as the nation’s 8th favourite piece of classical music, it is fair to say Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is on everyone’s lips (and in everyone’s heads too!). Because of its recent publicity (and because it’s a really great piece), we thought we’d create a list of go-to DID YOU KNOW?! facts you can use to flaunt your classical music prowess.

  1. DID YOU KNOW?! Beethoven loved the countryside and that’s why he wrote this piece. For him, there was nothing better than rambling through the great outdoors and taking in all of the beauty it had to offer. BeethovenWalkingInCountrysideThis Symphony is his most profound expression of his love of nature.
  2. DID YOU KNOW?! it was one of the first pieces of programme music ever written (music which paints a picture or tells a story) later influencing the likes of Berlioz.
  3. DID YOU KNOW?! the symphony featured in Walt Disney’s all-time classic Fantasia? During the Pastoral sequence, Disney depicted cute little winged horses learning how to fly in airy cloudscapes and handsome centaurs (half-human horses) and glamorous centaurettes (their female counterparts) playfully flirting among multi-coloured woods and serene waterways. Watch it here
  4. DID YOU KNOW?! the work is packed with musical representations of different sounds of nature? At various points in the symphony, Beethoven depicts a gurgling brook, pattering rainfall, crashing thunder, shepherd’s horn-piping and birdsong of a nightingale, quail and cuckoo.
  5. fantasia picDID YOU KNOW?! Beethoven used the symphony to poke gentle fun at (the sonic misgivings of) country band musicians? Beethoven knew the efforts of amateur country bands well and was rather amused at the way they played. In the third movement, entitled ‘peasants’ merrymaking’, he makes the oboe come in on the wrong beat and the bassoonists contributions comically mechanical.
  6. DID YOU KNOW?! the work was premiered during a humongous 4 hour concert which also included his Symphony No. 5, Choral Fantasia, Piano Concerto No. 4, the aria Ah! Perfido, a solo piano fantasia AND four excerpts from his Mass in C? Programmed during a concert of such length, it’s no surprise that his original audience weren’t too happy with it!

Listen live:

Natural / Supernatural
Thursday 1 May 2014, 7.30pm
Cadogan Hall

Mozart –  Overture from The Magic Flute
Gwilym Simcock – On a Piece of Tapestry (London premiere)

Gwilym Simcock – Cumbrian Thaw
Beethoven – ‘Pastoral’ Symphony No. 6 


8 Facts about Quartet for the End of Time

In advance of our next CLoSer concert featuring Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, we thought we’d give our lovely blog-readers a preview of this fascinating piece. Here are 8 facts you may or may not know about the piece, from the conditions of its first performance to the impact Messiaen’s synaesthesia had on its composition….


  1. It was composed at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner-of-war camp in Gorlitz, Silesia

 Composer Oliver Messiaen at PianoAs a member of the French army during the German invasion of 1941 in the Second World War, Messiaen was tragically taken as a prisoner-of-war at Stalag VIII-A in Gorlitz, Silesia (now Poland). It was the extreme hardship of the experience that inspired him to write this extraordinary piece of music, having made acquaintances with several fellow musicians there: Jean Le Boulaire (violin); Henri Akoka (clarinet) & Étienne Pasquier (cello). Together with Messiaen himself (a pianist), the musicians joined together to form a musical quartet for which Messiaen composed this work specially.


  1. The work was premiered by Messiaen and his fellow musician-prisoners in Barrack 27 with the German officers of the camp in company

Held in the ‘excruciatingly cold’ surroundings of Barrack 27 in the Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp, the oft-quoted story of the Quartet’s first performance is one of the most fascinating in all of twentieth-century classical music. While music concerts were not unusual in Stalag VIII-A, this was the first performance of a work written by one of the prisoners inside the camp. It was also unique because the German officers of the camp were sitting on the front row during the performance! Messiaen later wrote of the experience: ‘The cold was excruciating, the Stalag was buried under snow. The four performers played on broken-down instruments. Etienne’s cello had only 3 strings [a claim Pasquier later denied), the key on the piano went down but did not come up again… but never have I had an audience who listened with such rapt attention and comprehension’.


  1. Messiaen incorporated the personalities of each of the performer’s playing at the premiere into their individual parts

Each instrumental part in Quartet for the End of Time takes on the personalities of each performer of the premiere, and in this sense the work’s composition was very much a combined creative process. The cello-part, for example, mirrors the wry and gentle manner of Pasquier, the original cellist, whereas the clarinet part is vibrant and unpredictable like Akoka, the original clarinetist, an Algerian-born Jew who ‘survived the war through blind luck and mad courage’. Read more here.


  1. The work’s premiere was such a success that it convinced his guard patron to smuggle Messiaen back to Paris to continue his career as a composer

Karl-Albert Brüll, a music-loving guard at Stalag VIIIA who was star-struck at the presence of such a significant composer, helped Messiaen significantly during his time in the prisoner-of-war camp, providing the French composer with materials to write with and making sure that he was in quiet, empty spaces so he could concentrate. Such was the success of the work’s première that Brüll arranged for Messiaen’s return to France by forging the appropriate documents.


  1. The concept behind the piece is based on a catastrophic image of the world ending from the Book of Revelation10136286-old-fashioned-round-reading-glasses-laying-on-a-page-from-the-bible-on-the-revelation

Messiaen chose the Book of Revelation – the final book in the
New Testament where the end of the world is predicted – as inspiration for this work, ‘not as a play on words about the time of captivity, but for the ending of concepts of past and future – that is, for the beginning of eternity’, making the piece very poignant in the circumstances of its composition and premiere.


  1. Messiaen performed the piece alongside our Principal Conductor, Michael Collins

Michael Collins, our Principal Conductor and esteemed clarinettist performed Quartet for the End of Time alongside Messiaen himself early in his career.


  1. The work showcases one of the composer’s very first use of birdsong which later became a defining feature of his style

Messiaen frequently used musical representations of birdsong in his compositions, most famously in Réveil des Oiseaux and Oiseaux Exotiques which derive exclusively from birdsong and calls.  Messiaen describes the opening of the quartet, for example, as ‘between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird [clarinet] or nightingale [violin] improvises…’


  1. The work highlights Messiaen’s gift of synaesthesia (the multi-sensual ability which allowed him to hear colours in music)

 Messiaen was gifted with synaesthesia, whereby he perceived colours when he heard particular combinations of sounds and musical chords. Many of his compositions are directly based on his synaesthetic ability, where he tried to “paint pictures” with a particular blend of sound. During his time in Stalag-VIIIA while he was composing the Quartet, Messiaen recalled how everybody in the camp was so starving and miserable that his “coloured dreams” were heightened. He also recalled how his experience of seeing the Northern Lights was highly influential in the work’s composition.


Want to know more? Come and see our next CLoSer event devised in partnership with Village Underground and Spitalfields Music!


CLoSer: Quartet for the End of Time

Wednesday 23 April, 7.30pm
Village Underground

Devised in partnership with Spitalfields Music, our CLoSer concert series is based around bite-sized, informal concert experiences, designed to appeal to those who like their live music to be intimate and relaxed (and who enjoy a glass of wine while listening!). While short in length, the concerts still present audiences with challenging and interesting repertoire with ‘talking’ programme notes throughout the performance. For those who wish to linger post concert, the bar remains open, and there is the chance to mingle with CLS musicians too! 

This concert will also be live-streamed on our YouTube Channel and on our website!

Read our CLoSer FAQs for more information on the series



Further reading / listening:

BBC Radio 3 Discovering Music: Stephen Johnson explores Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

Alex Ross’s intriguing article on the piece in his blog The Rest is Noise.