Ten Thousand Birds
Australian National Academy of Music,
South Melbourne Town Hall, June 4

Pulitzer-winning American composer John Luther Adams (not to be confused with his minimalist namesake and countryman) is as ardent a climate change activist as he is a musician. He’s also something of an ornithological wonk: bird song has been both a lifelong obsession and a strong influence on his work.

These dual passions combine in the 2014-penned Ten Thousand Birds, a spatial, semi-improvised, hour-long ensemble piece that uses mimicked birdcalls to conjure an evocative sound-painting of our increasingly fragile natural world.

Under the guidance of Chicago-based flautist and ANAM alum Tim Munro, 16 ANAM students offered a faintly theatrical, promenade performance of the piece, inviting the audience to mingle amongst the musicians as they slowly processed their sonic aviary.

If such audience participation played an important role in the way this work should be experienced, most of the concertgoers weren’t buying it. Many in the audience chose to take the limited number of seats available, while others (those arriving too late to snag a chair) slummed it on the floor, save for a small handful of wanderers.

The piece has no "master score" but is made up of short notated cells of material, many based on bird song, which the musicians then riff on. Emerging from gossamer whispers and distant sighs, textures build and coalesce into swirling murmurations of sound.

It’s an effective technique, but with little more than this loosely guided improv on offer, the performance suffered from a case of diminishing returns. Ironically for such a densely layered piece, Ten Thousand Birds is frustratingly one-note.

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