To connect with nature, students combine morning birdsong with music

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Every spring, starting at 4 a.m., a chorus of chirping and chirping birds, known as the “dawn chorus,” produces a musical wake-up call — in more ways than one.

“Awareness of nature is the first step in conservation,” says Alexander Hampton, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto. “But it’s often limited by all sorts of things – like the boxes we live in and the noise we make, especially in cities.”

The isolation of lockdowns associated with COVID-19 has caused some people, including Hampton, to pay more attention to the sounds of nature in their surroundings, including birdsong. “During such a difficult time, there was this opportunity to connect with the conversation that nature has had with us all along,” he says. “But as we continue to move forward, can we retain our appreciation of being part of an ecological system – a place where nature continues to live, and even thrive?”

This question was one of the inspirations for a new interdisciplinary project designed by Hampton and Nicole Percifield, doctoral student at the Faculty of Music. Titled “The Pleasure of the Dawn Chorus: Preserving the Pandemic Soundscape,” the project is a collaboration between students from the Department of Religious Studies and the Faculty of Music, with support from the Jackman Humanities Institute, and explores the emotions and spiritual connection to nature through the arts.

To preserve the urban birdsong that has emerged during the pandemic, undergraduates from Hampton’s “Religion and Nature,” “Enchantment, Disenchantment, and Re-Enchantment” and “Global Perspectives on Ecology and Religion” courses recorded the dawn chorus sounds all around the Greater Toronto Area – from college campuses to their own neighborhoods, from public parks to Queen’s Park, some with their phones and others with more elaborate equipment. The students identified the birds using the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Merlin app and produced written reflections and photo essays about their experiences and the meaning of nature awareness.

Audrey Miatello (photo by Lucas Fournier)

The field assignment prompted the sophomore undergraduate Audrey Miatello seek nature in his own garden. At first, she said, she didn’t know how far she had to go to find him. “I spent a lot of time carefully walking around my neighborhood, listening to the chirping. Eventually, I came across a tree filled with the chirping of many birds. In addition to their chirping, I could hear the sound of cars and the buzz of nearby traffic – an interplay between the natural and man-made parts of our city.

Secondly, doctoral students from the Faculty of Music – mezzo-soprano Percifield, composer Gavin Fraser and pianist Geoffrey Conquer- used the recordings and written musings as inspiration for musical compositions honoring the Dawn Chorus.

Translating birdsong into vocal and instrumental melodies first required spectral analysis, a visual interpretation of pitch that applies color to a particular frequency – in other words, a way of looking at sound. Pitch analysis made it possible to transcribe birdsong into musical notation.

“In music, we associate frequencies with very fixed pitches, which means we can pick out particular notes,” Fraser explains. “Birdsong, however, is so complex and not as clear as a vocal melody. Dawn Chorus is a beautiful cacophony of all those birds, so instead of picking specific pitches, we created melodies based on structural arc of what these heights look like over time.

Gavin Fraser (photo by Rich Blenkinsopp)

As a composer, Fraser sought to tell the story of the dawn chorus, not necessarily replicate it. “It was more about creating a journey of entering this world that humans can understand like the dawn chorus,” he said. “I wanted to capture this idea on two different levels – a literal awakening with the chorus of morning birdsong and an ‘awakening’ to the natural world by interacting with it in a respectful way.”

He used several compositional techniques to achieve this, including call and response between piano and voice, and layering different songs of red-shouldered blackbirds, American robins, chickadees and geese, to name a few. Singing like a bird, in this sense, has become more about the interpretation of sound.

“We also talked about an environment that feels like the early morning, where birdsong would exist – Nicole makes wind noises, Geoffrey taps on the piano and I sprinkle in melodic elements resembling birds that then transform into harmonies.”
Percifield and Conquer performed the final piece at a recent virtual lecture recital hosted by the Jackman Humanities Institute, literally bringing nature and humanity into harmony.

Humanity struggles to relate to nature on an emotional level, as shown by people’s slowness to act on the climate crisis, says Hampton, but the arts can help deepen people’s connection to nature and propel the action.
“Our feelings of connection to nature are often left unexpressed,” he says. “The arts allow us to respond to feelings of wonder, enchantment and awe, and give them expression in a way that connects us more deeply to the nature of our own backyard – and in turn, to something greater than ourselves.”

Hampton also notes that the spiritual aspect of connection to the natural world – a concept called “ecospirituality” – resonates with people on a large scale, allowing people from diverse backgrounds to identify meaningfully with urban conservation.

A red-tailed hawk (photo by Alexander Hampton)

“Some of my students contextualize this sense of wonder in their personal religious traditions – the connection to creation, for example,” says Hampton. “Others relate it to the ecosphere they live in – to nature itself as an object of wonder, which they understand in a more secular way.”

Cultivating a relationship with the environment can help address what can often seem like an overwhelming level of unhappiness and sadness about the state of the planet, he adds.

“We have these feelings of anxiety and depression because we feel like there’s nothing we can do about it, but the joy and pleasure of nature is all around us,” Hampton says. “If we create a greater awareness of that and then express our connection by sharing music or making art or taking photos, then that’s the first step in conservation.”

“This project has helped me realize that nature exists all around us,” says Miatello, a fellow at Woodsworth College who hopes to complete a double major in religion and book and media studies. “With patience and care, we will see that our neighborhoods are in fact home to many natural wonders just waiting to be discovered.

“Now, months later, I still try to observe nature carefully when I’m outdoors, making sure not to miss the little details that can easily be overlooked.”

Building on the success of the dawn choir pilot project, Hampton would next like to engage the public by partnering with community organizations and public institutions such as conservation groups, schools and museums. It is also curious to diversify into the preservation and interpretation of other types of soundscapes.

“For example, Toronto is home to an extensive system of ravines – what are those rivers like? There’s a lot of different layers to tune into, and all kinds of things in bioacoustics that we can measure that we don’t necessarily register in our own ears, like the sound that trees make,” says Hampton. .

“There is a conversation to be had with nature on her own terms. The Dawn Chorus Project brings humans back into this conversation by listening and responding to non-humans as part of the environment we all share.

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