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Synchromy’s Urban Birds made for a musical scavenger hunt at Debs Park

This past Saturday afternoon found me hiding from the heat under a tree at the base of a small hill listening to cellist Jennifer Bewerse playing composer Brandon J. Rolle’s Call and Echo, inspired by the call of the Hermit Thrush. While Rolle’s piece didn’t incorporate the bird’s call directly, it imitated and built upon its structure of distinct phrases and interruptions, with alternating textures of arpeggios, high harmonics with quiet singing, and slowly developing more lyrical material in the cello’s low end. And this was only one composer/performer duo’s take on one bird from the flock of ten that Synchromy presented in their program Urban Birds.

The concert was spread throughout the Audubon Center at Debs Park, just south of the 110 in Montecito Heights, a hidden gem of trails just northeast of downtown LA. Performers perched along said trails, repeating their pieces at intervals so as not to overlap with their immediate neighbors, but to create a sensation of distant sounds to search out—not unlike the bird call hunting theme of the entire event. Guests were handed not programs, but “musical birding field guides,” and children who managed to find all ten birdsong-inspired performers were rewarded with stickers reminiscent of a junior ranger program at a national park.

Behind the aforementioned tree — shade was at a premium — trails wrapped up the hill to the left and right. On the first plateau, one came to a clearing with bassist Scott Worthington performing Jen Wang’s Monster, with sliding harmonics imitating the call of the Mourning Dove. Alongside him stood composer/performer Christopher Adler with a khaen, a southeast Asian mouth organ for which Vera Ivanova had written Mockingbird Hopscotch, a piece that grew from the uncertainty of a nervous bird learning a new song into a filled out tapestry of synth-like repetitions.

Across a bridge at the other side of the clearing stood an oboist Robert Walker, leaning hard into Diana Wade’s Pyschopomp. Inspired not by the song of the Common Raven, but of the raven’s status as a guide to the underworld, the piece’s fast and high ostinati alternating with aggressive multiphonic material made for a piece that should become a staple of the solo oboe repertoire. Behind the oboe, coming from somewhere below, one could pick out virtuosic runs on the high end of a flute (Dante De Silva’s Heat Thrasher performed by Rachel Beetz), and occasional growls through the underbrush above from Brian Walsh’s bass clarinet performing Pamela Madsen’s Owl’s Breath.

Suddenly the whole event clicked. Intentionally or otherwise, trying to take in the diverse approaches to birdsong inspiration in the height and space of the venue brought to mind the legendary clashing marching bands Charles Ives listened to in his youth, the vertical symphonies of Henry Brant, or, to state the obvious—an uncomposed version of Messiaen’s own Exotic Birds. I found myself looking for places between performers to hear interesting and perhaps unintended combinations of sounds and melodic lines, an outdoor polyphony of monophonic instruments.

The spread throughout the park was a welcome way to dip toes back into real concerts after months of isolation—it certainly felt better than diving back into a crowd, and bridged the individual experiences we’ve become used to with a communal live one with sensitivity. What more there is to say should be heard, and to this end, Synchromy has developed a website with videos of all of the pieces, spread around a map of the park (just click on the birds) at synchromy.org/urban-birds.

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