“I’ve never been asked that question before and I don’t really know how to answer it,” James Ledger tells me when I ask him if he’s a bird person. “I don’t dislike them.”
“Like most things, there are some birds I really do like and there are some that I really do not like,” he says. “The ones that wake me up at 6am fall into the latter category.”
We’re talking about birds ahead of the composer’s collaboration with singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and pianist Anna Goldsworthy (and her trio Seraphim), titled Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds, which plays over two nights of the opening weekend at this year’s Adelaide Festival, before playing Sydney’s City Recital Hall in June. The collaboration features 13 new songs and soundscapes inspired by birds, including settings of poetry by the likes of Judith Wright, Emily Dickinson, John Keats and WB Yeats. The project is named for Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, though that poem ultimately didn’t make the cut. The birds that did make it into the set include owls, thrushes, nightingales, thornbills and magpies – to name just a few.
Paul Kelly, Anna Goldsworthy, Helen Ayres, James Ledger, Tim Nankervis and Alice Keath in 13 Ways to Look at Birds. Photo © Kate Pardy
The avian collaboration began when Goldsworthy approached Kelly about working together on a project, though initially the idea was to set poetry about animals more generally. “Paul quickly realised that that was going to be too big a topic,” Ledger says. “So he narrowed it down to birds.”
The bird theme follows Kelly’s most recent album, Nature, released in October last year, which explores ideas about humans’ relationship with the natural world, and includes five settings of poetry – and a song by Kelly called Seagulls of Seattle. “He’s very much in that vein at the moment where he’s just looking at nature,” Ledger says.
Kelly chose the poetry for Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds, though he did run it by his collaborators. “I kind of leave that aspect to him as he is the principal singer, he’s the one that has to bring them into the world,” Ledger says. “Some of the poetry is absolutely really profound and quite touching. There’s various stuff that’s got dabs of humour and there’s stuff that’s quite malevolent.”
With Ledger and Kelly working in different cities, much of the composition happened remotely, with Ledger keeping the poems on top of his piano, recording ideas and emailing them to Kelly. “I sang a few myself and sent them to Paul, and he sang a few and sent them to me.”
Ledger remembers sending through one particular piano idea. “I thought there’s no way he’s going to be able to sing something like this, but I’m going to send it anyway,” he says. “And then that came back with this beautiful Judith Wright poem interweaved into it and it was just amazing.”
James Ledger and Paul Kelly. Photo © Kate Pardy
On several occasions Kelly visited Ledger in Perth and the pair were able to work together in person. “We sat in the same room and nutted things out, sang some more poetry, put more ideas in,” Ledger says, and over the following six months or so Ledger began orchestrating the songs for the whole ensemble.
Kelly and Ledger (who will play electric guitar, synthesizer and glockenspiel in the performance) will be joined on stage by the Seraphim Trio – Goldsworthy on piano, Helen Ayres on violin and Tim Nankervis on cello – as well as singer-songwriter Alice Keath. “She’s singing, she’s playing banjo, she’s playing auto-harp, glockenspiel, bass drum, another synthesiser,” Ledger says. “She’s our multi-instrumentalist.”
This is Ledger’s second collaboration with Kelly, following Conversations with Ghosts in 2013, which saw the pair perform – and record an album – with recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey and musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music.
“Because that was our first collaboration we weren’t sure how it was going to work, but I think we’ve really hit our straps on this because we know each other pretty well,” Ledger says. “We sort of discovered this third space between our two different worlds.”
The music therefore fuses the two artists’ styles (though Ledger resists differentiating modern classical music from any other style). “I’ve sort of felt this pull – I’m trying to do more folk-rock stuff that Paul’s doing, and Paul wants to be more modern classical, like I’m doing, so we’re sort of meeting in this crazy middle. Not purgatory,” he laughs. “But somewhere in between.”
The musical choices were also influenced by the poetry itself. Tasmanian poet Gwen Harwood’s Barn Owl – about a child who sneaks into a barn and shoots an owl, irreversibly introduced to the visceral realities of death – spoke particularly powerfully to the composer. “I know it doesn’t sound happy, but it’s just so powerful with its imagery and it’s very touching,” Ledger says.
That poem, however, “was predominantly a Paul song”, Ledger explains. “Paul was out in my front room and I was in our back room and I came in to check something and Paul had set this poem to his song on guitar,” he says. “When Paul sends you a song with him singing with his guitar, you think, well, what can I really bring to this that’s going to improve it?”
But while some songs leant themselves to a less is more approach, in others “it gets positively colossal,” Ledger says, citing Yeats’ Leda and the Swan, a poem inspired by the story from Greek Mythology in which the mortal Leda is seduced by Zeus, who has taken the form of a swan. “It gets quite apocalyptic at the end with strings and piano just punching out these insistent rhythms and screaming guitar effects over the top,” Ledger says. “So it’s quite volatile, the musical ranges that we explore.”
Although the concert is about birds, Ledger deliberately avoids direct references to birdsong in his music. “That’s been done a lot by other composers,” he says. “Messiaen is the king of doing that. There’s possibly one or two occasions throughout the entire show when you could say, ‘well, that’s the violin doing something that’s a bit birdsongy there’, but it’s not meant to be a foreground feature by any means.”
That’s not to say the music doesn’t contain elements inspired by the birds themselves, with an instrumental number, Murmurations, named after the phenomenon that occurs when hundreds of birds fly together in intricately patterns. “When you’ve got a flock of birds who all move together in the same instant, and you get that kind of shift of light, or shift of pattern in the sky,” Ledger says. “So I’ve used that technique to structure an instrumental piece.”
After months of workshopping a project about birds – in vivid renderings by poetry’s greats – what’s not to love about them? “The song of the magpie, I think it’s just an amazing sound,” Ledger says. “It’s doves that drive me crazy.”
Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds is at the Adelaide Festival March 1 & 2
Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds is at City Recital Hall, Sydney, on June 1