Chicago-based flautist Tim Munro will join with musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music to perform John Luther Adams’ Ten Thousand Birds at the South Melbourne Town Hall in June. He spoke to Limelight about the challenges and pleasures of Adams’ immersive, avian score.

First of all, do you like birds?

I am an Australian living in Chicago, and I strongly associate birds with my wonderful homeland. For instance, every time I get on Skype with my mum and hear the Brissie birds in full-throated song, I feel a little pang of homesickness. And although I’m not a morning person, whenever I travel back to Australia, jet-lag often gets me up before the sun, so I sometimes sit on the veranda with a cup of tea and listen to the dawn chorus!

Tim Munro, Ten Thousand BirdsTim Munro. Photo © Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

How important is the natural environment in John Luther Adams’ work?

John (JLA for short!) lived in the wilds of Alaska for 40 years, and all of his works respond in one way or another to the natural world. Sometimes they mimic the sound of nature (birdsong, frog calls), sometimes they evoke ancient rituals tied to the land (works like Inuksuit), sometimes they express the beauty and horror of nature (works like Become Ocean). He wants to bring music into nature, creating musical works that are performed outside. And he wants to bring nature to music, by using natural sounds in concert works.

How does Adams evoke birdsong in a way that’s different from someone like Messiaen?

Like Messiaen, JLA uses transcription of birdsong for musical instruments as the basis of some of his works. But where for Messiaen birds are closely linked to god, for JLA birds are linked to the natural world. They are intended as reminders of the fragility of the relationship between humans and nature.

Adams describes Ten Thousand Birds as “an atlas of musical possibilities for performers to use in creating their own unique realisations of the music.” What does he mean?

Ten Thousand Birds has no score. Instead, there is a book (called a “folio”) of transcribed birdsong and frog calls and natural sounds. We as performers are tasked with the responsibility of shaping the work, choosing the order of events, working out whether we want the texture to be busy and complex, or sparse and quiet.

How will you be approaching the performance with the ANAM Musicians?

Five ANAM musicians will join me as Artistic Partners. The six of us will sort of ‘compose’ the work together: meeting to decide on the shape of the work, how we want it to sound and to look. This process is rewarding and a little scary: rewarding because it will introduce these young musicians to a unique form of collaboration; scary because we will create the whole work in just nine days of in-person collaboration. Who knows how it will turn out!

Adams specifies that the work be tailored to the site – what will the South Melbourne Town Hall itself bring to the performance?

Ever since I attended ANAM in 2005, I’ve always wanted to perform a work that would use every square centimetre of the Town Hall’s distinctive concert hall. The Town Hall has no fixed seating, which makes it perfect for this piece. Ten Thousand Birds is an ‘immersive’ work, meaning here that the audience is quite literally at the centre of the experience. Musicians will be dotted throughout the venue, occasionally switching positions. Listeners will be free to explore the whole venue, taking their own journey through the work.

What are the challenges of performing a work like this?

JLA’s work demands a totally different way of working than usual. There is no conventional score, so we must collaborate more intimately, more intensely than usual; there is no conductor, so musicians must follow their ears and their instincts; there is no conventional performer/audience relationship, so musicians have to get used to having audience members close by, and to having other musicians further away.

What are the pleasures?

With all of these challenges to the ‘traditional’ way of doing things, the threat of failure is always present. But I like that element: it’s only by walking the tightrope that we discover new and brilliant things.

What will the experience be like for the audience?

Hopefully there will be no one experience for all audience members. Listeners are totally free to sit still, to walk around for the roughly hour’s duration, to find a beanbag and lie down. Listeners are free to be attentive, to take breaks, to zone out, to meditate. I love the power that a work like this gives an audience!

Tim Munro and students from the Australian National Academy of Music perform Ten Thousand Birds at the South Melbourne Town Hall on June 4