Ensemble Offspring was all set to celebrate its 25th birthday with a triumphant national tour; now of course, with tours and concerts laid to waste by the coronavirus pandemic, they are obliged to be content with releasing a new album. Songbirds is a collection of new chamber works by nine Australian composers who have written specifically for Ensemble Offspring members Claire Edwardes (percussion), Jason Noble (clarinet/bass clarinet) and Lamorna Nightingale (flutes).
All the works here take inspiration in various ways from the endlessly fascinating songs of birds, a tradition which has a centuries-long history in Western classical music. Cuckoos and nightingales made appearances in works by Handel, Beethoven and many others; Olivier Messiaen’s epic work for solo piano, Catalogue d’Oiseaux, is based entirely on birdsong. For Songbirds, the focus is particularly on birds living and singing in Australia, including butcherbirds, blackbirds, lorikeets, lyrebirds and hummingbirds.
Two works by renowned birdsong researcher Hollis Taylor and experimentalist Jon Rose incorporate field recordings of the pied butcherbird from the Alice Springs environs (upon which Taylor is currently conducting an in-depth study) with antiphonal instrumental responses. Daybreak by Tristan Coelho is a work for flute and electronics that uses birdsong transcriptions and mimicry to shimmering hypnotic effect.
Other highlights include Gerard Brophy’s Beautiful Birds triptych which uses the distinctive personalities of lyrebirds, flamingos and hummingbirds as the basis for an intricate linear interplay of birdcalls between flutes, bass clarinet and vibraphone. Kate Moore’s Blackbird Song was written after an early dawn encounter with, as she puts it, a blackbird “sing(ing) with all its might an epic melancholic tale of adventure and fantasy with its yellow beak pointed toward the heavens.” Dancing on air, it is a mysterious, cyclic delight.
More sonic and textural delights abound throughout Songbirds, recorded with a rich, spacious clarity that complements precise, expertly nuanced performances by Edwardes, Noble and Nightingale. A beautifully conceived and richly rewarding album that is most worthy of 25th anniversary celebrations for this consistently excellent ensemble.