Soprano and new music pioneer Jane Sheldon reveals why she is a singer who envies the birds.

Soprano Jane Sheldon

Birdsong has been a source of inspiration to Western classical composers for hundreds of years, and no doubt to folk musicians for many more. Messiaen took very seriously his teacher’s instruction to listen to the birds around him and his meticulous birdsong transcriptions inspired some of his most beautiful works.

But Messiaen was just one musical ornithologist in a long line. Baroque flautists and singers both spent a fair amount of time imitating birdsong: Handel’sSweet bird from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is full of incredibly pretty warbling, as is Rameau’s Rossignols amoureux. From the 20th century avant-garde, John Cage’s Telephones and Birds comes to mind. And Australia’s Elliott Gyger gave me some deliciously wild birdy lines to sing in his 2009 piece The Face of Nature.

As a singer I’m interested not only in the beauty of birdsong but also in its mechanics. Bird vocalisations are much faster than we sopranos can hope for. Messiaen himself noted that “the bird…sings in extremely quick tempi which are absolutely impossible for our instruments.” But there’s a good reason: in mammals we vocalise using the vocal folds in our larynx, which is a single chamber, while songbirds have a syrinx instead. This enviable piece of anatomy is, roughly speaking, a dual voicebox, with sound produced in two separate chambers rather than one, and it endows some songbirds with astonishing vocal agility.

It was with birds on the brain that I put together a program with my friend and fellow soprano Alison Morgan, of Halcyon. We sing the results this comingSunday January 18 in Drummoyne in a concert called Sine & SyrinxAustralian composer Rosalind Page calls her Hrafnsöngvar (Ravensongs) an “ornithological cosmos”. The title nods to the namesake of her lyricist, Icelandic poet Hrafn Andrés Hardason, and his poems take birds as a primary subject. Nightingale Miniatures, my own piece, sets short text fragments from large epic works in which the nightingale looms large, one Ovid’sMetamorphoses, and the other The Conference of the Birds; in one the nightingale, Philomel, is in utmost distress, and in the other, the nightingale is the lover, singing of the rose. Kaija Saariaho‘s Lonh, for soprano and electronics, contains fragments of birdsong throughout, and in the love poem she has set it is birdsong that provokes and sustains the memory of the beloved. A second electronic work on the program is a world premiere, by Australian sound artist Lizzie Pogson. For Pogson too, birdsong, its reliable seasonal arrival, serves as a trigger for memory.

The program opens with Morton Feldman’s Voices and cello, and it may be less obvious why this work is featured. To my knowledge Feldman himself wasn’t thinking of birds while he composed it. But by telling you about the bird’s dual voicebox, my hope is to give you a new way of hearing the work. The two vocal lines weave slowly around each other such that it’s often hard to discern which pitch is coming from which singer: our sounds blend to make a single sonic impression, a single instrument, like sounds from the syrinx.

Sine & Syrinx takes place at St Bede’s Anglican Church, Drummoyne, at 3pm on January 18th. Tickets here or at the door.

Jane Sheldon is a New York-based Australian soprano specializing in the creation and performance of new chamber music.