In March and April of 2020, when doors shut and cities locked down, ambulance sirens day and night were the only sound one heard. Then came May and an orchestra filled the air—birdsong. The spring push north for nesting had begun, and warbling, cooing, calling birds were giving the one live performance that was safe for human consumption.
“It was a pivotal moment,” says Randall Poster, the distinguished New York–based music supervisor of film and television. (Frequent collaborators include Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Sam Mendes.) “You’d look outside and nature was doing its thing. The birds were still singing. In the darkest time I found great comfort in that.” Poster’s friend and colleague of 12 years, the L.A.-based executive producer Rebecca Reagan, was thinking the same thing. She brought him an idea she’d hatched, which she was calling “For the Birds.” Poster added the words “The Birdsong Project.”
“Birds have been part of my life for a long time,” says Reagan, who is deeply involved in global ecology and the regeneration movement. “Pre-pandemic, we had major fires—the lungs of the earth were on fire. Then the pandemic—our lungs were on fire, this theme of air being taken away or wreaking havoc. The pandemic only heightened my need and desire to do something, to create a project that would bring community together, and remind us of the air that we all share, that we all breathe, and how interdependent we are with one another.”
The idea was to do something with that most airborne of arts, avian song. “But in a very modern way,” Reagan says, “with a diverse group of musical artists. I threw so many people and ideas at Randall because I knew Randall would be able to go get it done. I even was, like, Can we get the Gyuto Monks of Tibet to do something?”
They didn’t get the monks, but who they did get is stunning. You will hear the work of 177 musical artists, the words of 53 poets (past and present masters), and the voices of 71 readers (such as Alice Waters, Cazzie David, George Saunders, John Lithgow, Liam Neeson, and Tilda Swinton). The results are enchanting, hip, witty, mystical, elegiac, ethereal.
“One artist would lead to another,” says Poster. “For instance, one of the first artists I talked to said, ‘Oh, you have to talk to Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater. He’s an ornithologist. Or Chris Watson, who used to be in the band Cabaret Voltaire. He’s the foremost wildlife-sound recordist, and he records all of David Attenborough’s nature shows.’ So starting with Rebecca’s inspiration and idea, there was a cascade of artists that sort of came to be.”
Indeed, for those who think high-profile artists are living life at a remove, think again. Poster relates the story of their first track: “I was talking to a friend who represents a lot of composers, and he goes, ‘Well what about Nick Cave and Warren Ellis?’ And we’re like, Yes. And four days later this full-on Nick Cave song arrives. He recorded his vocal in the back of a taxi on his way from Brighton to London.”
When Poster approached the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, it turned out that Ma was a step ahead. “He had gone and commissioned a piece of music that he recorded in a forest, with the birds, and he gave it to us.” Composed by Anna Clyne, it’s called “In the Gale.”
“We’re all thinking about birds,” says Reagan, explaining the far-reaching roster of those involved. “We’ve all been in a pandemic, sent to our rooms to think about what we’re doing here, and we’re all listening to birds.”
The Birdsong Project is not only wildly creative; it is generous. This multifaceted platform has something for everyone. The songs and bird-related poetry that Poster has produced are being released volume by volume under the title For the Birds: The Birdsong Project, with Volume Three having come out yesterday, July 29. In November, a 20-LP deluxe boxed set of more than 200 tracks (five volumes) can be purchased; it includes a 60-page book full of art and illustration. All proceeds go to the National Audubon Society. Still, this music is accessible, and can be streamed for free online.
Reagan is currently working on videos to go with the songs—so far she has a couple dozen in process—and asks that filmmakers reach out to her with their ideas.
Meanwhile, at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the exhibition “For the Birds” graces the grounds with 33 commissioned birdhouses—flights of fancy designed by artists and architects. It runs through October 23, and all proceeds benefit the garden.
Warby Parker, the eyeglasses-for-everyone company, has produced 20,000 pairs of adorable blue binoculars—they’re called “Birdoculars”—to be sent countrywide to institutions that specialize in extra-curricular programs for children. New birders need optics! Apparel and merchandise are in the works, and the income will go to the American Bird Conservancy. Hoped-for future partners include the American Museum of Natural History, BirdLife International, and the Cornell School of Ornithology.
The Birdsong Project is as open-ended as the sky. “We are the vehicles,” says Reagan, “but it’s the community that built this. So many people sent messages saying, ‘When I heard about this, I had to stop what I was doing and jump in.’ It’s leading to all sorts of other things that we just couldn’t imagine.”
“It’s been one of the great joys of my life,” says Poster. “Be part of this.”
“For the Birds: The Birdsong Project” is on at Brooklyn Botanic Garden through October 23. The Birdsong Project, Vol. III, is out now
Film queries can be sent to email@example.com
Laura Jacobs is the Arts Intel Report Editor for AIR MAIL