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For the Birds – Cellists Playing Duets with Nature’s Singers

This is Part II in our Cellos and Animals series. Part I about some of cellists’ best friends—dogs—is here.

Cellos and Animals Part II—For the Birds

Sometime last year, I put out a call for cello-lovers to send me their pet photos, anecdotes, and videos. Our Cello Museum family overwhelmed us with lovely photos of their pets. Stacey Krim, Curator of Manuscripts & Cello Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, also found us some amazing materials. We found additional photos and videos in the news and social media posts.

This second installment in the series is for the birds. You may have seen Google’s experimental virtual bird cellist, named Viola. Perhaps you think of “The Swan” or “Song of the Birds” when you think of cellos and birds in combination, but this article focuses on interactions between actual avians and cellists. In the first part of this series, we saw some dogs like to “perform” with the cello but mostly they keep the cellists company while enjoying the music. However, as vocalists of the natural world, birds seem keen to interact with the sounds of the cello.

The Cello and the Nightingales

Common nightingale

Common nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) in Manzanares el Real, Community of Madrid, Spain. (18 April 2023). Photo by Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 4.0,  Wikipedia.

Perhaps the most famous interaction between a cellist and birds is that of cellist Beatrice Harrison (9 December 1892 – 10 March 1965) and the nightingales. One evening, she was playing her cello in the garden, and a nightingale answered her, echoing the notes of her cello. The bird was responding to what she was playing rather than just singing in the background; they were playing a duet.

Harrison was so thrilled by this musical collaboration with the nightingale that she contacted the BBC about sharing this unique interspecies duet live using the new technology of the wireless (radio). Beginning in 1924, the BBC gave a live broadcast of Harrison playing outdoors with nightingales. These spring broadcasts became so famous that Harrison received 50,000 letters in response to this remarkable ensemble.

Although the authenticity of the nightingales on the recordings has recently been questioned, the birds did sing with Harrison in all of these broadcasts except perhaps one, where the sound engineers disturbed them in their preparations the first time.

These broadcasts of the “Cello and the Nightingales” were a well-loved spring tradition until May 1942, when the live recording coincided with a bombing raid. In the background of the cello and birdsong, one could hear the bombers flying overheard on the way to Germany. The BBC pulled the plug on the live broadcast, fearing that the sound of the bombers overhead would alert the Germans. Fortunately, the sound engineers kept recording, even though they cut the transmission.

Watch for an article on Harrison’s career, coming up soon at the Cello Museum.

Cellist Continuing the Cello and the Nightingales Tradition

Cellist Clare Deniz continues Harrison’s tradition of playing with the nightingales, but not in the same location as the nightingales are no longer in the same area. Deniz has performed with the nightingales on radio and TV and made this recording with the nightingales in Gloucestershire.

For those who double the veracity of Harrison’s nightingale interactions, one only has to listen to Deniz’s recording to realize that such recordings are possible. Here is Deniz’s cello and nightingale duet performance of the Londonderry Air:

Playing for Parrots

Nightingales are not the only birds who enjoy cello music. Here are a couple of examples of parrots and cellos. In this first example, the title claims the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo is dancing with the music. My guess is that this parrot has better dance moves than these and is instead just balancing on the cellist as she plays. Can you imagine having a large bird on your right shoulder while bowing? While this bird is not singing along with the Bach, it seems to be genuinely enjoying the music.

In this next example, Brock, the Yellow-naped Amazon Parrot at the Oakland Zoo, is a featured guest performer. During the pandemic, Dirty Cello, a San Francisco cello-led blues, Americana, and rock band, went to the zoo to play for the animals. Brock jumped in and took the lead! He’s clearly interacting with the other musicians.


Performing for Penguins

Following the previous bird encounter on a trip to the zoo, we have a more epic journey to Antarctica. Cellist Elisa Kohanski loves to travel, and when she

“visited her 7th continent, Antarctica, [she] performed . . . [for]. . . an audience of people and penguins, who seemed to enjoy it!” – Elisa Kohanski

In her blog, you can read about her adventures and see her beautiful photos from the trip. You can hear her play Bach in Antarctica in the video below. She wrote of this experience:

I played to the ocean and to the penguins and for the people who made this possible for me! . . . It was certainly the most authentically beautiful and remote concert hall I’ll ever play in. Hopefully, it’s the coldest performance I’ll ever have to experience… It is difficult to play well with frozen fingers! What better and more inspiring place to make music than in the most magical and mystical location on earth where before your eyes nature performs its wonders. – Elisa Kohanski

Improvising with the Song of a Japanese Bush Warbler

Japanese bush warbler

Male Japanese Bush Warbler (Cettia diphone) in Aichi prefecture, Japan. (15 April 2023). Photo by Alpsdake, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.

Eugene Friesen, a composer, Grammy-award-winning cellist, and author of Improvisation for Classical Musicians: Strategies for Creativity and Expression, incorporates sounds from nature in his music. Rather than playing with the birds in their habitats or the zoo, Friesen works with recorded songs of birds and other animals. In this example, he pairs his own improvisation with the sound of a Japanese bush warbler.

For more about how Friesen integrates the sounds of the natural world into his work, be sure to watch the entire Green Interview by Silver Donald Cameron.

Yo-Yo Ma and the Birdsong Project

An inspiring bird conservation project brings together the National Audubon Society and over 200 world-class artists to record original songs and poems inspired by and in support of birds.

During the hush of the pandemic, Randall Poster, a musical supervisor for filmmakers, became aware of the birds in New York City. In a conversation with his colleague and conservationist, Rebecca Reagan, he learned that she

“had the big idea to create a collection of new pieces of music built around birdsong, with the notion that if artists created pieces of music inspired by birdsong, we could draw attention to a crisis by celebrating the beauty of birdsong.” – Randall Poster, For the Birds: The Birdsong Project website

Poster explained:

“Talking to friends, I came to better understand the profound threat to birdlife. Disappearing habitats, climate change and some broadly inhospitable activities have decimated bird populations, pushing hundreds of species to the brink of extinction.” – Randall Poster, For the Birds: The Birdsong Project website

The Birdsong Project grew from this pandemic idea and now involves the Audubon Society and some of the greatest artists of our time, including Yo-Yo Ma. Here is Yo-Yo Ma’s official Birdsong video, performing Grammy-nominated English composer Anna Clyne’s work, “In the Gale,” accompanied by birds. This work is in For the Birds, Volume II.

Get the 20-LP Birdsong Project box set and products to support the cause.

Learn more about the project in this NPR interview of Randall Poster by Bob Boilen in “All Songs Considered”:

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This article is dedicated to my father, Dr. George Neece, an avid bird and wildflower photographer committed to sharing his passion for birds with the world. In his “retirement,” he has created multiple exhibits of his gorgeous more-than-life-sized photographic prints of birds (that he prints himself!) and has donated his time and prints to support educating the public, especially young people, about birds. Dad, thank you and Mom for inspiring and supporting me all these years.

Male Cardinal feeding its baby. Photo by George Neece.

Male Cardinal feeding its baby. Photo by George Neece.