click album art to play the soundtrack!
BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA
BY ANNA OUYANG MOENCH, dir. Jacob Janssen
OCTOBER 2 – 30, 2022
at THIRD AVENUE PLAYWORKS (TAP) in Sturgeon Bay, WI
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John and his daughter Caitlyn are birders. As they scan the skies over their backyard in a suburban Maryland looking for elusive birds, years go by. Relationships begin and end. Children grow up and parents age. The climate and the world change in small and vast ways. BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA takes a close look at the relationship of a father and daughter over the course of a decade as they struggle to understand the parts of one another that defy understanding.
Anna Ouyang Moench is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. Her plays have been produced at the Geffen Playhouse, the Playwrights Realm, East West Players, InterAct Theater, and many other theaters across the country and around the world. Anna is a 2020 Steinberg Award winner and the recipient of a Gerbode Special Award in the Arts commission for a new play that will be produced at Magic Theater in 2022. She has been commissioned by NAATCO for a new play premiering in 2021.
John played by C. MICHAEL WRIGHT
Caitlyn played by DEKYI RONGE
Director: Jacob Janssen
Assistant Director: Doug Clemmons
Production Stage Manager: Kelsey Brennan York
Set Design: Maddy Yee
Costume Design: Kärin Kopischke
Lighting Design: Colin Gawronski
Sound Design: Brian Grimm
TAP partners with the amazing Open Door Bird Sanctuary!
The Open Door Bird Sanctuary raises avian awareness and inspires coexistence with the rich natural world of Door County, of Wisconsin and wherever you call home. We are a private non-profit 501(c) 3 organization and the only facility of its kind in the area. With 34 acres of pristine land with hiking trails, wildlife viewing and our birds of prey, we offer a unique combination of environmental and wildlife education as well as being a destination for both Door County residents and tourists alike. Our visitors are all ages offering just as much awe and inspiration to adults as to children. Highlights are:
- Feature live raptors for educational observation for Door County school groups, service clubs, senior groups all year round both on site and off.
- Engaging environmental education through interactive, live behavioral demonstrations
- Shelter to injured raptors (birds of prey)
In addition to having live birds in the lobby before our first preview performance (see video above!!!), Third Avenue PlayWorks also hosted an Environmental Roundtable in their theater space with local climate and environmental organizations. I think this was an incredibly smart and creative way for TAP to be involved with community building for positive change. This event highlighted the subject matter of the play, while using the Arts as an impetus for public discussion as well as nature preservation networking and education. I’m excited to see how TAP continues to engage with their local Door County and Sturgeon Bay residents! We need the Arts to be an active agent of social change, to be a space where the community can come to learn, reflect, empathize, reconsider, experience multiple viewpoints, and be inspired to get involved. Theatre has a unique power to spark important conversation around intense topics that are often avoided at family gatherings or among friends. I highly encourage you to donate to these environmental organizations in Door County to help make a positive change during a time of pivotal climate crisis. I believe in Arts Activism and have been lucky to be a part of many productions which raise awareness about important causes & lived experiences. It doesn’t get much bigger than the decisions we face and the actions we must take concerning global warming.
Donate to these local Environmental Organizations here >>
- The Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin
- Climate Change Coalition of Door County
- Crossroads at Big Creek
- Door County Environmental Council
- Door County Land Trust
- The Nature Conservancy
- Open Door Bird Sanctuary
- The Ridges Sanctuary
- Sierra Club
I’ll preface everything by saying that I was deep in the throngs of my first Covid viral infection when I composed and recorded the entirety of this score. The day I recorded the initial cello transcriptions of bird calls (heard in the pre-show) was the first day I showed symptoms. The night I recorded the “magical leaf drop” cue on ‘hammered’ guzheng, I was in a completely delirious fever pitch, just hammering away! So it’s a minor miracle that any of this score was finished in time (recorded over a 10 day period) and that the recorded material even turned out to be usable!
In most productions I’ve been a part of, there has been a lot of underscore. This comes from the style of composer I am, the type of productions I’ve been asked to participate in, and what those directors wanted from me. For “Birds of North America”, there was a different type of underscore and a new type of challenge. The director Jacob Janssen really wanted to utilize music for transitions only, as we marked the passing of time in measurements of years between each scene. The focus within the scene however was just the two actors, their father-daughter relationship and the natural environment they were set in while birding.
There is a rich tradition around the world of creating music from birdsong and I was glad to join in the fun of that genre on this project! To start with, I collected recordings of the bird calls of each species mentioned in the play and then started transcribing those calls and songs onto cello. I slowed the tempo and pitched the calls way down in order to fit them into a listenable and recognizable song structure for our human ears. The initial round of these translations can be heard stretched out even further to glacial climbs in the meditative pre-show music (more on that below). Jacob felt that these initial transcriptions sounded too sad and slow when played on cello alone, that we needed more energy to be infused into each transition. The subject matter of Climate Crisis, Political Factioning, and Dysfunctional Relationship were already so heavy that any music seeming too slow or sombre would drag us down instead of lifting us up and into the next scene.
Jacob and the actors Dekyi Ronge & C. Michael Wright did such a fantastic job of finding humor and layered nuance in the production to balance out these weighty topics, that I needed to match and support that energy. It all created more enriching, complex storytelling. To achieve this energy I added in a plucked instrument, the 21 string guzheng 古筝 ancient Chinese zither. I partially chose this instrument because it has such a lively, powerfully bright tone that fills a room, but it also has the ability to bend pitch behind the bridge of each string. These pitch bending capabilities allowed for better birdsong emulation than most other plucked instruments. Between the bowed cello and the plucked guzheng zither, I felt that we had the energy balance we needed and two complementary instruments that could support the dynamic of the characters on stage.
Anna Ouyang Moench specifically advocates in her script for open casting of the daughter character Caitlyn as either white or multi-ethnic. In TAP’s production of Birds, Caitlyn was performed by the bright and engaging Dekyi Ronge, who’s heritage is Tibetan & German. Dekyi explains that, “[I]t’s a gift anytime a writer encourages casting that expands who we get to see on stage. It not only shows us that stories don’t have to look or feel one way, but it also offers employment to artists who may otherwise fall through the cracks of some of our more traditional casting practices.” Representation matters very much in culture and the arts. Though that discussion has become a recent focal point of casting, programming, and employment; I think we’re still in the opening phases of making those improvements and making them last. Through her casting notes on pg.1 of the script, Anna Ouyang Moench, who is multi-ethnic, opens a doorway to that discussion from the very beginning of the casting process for any production of this play. That being said; theaters, film companies, commercials, etc shouldn’t need such a prompt for that to be the standard practice in casting.
The pairing of the Western cello and the Eastern guzheng are in part a response to this multicultural casting call of the show, but in a subtle way. As the script isn’t constantly calling attention to race or hinging on it, the focus remains on the two characters’ relationship, politics and their connection to the global climate crisis. Because of this, I didn’t make the main focus of my composing about fusing the cultural traditions of each instrument with one another. They simply became musical tools focused on telling the story of this particular relationship via birdsongs.
The opening theme of the show is one place where I did specifically bring together east/west influences into a single piece on purpose. It has a folk /bluegrass/ mountain music style – harkening me back to my time spent at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. It is purposefully meant to invoke the feeling of “Americana”. But the actual pitch/interval theme, playing techniques, and pitch/rhythm is derived from the energetic erhu 二胡 Chinese fiddle birdsong style. These are some of my favorite pieces that I’ve learned on the erhu (which I studied in Hong Kong); they are thrilling and so fun to play! I utilized this catalogue of erhu technique and style to translate the story’s birdsongs onto the cello.
There are other influences from my studies over the years that appeared in the music without me intentionally trying. I think it speaks more to the fact that after all the years of playing these instruments, listening, studying the music, the history and learning many styles, certain elements have naturally become part of my musical language & vocabulary. A few moments include the drone and slow cello melody of the pre-show emulating the sound of a Indian Classical Alap introduction to a Raga performance (there are a number of sarangi style moments with the glides, but slowed waaayyyy down). That wasn’t my original vision or aim for the pre-show sound, it just sort of turned out that way. More Indian Classical music influence is found in the closing theme “1,000 Birds” part 1 and part 2. In these pieces, which use my Sarangicello, I’m playing an interpretation of the Eastern Towhee bird call at a lively tempo. When I listened back to the recording, it started to remind me of a Jor (or Jod), an exciting rhythmic pulsing section at the end of an Alap (still unaccompanied by tabla), in something sounding like Raga Hamsadhwani. It isn’t a Jor, but it gives me a similar feeling and it’s technique has quite the same exciting effect, with the “guzheng wing flaps” even reminding me of an Indian Swarmandal accompaniment harp. These are techniques that I learned from my guruji, sitar master pandit Sugato Nag (Kolkata, India).
An influence from listening to and learning about Japanese and Korean court music styles can be heard on the alternate cue for Scene 7, the “apocalyptic mix” as Jacob called it! The ensemble textures with the flute on top really remind me of those styles when I listen back, especially with the sound of the percussive punctuation mark at the end. I really love how traditional Japanese and Korean music utilize space and highlight a singular moment with their percussion elements. So there you have it, some unintended, but nonetheless present influences that crept their way into this score!
Each musical element you hear is some translation of birdsong, from the melodies to the little rhythmic motifs. It all sources from those particular bird sounds heard throughout each scene of the play – and I’ve put the main bird calls in the track titles for each cue!
For the environment texture in the background of each scene (not heard on this album), I recorded hours of nature sounds at Owen Conservation Park near my house in Madison, WI. Owen Park has beautiful trails that stray between woods and natural Wisconsin prairie hills. The wooded trails connect into the neighborhood where I lived while recording this score, creating these wonderful fingers of forested pathways between backyards. There will be a 2nd release of this album coming out next year (2023) with the sound design elements and bird calls from each scene included. But to start with, I wanted to release only the original music as it’s own listening experience. I’ll give more specific notes on the arc of the internal sound design elements for these scenes with the release of that future “Sound Design Edition” of the album… stay tuned!
“When There Were Glaciers” Pre-Show music listening guide
Because all of these music cues are transition music, they are quite short! That was one of the biggest challenges of the show and a very very useful exercise for me, as I tend to stretch on when it comes to composing a piece, or improvising, or even teaching… or writing…long sentences! But one place I knew I could intentionally spread out and do something big was in the pre-show while people were taking their seats and settling in before the performance. From the moment I started working on this production, I knew I wanted to make a pre-show piece where you just sat with a wall of glacier. Before we moved into the times of man-made climate change in the play, we could start in the time of glaciers.
In this solid ambience, you hear glacial cello drones mixed with icey guzheng string noises that give off frozen mists as the glacier cracks, settles, and calves. The piece is chronological, a historical timeline. When there are big dramatic guzheng chord strikes, it signifies an important natural environmental event in history – a change in the course of our planet’s trajectory. We also get to hear all of the original cello transcriptions of birdsong (stretched out even sloowwweeeerrrrr) to guide us through each epoch. For each slowed down cello-bird song, I then doubled and tripled the melody, playing in real time with the slowest bows I could muster! Matching all of the slowed down glides and slides was a very fun challenge. When the birdsong-cellos first enter around 3 minutes in, it represents the origins of life, such as plant and animal species appearing on earth. Life goes on for a while, and then around 10:45 we hear the first build of plucked guzhengs which lasts for about 2 minutes, symbolizing evolution, the proliferation of different species and the beauty of Nature’s design. These plucked builds over the drone in combination with the cello melodies was something I had envisioned from the very beginning of the project, but I didn’t get to edit it all together until one afternoon before our first tech runthrough. It occured to me at some point (before I recorded it) that these textures would end up being very reminiscent of the harp and orchestra builds found in John Luther Adams’ monumental 2013 orchestral work “Become Ocean“. After this revelation, I chose not to run away from the idea, but instead to run faster towards it. How perfect was this similarity to a piece that is also about Climate Change! Now it could be my little homage to this great work and to what it represents.
Close to the 14 minute mark we have the entrance of Humankind, with a very questioning melody, in tension with the droning world around it. Our questions and self awareness stirring us in directions that would ultimately separate us out from the rest of the animal & plant kingdoms, though by our own fabrications. At 19 minutes we have another bubbling guzheng build, nature reminds us of it’s beauty and power in answer to our questions and teaches us. Shortly after (about 22:40) humankind rebuttals with the emergence of Industrialization, looking to its own intellect for answers instead. The ominous, dark horn and strings chord brings with it pollution and the start of our Climate Crisis. At 22:30 we hear our first electricity zings, further advancing our technological transformations. Our new melody that begins around 23 minutes is mechanical sounding, repeating the same note again and again like a factory line and ending in a rising siren sound. At 26:25 with the final siren rise, we have been warned, Modern war has arrived. After 27 minutes there is more agitation in the environment, we continue changing the earth for what we think we need, while ignoring what it needs. Take, take, take.
Around 28:30, the “mourning dove” melody appears. It’s beautiful and sad. We are seeing the wonderful benefits of modern medicine and technology in our societies, but we are starting to understand the cost of our developments, and what effect we are having on the earth. Some mourn, some ignore. 31:20 we are out of sync with the earth and what it needs, we are trying to sync up our priorities. Left vs Right vs Left vs Right vs Left vs Right. But eventually these sides come together to create a beautiful swell into a singular moment of understanding at 33:05, and finally we are working together.
With the entrance of the flutes at our moment of unity, we have a light shining hope on us. Maybe, just maybe we can use all of our technological advances to help solve the problem we have created. For the next few minutes there are two futures brewing, one of beautiful hope and one of ugly conflict.
It leads us into the beginning of the end of the piece. At 35 minutes we have once again the swelling chords of humankind in the strings and horns signifying our present time. They are not as ominous as the first industrial chords, there is more beauty and complexity here. Placed in a crucial moment, we must make the choice to finally act in reversing our damages and changing our ways to preserve our planet… or to send ourselves on a path to final extinction, taking everything else down with us. The final cadence at 37 minutes lingers on an unresolved note, what choice will we make?
At 38 minutes, the earth is left resonating, but the glaciers are gone.
Brian Grimm – Violoncello, Sarangicello, Guzheng
Greg Smith – Concert Flute, Alto Flute
Composed, Performed, Recorded, Mixed, & Mastered by Brian Grimm
2022 (c) & (p) GrimmusiK Records
album art by Nik Garvoille
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Brian used Jargar Superior GC and Superior Dolce AD strings on his cello for this album.
Sarangicello was tuned cgad’ for these compositions, using gut strings.