Catalog of Birds for Banjos

Joel Peterson in Conversation with Eugene Chadbourne

French composer Olivier Messiaen is one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. His works reveal a musical language that is truly unique to him and deeply rooted in his Catholic mysticism. As a professor of harmony, then composition, at the Paris Conservatory from 1941 to 1978, Messiaen’s pupils included many composers of wider initial acclaim, such as Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and George Benjamin.

One key feature of Messiaen’s music is his extensive use of birdsong as compositional material. A serious amateur ornithologist, he transcribed hundreds of them, notated in the wild and from recordings he made. In his own works, Messiaen used birdsongs in a variety of ways, from subliminally imbedding impressionistic abstractions in his harmonies to using a fairly literal imitation as a melodic motif. As his career progressed, he created more and more bird-centric works, like the two to three-hour piano work Catalogue d’oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds). Written between 1956 and 1958, it features thirteen sections, each focused on a single species, with sixty-four of their closest neighbors in supporting roles.

Off the road for the first time in decades, improviser, composer and human-repository-of-song Eugene Chadbourne tried filling some pandemic free time with assorted creative projects, one of which was painting the birds Messiaen depicted in the music of Catalogue d’oiseaux. The painterly quality of these works will surprise those familiar with the collages and drawings that often figure into the cover art of Chadbourne’s records. Once he made some progress with the series of portraits, he also began transcribing the dense piano music of Catalogue d’oiseaux for solo banjo. I caught up with Chadbourne to discuss this new project, which will be exhibited this summer at Trinosophes.
–Joel Peterson, Three Fold Music Editor

Lead image, Goldfinch Fig. 2, Starling
Courtesy Eugene Chadbourne

Joel Peterson [JP] The pandemic has given artists and musicians the time to rethink how they use and direct their energy, both for living and for their creative work. Is this how you started painting the birds whose songs were musically transcribed by Messiaen? Or had you already started, pre-pandemic?

Eugene Chadbourne [EC] This entire enterprise would not have been possible, nor necessary, without the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, something like this would have been a pipe dream… literally! You know me!

In March of 2020, I really had a broad range of projects figured out to occupy my new time at home, of which Catalog of Birds for Banjos was only one. I was also determined to teach myself how to read music on the organ and combine this with playing organ and a small drum set simultaneously—I gave up on this, along with reading music on the organ, learning how to make all types of Indian breads expertly, etc., etc.—after a few attempts at the theme from Hawaii 5-0.

Because I had to be quarantined when I got back from a West Coast tour that March, I took over the upstairs of our large house in Greensboro, which was kind of not used that much since the teenagers vamoosed. The outdoor building I was using as a studio was no longer practical, if it ever was ... equipment that used to be the size of a coffin could now be inserted in one’s pocket. The upstairs had beautiful acoustics in a room originally styled to be a teen hangout. It is a great place to play banjo. I always believe that recording projects are best when something about the equipment itself is ideally matched, and this is what I have going, using a combination of Zoom recorder, smartphone, DAT, and CD-R recording. Everything is very pure. I am recording the pieces like a classical work is often done: a page or a few at a time, and then edited seamlessly (or jarringly) together.

Beginning by mistake with the long piece “La Bouscarle,” because I had meant to start in his first volume, I began figuring out how to make banjo music out of this incredibly complicated piano music.

“You’ll have your work cut out for you!” wrote a British colleague, who played at least one of the pieces in graduate school. What excites me when I think I am getting somewhere is a new sound, something different. That’s what I think this is resulting in. Of course I can’t sit and play a copy of the piano work on the banjo, yet the essence of the compositions are finding their way onto the banjo. While the duel of piano vs. banjo is like machine gun vs. slingshot, one thing you can do with a banjo is endlessly change the tuning, and this is a way into Messiaen’s harmony, requiring the score to be taken apart a line at a time, to determine which pitches would be optimal as an open pitch of a string—and I have five pitches to work with.

Also, there is the decision as to which banjo to use through the piece; the editing process allows me to switch back and forth. I don’t think I have come across a classical banjo piece that does this. I have a fretless and several five-strings, including one with an expanded bass range (larger hoop), a roadside banjo find (not so strange in North Carolina) that can be detuned and hectored like a flock of crows going at a hawk, and I am even trying to make use of the Deering ‘grand piano’ of the banjo, the 12-string that is so heavy it might make sense as an apparatus in a gym.

One important aspect connecting this project to the pandemic is that because of the way North Carolina handled the unemployment crisis, the decision to add me to the ranks—and musicians in general—for the first time in the state’s history, resulted in a bureaucratic delay of several months followed by two huge payouts. Thousands and thousands of dollars were dropped into my account and now I was in a situation where the budget I have for expenses wasn’t being consumed by transportation preparations for an upcoming tour or keeping a fleet of electric guitars operational. I had money to buy the entire set of Catalog of Birds scores from the publisher! Along with much other sheet music.

[JP] Although you’ve done a lot of your own album art over the years, the bird works reveal brushwork that we haven’t seen before. Is this something you always had, did it develop over time, or did you just discover it yourself with this project?

[EC] I am learning how to paint with this project, although I have always enjoyed it. It is not so hard to make a picture of a bird that someone can recognize as a bird, but what I enjoy about the photos is that, by measuring certain aspects carefully, I can learn to make the picture accurate, and at some point the picture suddenly displays a certain personality, and if that fits the bird in question then I am close to done.

Some things are really difficult; for example, one bird I liked painting was posing in a bunch of these flowers I think are called fireweed. I stupidly thought they would be fun to paint but I kept getting the shape at the top a bit wrong. I would say it is supposed to look the point of a spear like a Roman centurion might have, but mine kept looking like a prick. And I knew what would happen: everyone that looks at the painting would say, “Oh, look: a penis.” I kept pissing around with it and getting annoyed, like “this isn’t even painting a bird.”

My grandmother Elisabeth, who we all called Mutti, was a wonderful artist. With watercolors and colored pencils, she would draw the Rocky Mountains or the view off our front porch in Boulder.

[JP] Do you first choose which bird to paint, or move in order of Catalogue’s score?

[EC]  One of the first pages of each of the books is an alphabetical list (in French) of all the birds that are featured as parts of these pieces. … At this writing, I am about to start on a type of plover. I look at the pictures of each bird on the internet and copy one I think would be fun or would be good with the colors available.

[JP] Have you read any of Messiaen’s writings about his music, like Treatise on Rhythm, Color, and Ornithology or The Technique of My Musical Language? If so, were they inspirational or informative for approaching his work?

[EC] Yes, I have been reading them for years. There are a lot of specific music examples from all over the place that he cites and so these are not volumes you can just plough through and put away. They make me understand many details about how he works.

[JP] As a musician with a real predilection for highlighting lyrics with musical or sonic mimicry (shotgun blasts, kitty whines, engine sounds, etc.) has learning the birdsongs been impactful on your playing this year? Did you just add a whole new vocabulary to your bag?

[EC] While some, for example Chinese music, I have studied uses what Zappa might have called “stunt” effects on instruments to mimic actual bird sounds, Messiaen’s approach has to do with extremely sophisticated and dense harmony as well as pitched representations of the birds… but there are parts of the score that indicate sound effects that would be done on the piano which are really inspiring for the banjo and coming from the background of prepared guitar. The score for “La bouscarle,” for example, has passages that are supposed to sound like distant drums or gongs, as well as mimicry of the birds whose harsh calls sound like ratchets. Finding some representation of the score on the banjo automatically takes me to new places on the fretboard, new fingerings, but most importantly it removes the natural tendency to play the banjo like—to try out some colorful comparisons—like you are grinding corn, whipping cream, or sanding the deck. There is always this repetitive motion because the sound is dying out all the time. I was worried about not having the pianists’ pedals ... these scores have mucho indications about pedal work which my friend Chris Burn said was complicated ... the Zoom recorder I use to track much of the raw solos involves a limiter, or must; it will adjust the sound to bring up whatever goes on in the room. If the banjo tone dies down, then it dials up to find what is left of the resonance. It sometimes reminds me of a volume pedal … I think it suits the music.

Mainly what has happened is the score is acting like a yogurt culture. I used it to create my own score and I have been recording that in pieces and so far, have three CDs more than seventy minutes in length each. There is for sure a fourth left in the score, maybe more. I have always been interested in long-form pieces and my experience with Anthony Braxton, recording hour-long improvisations and seeing that it can work, really encouraged me to continue ignoring all the shreeves with short attention spans nattering about “self-indulgence.”

[JP] Do you have a favorite among either the individual movements themselves or a particular birdsong utilized in them?

[EC] That might be something I will have a decision about in years, but I doubt it. I am completing the recording of the score “La bouscarle”—one of the later volumes—and I think it will end up being five volumes, about a 77-minute banjo solo on each volume! I started work on the score for his first volume, whereas before I was hiking through a swamp and a fen, now I start with ascending into a specific glacier. The way I improvise these sorts of details are inspiring.

[JP] There’s something I really like about Messiaen taking sounds from nature and incorporating them into the highest of art music, and you taking that art music and transporting it to the realm of a folk instrument that people associate with agrarian culture. I know the banjo is one of your two main instruments, but was this type of juxtaposition a conscious motivation for the project?

[EC]  That is funny, but I really don’t think people associate banjos with farms. I mean, why? If it was music written for a tractor or a hoe I could understand. You are just as likely to find a piano in a family farmhouse. You have to understand, Messiaen was devoutly religious so, for him, anything to do with nature is a glorification of God. Myself, I just stick with nature, that is godly enough for me, but it amounts to the same thing. 

[JP] On a last note, the recent box-set duo release with Anthony Braxton was a bit of a full-circle moment for you, as you’ve told me that he was someone who really encouraged you to become a full-time musician in the early ’70s. Can you tell me a bit more about that session and how it came about?

[EC] Short of retyping the liner notes, everything to do with how that finally came about was something he did with his organization. Our part started with driving up there to New Haven once it was finally happening. His Tri-Centric Foundation has a very efficient way of working, especially since they are dealing with the epitome of a mad genius. He has made a real commitment to long-form, expansive presentations; thus, six CDs of free improvisation at about an hour a pop. This inspired me to deal with the Messiaen pieces the way I have. I have always been annoyed with listeners who dismiss anything that is long as being self-indulgent, even when they confess they don’t have the patience. A 300-minute banjo solo? Yes! The point isn’t whether Joe Shreeve can sit through it any more than the point of a mountain is that somebody ascends it.

Eugene Chadbourne is a musician and composer living in Greensboro, North Carolina. An exhibition of his paintings, including those inspired by Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, will be exhibited at Trinosophes in Detroit, from July through September, 2021. Visit his website for further information. Catalog of Birds for Banjos volumes 1-4 is available on Discogs.

Joel Peterson is a composer, musician, and co-founder of Trinosophes Projects, an art organization in Detroit.

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Founded in 2020, Three Fold is an independent quarterly based in Detroit that presents exploratory points of view on arts, culture, and society in addition to original works in various media, including visual art, literature, film and the performing arts. We solicit and commission contributions from artists, writers, and activists around the world. Three Fold is a publication of Trinosophes Projects, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

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