Migratory birds inspired my composition

For the Arte Musica commission of a work for Quatuor Bozzini, du nord, in connection with the Museum of Fine Arts Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures exhibition, I chose the work Matinée au Cap Tourmente (1990) as point of departure. (read Inspirée par Riopelle blogpost) 

The goose on the back of the two-sided work was my main inspiration, as I have always been fascinated with flying formations and migration patterns. I watched a number of YouTube videos of geese in flight and also a docu-drama called ‘Donne-moi des ailes.’

Migratory behaviour in Canada geese

Before geese take off for a flight, the leaders call to one another and signal with flapping wings (represented by alternating harmonic notes in my piece). Once everyone is ready, geese take off rapidly and efficiently (oscillating 16th notes). (video of takeoff) Once in the air, they fly in a V formation to maximize the efficiency of updrafts (simple explanation video here), and take turns as the leading bird to distribute the work. Geese can fly for over 1000km in one day and attain speeds up to 50 to 90 km/hr. To land, it is thought that the leading bird demonstrates extreme flaps – upper, lower, or upside down – which is mimicked by the other birds in the formation to pass the message. (video of body language) Sometimes a bird is too sick to undertake a long flight, so two or three other birds within the flock will stay with the bird until it is ready to fly again. These marks of solidarity and teamwork were so inspiring to me, especially when I was composing during the pandemic.

Human efforts to save bird species

Another source of inspiration, ‘Donne-moi des ailes’ (2019) has a similar narrative to an American movie that impressed me in my childhood, ‘Fly Away Home.’ (1996) The former is based on a real-life story of meteorologist and bird-amateur, Christian Moullec, who guides white-fronted geese on their migration from Sweden to Germany. Worldwide, birds are endangered because their migration routes are fraught with pesticide-filled resting sites, or because resting sites changed dramatically by land development. Birds born in the north learn their lifelong migration route from their first journey with their parents. Since 20 years, Moullec uses his Microlight plane to guide and imprint newborn geese along new and safer migratory routes, hoping to save many species from extinction. Read more about Moullec’s ‘Vol en v’ association here.

Upon reflection, I realized that my piece was a call to teamwork, solidarity and simplicity as found in bird behaviour, as well as a call to protecting vital ecosystems for wildlife.

[world premiere of du nord 19 March, 2021; Salle Bourgie, Museum of Fine Arts, Montréal, QC available online March 27 until April 10]

[Read Inspirée par Jean Paul Riopelle blogpost]

Alissa Cheung

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