Writings About Music
Mozart and Mockingbirds
When I first showed some early compositions to Mel Powell at CalArts, he asked how I go about composing, and I told him how I first write out the main melodic voice of a section, or sometimes I write out the main melodic voice of the entire piece, followed by adding additional voices that are required to realize fully the musical thought. Powell responded favorably, noting that this was an excellent strategy, one that Mozart had used. After writing this, I checked online, and it appears that Powell's description of Mozart's working method is correct.
Mel Powell also stated at our first lesson, "I can tell you are a composer." Coincidently, the previous year at Stony Brook, I overheard Bulent Arel, a colleague of Powell at Yale University, remark to another student about myself during a break in our electronic music composition seminar, "I can tell he is a composer." Prior to being a founder of CalArts, Mel was chair of composition at Yale, succeeding his teacher, Paul Hindemith.
Beginning in spring and continuing through summer, the unsurpassed melodists we have named mockingbirds enchant with breathtaking extemporizations all through the night, if you are fortunate enough to come upon a tree where one has chosen to sing under the moon and stars, searching for a female mockingbird with which to conjoin. They perch protected in a lush tree of their choosing, mostly in the deep of night, and spin out endlessly creative phrases informed by the most unearthly and delightful melodies, rhythms, timbres, phrasing and dynamics rendered in bewitching tunings all their own, all the elements of music synergizing perfectly.
Their method is to repeat each phrase two times and then move on to a new utterance, again repeated two times, and continuing for hours in this format without any exact repetition. This truly is another world of music!
On one occasion, I was with Pandit Jasraj while a mockingbird was singing, and he praised the bird with no little astonishment as “an Indian classical musician bird!”
Another time, I was walking with Lee Konitz when we came upon another mockingbird, and he was excited and joyous upon hearing the exuberant “tootin',” complimenting the mockingbird out loud for his performance. After relating my experience with mockingbirds to a pianist, I was startled to learn from her that Mozart actually had a pet starling whose musical utterances he drew inspiration from.
Related to birds, here are Hummingbird Canyon, Year of the Rooster, Yellow Bird, Painted Birds and The Waterfall. The opening part of The Waterfall includes actual melodies I heard mockingbirds sing in the Beverly Hills flats.
- Michael Robinson, February 2017, Los Angeles
© 2017 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).