The Dawn Chorus combines birdsong with the human voice in a “musical awakening”

Alexander Hampton wants the inhabitants of his city to enter into a dialogue with the nature that surrounds them. At the start of the pandemic, the assistant professor of religion at the University of Toronto noticed that those he spoke with seemed to quickly dismiss the pandemic as inevitability – an event that was likely overdue for the human species. The gist of the argument was something like, “”They happened in the Middle Ages and they happened with the Spanish flu. And that’s kind of the course of the way things are,'” he said. Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

But Hampton was not satisfied with this response. “I feel like this pandemic has a lot of human causes,” he explained. “And it has to do with the really bigger questions of whether we respect the boundaries between humans and nature, whether we give animals and ecospheres the spaces they need to thrive and sustain us at the same time. “

These conversations led to her latest project, called Dawn Chorus. Here is some of what he told Hynes about the initiative.

Alexander Hampton is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Toronto and the architect of the “Dawn Chorus” project. (Submitted by Alexander Hampton)

What is it about the pandemic that inspired you to start recording birdsong in the morning?

The project grew out of a conversation I had with a graduate student here at the Faculty of Music, Nicole Percifield, who was instrumental in the project. The University of Toronto is a downtown campus surrounded by a lot of construction, a lot of human noise, what we call anthropophony. This has eased in the context of containment. And the amazing thing that happened – if there was some sort of silver lining to all of this – is that we realized that we were actually surrounded by this biophony well, which is usually obscured.

biophony (plural biophonies)

  1. (ecology) Non-human cumulative sound produced by living organisms in a given biome. (Wiktionary)

Tell me about the Dawn Chorus project you and your students worked on. What are you doing?

Students in some of my classes were walking around and recording bird songs on their cell phones. And they used this wonderful application developed by the Cornell Ornithology Lab. A student described it to me as Shazam for the birds. There are over 25 species of birds on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. This was done during quarters or even not at the peak of the migration season. And so that was sort of the first step.

Alexander Hampton’s undergraduate students were tasked with recording birdsong for the project. (Submitted by Alexander Hampton)

These recordings, they submitted them, and they recorded some of their own observations. But they also did things like poetry. And of those wonderful compositions and thoughts, we’ve passed on to some music faculty students, some graduate students — the composer, Gavin Frazier; also voice student, Nicole Percifield. They are both doing doctorates. And they also transcribed some of the birdsong into musical notation, which explores a sort of man-bird dialogue.

It’s called Wake up the dawn, my beautiful. This whole project could easily take place entirely within the music department, or in a biology seminar or an ecology class. Why does it fit so well in a religious studies class?

We all know that we are currently going through an environmental crisis. And the sad reality is that we have all kinds of technology, we have all the scientific know-how to deal with this crisis that we find ourselves in, and we seem unable to do so. And I think that points to something much more important, which is that it’s not our lack of knowledge or know-how. This is the kind of cultural and civilizational framework in which we deploy this knowledge. And I think one of the greatest resources we have for solving this problem has to come from exploring our feeling-based relationship with nature – our kind of spiritual or ecological or spiritual connection with nature. Something that I think often goes unspoken or unrequited, but is something that many of us have – whether it’s seeing the kind of lightning of a cardinal in a bush or whether it’s vacations and see the Grand Canyon. And I think exploring and expressing and empowering that feeling is actually one of the ways we can really effect change.

Tell me about a time when you felt this connection in a deep way – whether it was just on a city street or on vacation somewhere, where you had a very strong sense of connection felt with nature… I mean primitivepretty much the way you felt.

For me, one of the best examples of this is right outside my apartment building in downtown Toronto in the dead of winter. And there was this great thick bush, and it was full of sparrows that were kind of huddled up and puffed up. And I was standing next to it and I could see into it. And I could see them. And I could see straight into a sparrow’s eye, and I could see his little pupil dilate as he looked at me. It was one of those moments that takes you way beyond words, because you see a sparrow every day. But by then, the sparrow was just one of countless sparrows. He was an individual with whom I share my city – with whom I share my living space, and whom we often tend to pass and ignore. And I think a lot of us have moments of that kind of connection.

Mezzo soprano Nicole Percifield and pianist Geoffrey Conquer with composer Gavin Fraser. (Submitted by Alexander Hampton)

Why do you think music is such an important way to connect with the world around us?

Well, there are two things. One is the ability of rhythm to connect us. Rhythm is something so primordial and fundamental to us as human beings. It is something intrinsic to our biological selves, in our heartbeats, or our waking and sleeping. It is also fundamental for the environment around us, the seasons or the days. It is also something that is central to the spiritual life of many people. I think there’s something about rhythm that connects our spiritual self and our physical self, and our larger environmental self. And music, of course, along with poetry and other art forms, has a real ability to do that.

There are no words for this piece. The intention is to transcend words and, in doing so, to transcend ourselves. And we explore, I think, in this piece, this ability of music to allow us to transcend ourselves and engage in a dialogue with nature.

Sheet music for the composition of Gavin Fraser (Submitted by Alexander Hampton)

Can you tell me about a time when you were deeply moved by the rhythm, by the pulse?

I remember the first time I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge Ancient Mariner’s Rhyme. And if there is indeed an ecological and religious poem, I think it is. It is in a ballad rhyme structure. So it’s naturally a musical piece, and it’s a fantastic trip around the world, on the seas, and it has a kind of ecological disaster. And it is the beginning of a reconciliation of this person who commits a horribly destructive act and then finds himself – well, at the end of the poem – reconciled both with himself and with the larger natural world of which he is part. I think the rhythmic quality of this ballad goes beyond the words the poet himself uses in this context.

Tapestry0:59‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (excerpt)

An excerpt from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, read by Tapestry producer Arman Aghbali

Are there lines? Is there a pair of lines that have worked their way into your heart in terms of the rhythm and scansion of it?

It is once he becomes aware of being alienated from nature. There are these lines where Coleridge writes,

Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide sea!
And never a saint had mercy on
My soul in agony.

And this is the depth of the sailor’s sense of despair and alienation from nature. And then there is that moment when the sailor finds himself unconsciously transcending himself and reconnecting with nature. He describes these water snakes, then he says, And I blessed them, ignorant — this moment of surpassing oneself. It is a poem that I also like to share with my students, because I think that we all find something of our own history in relation to nature, in this very beautiful composition.

A red-tailed hawk. (Alexander Hampton)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Arman Aghbali. Written by Kevin Ball.