John Middleton - Blog

The Bird Symphony and 'Bird Song' Art exhibition

 ‘Bird Song’: Private View address      John Middleton 15.4.11


I want to speak about the relationship of Music and Art, and then about the relationship between my music and the content of this exhibition by Art Space. It won’t take more than six minutes.


Music is, of course, one of the Arts, but it is not like a painting that you can hang on the wall, or a sculpture or ceramic that you can set on a plinth. It begins, continues for the duration of the piece, and comes to an end, but you cannot hear it all at once. In this sense, it resembles an Arts video. The piece can be very short, or can occupy more than an hour of your time, like a Mahler symphony, or my Bird Symphony. To appreciate what is happening through the piece, you might need a good memory for sounds, whereas you have the whole of a painting in front of you.


But the difference is not so clear cut, because, if you keep looking at a painting or sculpture, you keep noticing different things. And if you come back to it another day, you bring a different set of eyes with you.


True Art, whether visual or audial, is not wallpaper: it tends to repay concentration and deeper engagement by the observer. We will get more out of it if we take ourselves up close, in a spiritual sense, and if we take enough time.


By spirit, I mean the essence of an individual. It is a truly mysterious thing, but it is a subjective reality for all of us: I experience, therefore I am. Artistic utterance is a manifestation of that spirit. Sometimes we ‘get it’ and sometimes we don’t. But when we do, it validates our own subjective existence and connectedness with other subjective beings. It is an antidote to existential anguish: I am not alone; someone else has had thoughts and feelings that resemble mine. It makes you feel good! 


My journey as a composer began with words and stories that moved me: I wrote the opera, Ivanhoe, and also an oratorio. The emotional content and the rhythm of the words evoked the music within me, as well as providing a structure. But I wanted to move on and write something abstract; not particularly telling a story; music for its own sake.


Art for Art’s sake runs the risk of excluding those without training in the Arts. However, artists must really love their medium, be it paint, stone, music or whatever else: they must love working and playing with it. Unless the artist is engaged with the medium, the art work will be lifeless and is unlikely to ring any bells with the observer.


I have always loved sound and I slowly became aware of the music going on in my head. The words and stories acted as a trigger to release the musical ideas. What I wanted was something that would also act as a trigger, but not so literal: something from Nature. Of course, bird song! I had been listening to it all my life: the Blackbirds and Thrushes in the Spring dawn chorus, the summer warblers from Africa, the waders in the autumn salt marsh - an expression of the life force! So the Bird Symphony became a cycle of the seasons and of life: it acquired a philosophical dimension. Not only that, but the woods, the marshes, and the earth itself seemed to sing to me, and I wrote that song down.

Of course, I know that the earth didn’t sing in an objective sense, that the sound came from within me, from my experience of the earth and its seasons, just as the bird sounds in my symphony are not what I really heard, but motifs that have emerged and been transformed in my psyche, an emotional response shaped by a little bit of musical craft that I have learnt.


The artists in this exhibition have responded to the music and its associations in a variety of ways: maps of the warblers’ migrations; bird song manifested as physical vibration; the score itself as a piece of art; works with wider philosophical and political agendas. They all had a copy of the CD and had heard me talk about the underlying themes and ideas.


Here, we can see a variety of artistic responses which resulted from an outside stimulus: the sounds and associated ideas from the Bird Symphony triggered a mysterious process in each individual, which eventually emerged as a work of art.


What I have described, the artistic process, is what we all go through, painters, sculptors, composers and the rest. We dig deep and you, too, may have to dig deep in order to ‘get it’. Take enough time or maybe come again with different eyes and ears. You will not be alone. Art comes from the spirit, and is food for the spirit.