The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux

Arcadia University Art Gallery, Philadelphia, 2003

By Richard Torchia

A reflection on the sources of musical inspiration and the acculturation of nature, The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux transforms the gallery into an aviary housing five European Starlings, a species recognized for its remarkable mimetic skills. A recording of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux [Catalog of Birds] (1956-58)–a composition for solo piano structured according to the rhythm, color, and texture of birdsong–is played in the space throughout each day. Over the course of the exhibition, the birds absorb, and possibly reiterate, Messiaen’s piece, mirroring the music and its process of composition in real time as it is broadcast simultaneously on the loudspeakers. A variation on a work originally realized last year at the Halle fur Kunst in Lueneburg, Germany, Allen’s re-presentation of the piece at Arcadia advances his research into the perception, retention, and transmission of sound and music. Grounded in speculation, this interdisciplinary experiment brings together ornithology, progressive music, and contemporary art to reflect on a baffling range of aesthetic and philosophical questions.

Born in Glasgow in 1963 and currently living in Berlin, Allen has developed a practice that began in the early 1990s with an exploration of the materials, situations, and mythologies of rock and roll. In researching the intersections between art and music, Allen’s more recent work has evolved to include an autodidactic take on experimental music of the last century. By blurring the differences between fan and participant, amateur and professional, the real and the supposed, Allen strategically reprocesses his chosen references to musical works and compositional methods toward expansive and critical ends.

Allen first received recognition for a series of videos that began with Live Version, a work in which he is shown being taught the individual parts of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. The four monitors that comprise the piece, each looping out of sync with the other, depict Allen earnestly striving through the song on guitar, bass, vocals, and drums. His homemade deconstruction of Zeppelin’s stadium warhorse, mediated almost beyond recognition, is both comic and touching. New Wave of New Wave (1996), the culmination of this body of work, documents an audition “performed” by Allen and two friends in which Allen–as guitarist and band leader–is upstaged by the auditioning bassist. Foregrounding the non-verbal communication expressed in the actual playing depicted, the video treats rock and roll not as a metaphor but as an arena where individual ambitions and the battle between a communal underground and the mainstream are equally at stake.

Allen’s Song Drawings from the mid-1990s constitute an ongoing archive of musical charts the artist’s attempts to put down on paper songs he has learned only by ear. These transcriptions transform anthems such as The Stooge’s Search and Destroy, Richard Hell’s Blank Generation, and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit into understandable chord diagrams while allowing musical mis-readings and graphic aberrations to convert such classics into new compositions. They also acknowledge the readiness for short-cuts on the part of performers too impatient to follow more labor-intensive paths to mastery. Interpretation of ‘Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un Faune’ (1892-94) by Claude Debussy, arranged without key signature for the untrained pianist (2000), employs the same do-it yourself attitude to a work frequently sited as the beginning of Modernist composition. Hunting and pecking for Debussy’s primary melodic line on a piano (an instrument not included in the original orchestration), Allen figured out the score for himself and made a large-scale drawing from the results that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of music might play. Such willful amateurism was a distinguishing feature of 1970s punk. Applied to Debussy’s maverick composition, it suggests a generative link between an avant-garde composer (now entirely assimilated) and the innovations of the Sex Pistols.

Over the past several years, Allen has become increasingly interested in the evolution of audio equipment and the manner in which the transition from analog to digital technology has altered the relationship between consumption and production, a shift that has nevertheless preserved all the currency and contradictions of the original recording. His recent installations incorporating noiseless CDs are attempts to document empty concert halls (such as the Berlin Philharmonia) and recording booths, such as those at Hansa by the Wall Studios in Berlin, where David Bowie made Low and Heroes. In his Hansa recording, Allen amplifies a sound with which we may be very familiar with but have never really listened to, a blank ambience actively repressed by sound engineers. This silence (actually the sound of air particles colliding into one another) is re-assimilated by any room in which it is played and is particularly resonant in contemporary galleries, venues rarely designed with acoustics in mind. In addition to posing questions about perception and how aural phenomena are colored by cultural spaces, in these noiseless recordings, Sound remains but a possibility, as critic Harald Fricke has written, “but one that the visitor can realize only in his or her head.” (note 1)

While many of Allen’s more recent pieces are conceived in response to his readings in music history and theory, they always resort to hands-on tactics that have become the root of his method. In another experiment that expands his investigation of silence and prefigures his interest in the musicality of animals, Allen used a DAT machine to record his own transcription of one of Erik Satie’s three Veritables preludes flasques pour un chien [Flabby Preludes for a Dog] at frequencies between 18,000 and 36,000 hertz. Allen’s setting of Satie’s 1912 composition places it well out of reach of the human ear (which cannot detect frequencies above 17,000 hertz) while maintaining its audibility to canines, (whose range peaks at about 42,000). Played on a pair of high-frequency audio monitors, Allen’s silent treatment of Satie’s prelude privileges the composer’s subject at the expense of human listeners who may watch the pulsing L.E.D. readout but hear nothing. Allen reports that a dog brought to the gallery during the opening of the group show in which this work was first presented happily settled on the floor in front of the speakers.

The physiological capacity to absorb, store, and repeat musical information plays a large part of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux as well as Allen’s contemporary reflection of it. This work by Messiaen (1908-1992) is considered a masterpiece of the twentieth-century piano literature and the French composer’s finest achievement for the instrument. While he is by no means the only composer to incorporate birdsong into musical works, he is the first to use it as an extensive compositional source. First performed in 1959, Catalogue d’Oiseaux consists of thirteen individual pieces each named after different songbirds, which Messiaen referred to as “the greatest musicians on our planet.” The work’s subtitle makes conspicuous his intention of portraying every bird in its natural context: “Bird-songs of the French provinces. Each soloist is represented in its habitat, surrounded by its landscape and by the songs of other birds (77 in all) from the region.” Conceived to be performed by pianist Yvonne Loriod, a student of Messiaen’s who eventually became his wife, this 150-minute work developed from Messiaen’s practice of directly notating birdsong onto notebook paper in the wild, “like an exercise in aural-training.” (note 2) While sometimes shadowed on a very primitive tape recorder by Loriod, Messiaen preferred to rely on his own notation, risking whatever inaccuracies might result to preserve the sense authenticity he believed was better conveyed by his own immediate perceptions. (note 3)

Everything is real,” he wrote. “The melodies and rhythms of the solo birds, the counterpoint supplied by the melodies and rhythms of their neighbours, the answering calls and the time of day….All are enlarged but the proportions remain identical. It is an exact transposition of what I heard, but on a more human scale.” (note 4) One of many works based on similar notations that occupied the composer over his entire lifetime, Catalogue d’Oiseaux has been celebrated for its near-transparent impression of birds in their natural habitat and distills the composer’s religious devotion to nature, which Messiaen referred to as a “peerless model of total evolution and endless variety,” as well as “the supreme resource.” (note 5)

Difficult to translate into human terms, birdsong is a complex phenomenon that – especially in consideration of Allen’s project – must be distinguished from bird calls, which support a host of other practical functions spanning from the rearing of the young to warning notes and instructions about the location of food. While essentially a method by which males attract females and establish territory, birdsong has also been shown to be an expression of well-being. With few exceptions, the best singers are quietly colored, the quality of their song perhaps a form of compensation for their uniform plumage.

Mimicry is pervasive among songbirds and can be regarded as a method of learning, a way of distinguishing the features of a bird’s own habits in relation to those which are alien. As opposed to the more demanding process of invention, mimicry might be a strategy for avoiding the monotony that would otherwise result in sustaining a song to maintain a boundary over long periods of time. Another theory imagines that birds imitate partly for the appeal of the songs themselves, responding to the medley of melodies around them with a selective mix that is more in harmony with their own sensory-emotional experiences. Ornithologists have also researched the impact of man on imitative birds and tracked the development of local “dialects” derived from human whistling. (note 6)

By offering the composer’s index of birdsong to five starlings, Allen sets up a compelling hypothesis in musical representation. (Note 7) Recognized for being able to imitate as many as fifty individual bird melodies, starlings have also been documented copying the sounds of other animals and even mechanical devices, including door hinges and pianos. While it may be difficult to determine if they actually duplicate the recorded keyboard playing in the gallery, The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux nevertheless establishes conditions under which Messiaen’s compositional processes could be reflected by the birds. The manner in which the birds might absorb and mimic the piano music echoes Allen’s own practice of transmitting (and transforming) works he has learned only by ear. The viewer too, placed between the music and the starlings, is offered an opportunity–as well as the responsibility–of participating in this circle of impressions and responses.

Like many of Allen’s other projects – and the best conceptual art – The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux might be adequately conveyed by description. However, not to enjoy the unique and tantalizing experience it offers–the apprehension of live, mimicking songbirds being exposed to music directly inspired by birdsong–would be a mistake. Sidestepping metaphor, Allen grounds this work in actuality, an objective possibility that is tacitly legible regardless of its audibility. Each viewer becomes audience and witness to living poetry.


1) Review of ‘Songs of Love and Hate,’ Artforum, October, 2001, p. 168.

2) Messiaen quoted by Robert Sherlaw Johnson in his chapter entitled ‘Birdsong,’ The Messiaen Companion, ed., Peter Hill, Amadeus Press, 1994, p. 249.

3) Ibid, p. 265. Johnson writes: “With the improvements of tape recorders since the 1950s it has been possible to slow up birdsong to a considerable degree in order to note down detail which is totally inaudible in some cases at normal speed. Although Messiaen could have achieved greater accuracy by doing this, paradoxically he would have been divorced from the reality he was trying to achieve. Only the approximations of birdsong, as perceived by his ear, would server his purpose, whether for the portrayal of reality in nature as in the Catalog D’Oiseaux, or the more symbolic usages of birdsong elsewhere.”

4) Patricia Altharparro-Minck, liner notes (translated by Rosemary Barnes) for the Naxos CD edition of Hakon Austbo’s recording of Catalog D-Oiseaux, 1997.

5) Ibid.

6) Charles Hartshorne, Born to Sing, An Interpratation and World Survey of Bird Song, Indiana Unversity Press, 1992, p. 62.

7) Exhibited at Arcadia University Art Gallery, The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux is both a faithful reproduction and effective extension of the work originally presented at the Halle fur Kunst, Lueneberg in May, 2002. The single difference between the two versions of the work – the use of different species of mimicking birds (European Starlings at Arcadia and Northern Mockingbirds in Lueneberg) – contribute nuances of interpretation worth considering.

The Northern Mockingbirds Allen employed to realize the The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux in Lueneberg are native to the United States. Available to Allen in Germany, they are protected here by federal regulations that forbid their captivity. To re-present the work to Allen’s specifications at Arcadia, the gallery initially secured the use of two Tropical Mockingbirds from Paraguay. These, unfortunately, were exposed to Exotic Newcastle disease while in quarantine this summer and were denied entrance to the U.S. shortly before the exhibition was to open. The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia quickly located five starlings from a wildlife rehabilitator in State College, Pennsylvania that could be held legally in our aviary for the run of the exhibition.

In addition to highlighting the reciprocal restrictions protecting these two species in Europe and the U.S., the re-presentation of The Mirrored Catalogue D’Oiseaux raises other points regarding territory, origin, and impact. All of the approximately 200 million starlings now residing in the United States are direct descendants of one hundred birds released in New York’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891. These European Starlings were introduced by a society wishing to release to the U.S. examples of every bird mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare. The starlings currently in the gallery will be re-released to the wild next summer after wintering at the Academy of Natural Sciences. When they rejoin the population, they might possibly carry with them strains of Messiaen’s Catalogue, potentially completing a circle of inspiration and influence begun half a century ago.

Finally, Allen’s use of the European Starling in the version of The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux presented here establishes an opportunity to consider another direct connection between this particular species musical composition. In her article published by Indiana University in 2002, Jayne Spencer describes research by scientists Meredith West and Andrew King who investigated Mozart’s purchase of a starling in the spring of 1784. Along with seventeen notes of a musical score inscribed in the composer’s diary of expenses, West and King reported Mozart’s comment, ‘That was wonderful!’ as part of his record of the purchase. West and King write: ‘The theme whistled by the starling must indeed have induced wonder because it occurs in the final movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major, (K. 453), written only a month earlier and at the time, not yet performed in public.’ West goes on to address how the starling might have acquired Mozart’s music as well as the possibility that Mozart might have borrowed the motif from his new pet, having visited the pet shop weeks prior to purchasing the bird. The article details other expressions of Mozart’s relationship with the starling, including an analysis of a piece of music (K. A Musical Joke) the composer completed the week after the starling’s death and formal funeral, passages which possess what West suggests could be ‘the compositional autograph of starling.’ The text of the funeral poem and the orchestration of the bird’s burial imply that Mozart had been as captivated by his starling as the caregivers in this recent study. “Perhaps the next time you encounter an assembly of starlings, you will, as did Mozart, stop and listen. And perhaps in their sounds, you too might hear salutations from one upstart species to another.”