Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, op. 61
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, celesta, strings, tape
I. The Bog
III. Swans Migrating
Composed 1972. First performance: 18 October 1972, University of Outu, Finland. Stephen Portman, conductor.
In many ways, Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus is a modern incarnation of the “Goldfinch” concerto, except the soloists are actual birds, recorded near the Arctic Circle and in the bogs outside the town of Liminka in northern Finland. To build a musical work around a series of tape recordings also probes the differences between what is real and what is artificial, not unlike the story of “The Nightingale.” Like all electro-acoustic works, this piece combines the “realness” of live musical forces, in this case a chamber orchestra, with the “artifice” of electronically produced sound, in this case the tape recordings. The paradox then, given that the recorded sounds are of actual birds, the calls of which the instruments can only imitate, is that the recording might actually be the more “real” voice. Or perhaps we are meant to hear a conversation between the here and now of the orchestra and the dreamlike somewhere else conjured through the recordings.
At the beginning of the first movement, “The Bog,” the two flutes are asked to “think of autumn and of Tchaikovsky” during their duet, before being joined by the rest of the woodwinds and then the birds, all the way from Finland. The repeated statements from the oboes and trumpets combine major and minor thirds, in a dissonant callback to the cuckoo song of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral”—a gesture that creates a sense of temporal as well as spatial distance. The second movement, “Melancholy,” features a slowed-down recording of two shore larks calling back and forth to one another. Where in the first movement the birds of the bog receded into the background of the conversation among the woodwinds and brass, here the chorale-like texture in the strings creates a meditative space in which we can focus on the dialogue between the birds on the recording. In contrast, the third movement, “Swans migrating,” mimics the movement of birds rather than their voices. Over a recording of whooper swans, four groups of instruments are “only summarily synchronized mutually”—that is, they move closely together within their groups, but not identically. The first group is the violins and violas; the second the woodwinds; the third the horns, celli, and basses; and the fourth the celesta and harp. Each of the four groups occupies the same space, overlapping without colliding—coordinated, but not perfectly in synch. Anyone who has seen a flock moving together amorphously, or formations of geese flying at slightly different paces, can imagine what the sound of these instrumental choirs might look like. Over the course of the movement, in one long dynamic crescendo, these four groups and the recording meld together before fading into one distant sonic impression.
- Katherine Baber