Album Review: Life On Land’s Edge/ Bowerbird Collective

Bowerbird Collective’s recent album release Life on Land’s Edge stays true to the ensemble’s mission of using their performance to illustrate threats to our environment and generate a call to action. Using instrumental music, song, poetry, recordings from nature and imagery, this album is intended to create awareness of the plight of migratory shorebirds whose numbers are in rapid decline.

Life on Land’s Edge is a collection of 13 contemporary pieces with one excerpt by Antonio Vivaldi. With the support of the Australia Council for the Arts, Bowerbird Collective along with BirdLife Australia, commissioned eight composers to illustrate through the arts, the behaviour and the plight of these birds. The music incorporates song and recordings of the bird sounds and their habitats as they pass through continents. Every year these extraordinary creatures which live on the no-man’s-land of tidal mudflats, at the cusp the land and the sea, fly in their millions from the wintry plains of Alaska and Siberia to the shores of the Antipodes to breed and feed.

Bowerbird Collective established in 2017, comprises violinist Simone Slattery and cellist Anthony Albrecht. Slattery was a Churchill Fellow in 2019 and holds a PhD in Music Performance from the University of Adelaide. She plays a 1726 violin by Claude Pierray, Paris, and a 1985 violin by Gaspar Borchart. Cellist Anthony Albrecht was the first Australian graduate of The Juilliard School’s Historical Performance program. He plays a cello by Peter Walmsley, London, c 1740.

The music at times emulates bird calls and at other times provides a more traditional melodic foil to the background sounds of birds and nature. It is sometimes joyful, at others, acoustic or plaintive and anguished but always beautiful.

Recordings of two bird calls bookend the composed music. The opening prologue is a 25 – second call to action from the Far Eastern Curlew from the Russian Federation. At the end of the collection is a recording of the same bird, this time somewhat more agitated, from South Korea. Vast distances indeed. Other recordings come from as far afield as Mongolia and as close as Western Australia.

The Far Eastern Curlew is depicted again in a plaintive eponymous lament by Australian composer Corinna Bonshek, who has also contributed Between Sea and Sky, which she says was inspired by her collaborations with traditional Chinese musicians, blurring conventional harmonic lines and using the pentatonic scale. Interestingly, Between Sea and Sky features a traditional shorebird hunting whistle made by Jin Weiguo and played by Slattery.

Slattery herself has written two pieces on the recording, Invisible Connections and The Godwit and Curlew both from 2020. Invisible Connections has Slattery exploring the highest harmonic registers of the violin in an anguished song against an arpeggiated cello part.

The Godwit and Curlew has Slattery accompanied by the cello, singing in folk-style, the words she has written in collaboration with her mother, poet Maggie Slattery, narrating a story of hope that prevails through the dangers of migration.

Philip Glass’ Opening, is in classic Glass style, minimalist and propelled by flowing cross-rhythms of two against three beats. This transcription from the piano original for string duo with pre-recorded cello, perfectly conjures up the sweeping and gliding of birds in flight.

Adelaide-based Australian composer Anne Cawrse makes two appearances on the recording with Sanctuary and Ruddy Turnstone, both from 2021 and written after visiting the Adelaide Bird Sanctuary. Whilst Sanctuary is more melodic and Ruddy Turnstone more acoustic, both are deeply philosophical pieces which pay homage to the bird life as well as the Northern Kaurna people of the surrounding region.

In his pulsating, motoric piece (Codex) on the Flight of Birds by US based Australian composer Chris Williams links the science of motion and flight with music with great effect.

Born in Osaka in 1977, Dai Fujikura’s Star Compass is described as a “cadenza to the viola concerto Wayfinder” written originally for viola and arranged for solo cello, Albrecht plays this piece with subtlety and elegant phrasing.

Gambirra Illume is a Yolngu songstress from the Gumatj Clan of Northeast Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Her songs link humans with the land in a plea for universal survival. Her piece Wind Birds (2021) is eerie but engaging, placing the voice against the sounds of a windswept landscape.

In a nod to history, Slattery and Albrecht include a special arrangement of the middle movement Andante, of Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto ‘in due Cori’ con Violino scordato in B-flat major RV 583 (c. 1720).

Life on Land’s Edge has two expert performers, Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht using a muti-disciplinary and cross-genre approach to trigger awareness of important social and environmental issues. Their comprehensive program notes explain in depth the story behind each piece. The exquisite images in the accompanying booklet and the poetry are an added asset to this collection.

Life on Land’s Edge is music with an environmental conscience. Its pure sounds are pleasurable to listen to and intensely calming.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

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Read our review of Bowerbird Collective’s 2021 album Songs of Disappearance.

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