Birds Calling in Fort Ben
Words by Anna Hinkley
In her new composition Birds Calling, composer Hanna Benn created a musical piece inspired by the birds of the Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park. Commissioned and recorded as a takeaway show for park visitors by Classical Music Indy, Birds Calling is a trio of soprano voice, violin, and cello that invites the listener to escape to a musical soundscape reflecting the park.
Located a mere ten miles from the heart of Indianapolis, Fort Ben has offered a place of respite to humans and wildlife since being established as a park in 1996. Dozens of species of birds have found nesting and migration grounds on Fort Ben’s 1,700 acres over the years. Hanna Benn’s new work is directly connected to the natural space that inspired it.
Like earlier commissions such as 2018’s Three Peacetime Images for Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park and 2019’s Sanctuary, both by Rob Funkhouser, Benn’s composition Birds Calling was made possible through the Indiana Arts Commission’s Arts in the Parks and Historic Sites grant program. While the premiere performance of Birds Calling was originally planned as three live concerts in the park, the impact of the pandemic reduced that number to a single socially-distance premiere of the new work in September. To share the work more broadly, CMI filmed the piece on location as a takeaway show, which will be made available to park visitors via QR code.
Although she spent her childhood in Indianapolis, Benn was in Atlanta when she began composing Birds Calling in the first months of 2020. Relying on recordings and conversations with park rangers, Benn was inspired while listening to bird calls recorded in the park. “I transcribed those melodies; sometimes slowed them down so I could actually get a rhythmic quality to it and then went from there,” she said. “And so a lot of the rhythms and the melodic ideas come from that in the piece.”
Soundscapes are an important part of Benn’s compositional ouvre, and she created a soundscape that mirrored Fort Ben while meditating on the bird calls she transcribed. “I couldn’t personally be there, so I had to create a space myself, my impression on it just from hearing about it,” she said. From that seed of an idea, Benn composed a piece in which textures were very important. She used a soprano voice as an instrument alongside the violin and cello, giving the voice wordless melodic lines to create musical impressions.
Musically, the piece was directly inspired by the bird calls, but Benn wanted to offer an escape to the natural world. She also wanted listeners to create their own meaningful experience from the music. “I feel like music is such an ineffable delight – it’s untouchable and unexplainable,” she said. “I really want it to be up to the listener.”
Although Benn completed her composition before the country felt the effects of the pandemic, the change from live to virtual performances changed the way she envisioned listeners experiencing the music. “Because of quarantine and social distancing, others couldn’t be there either. So now it’s definitely a tonal landscape – you don’t have to be there.”
The recording itself was filmed in one of Fort Ben’s cabins and intercut it with footage of the park, and featured CMI artists Chloe Boelter, soprano; Tricia Bonner, violin; and Leilah Smith cello.
“The Birds Calling performance was an amazing and organic experience,” stated CMI’s podcast producer Ezra Bakker Trupiano, who produced the takeaway show. “It was recorded out in the heart of the park which inspired it, and the sounds of the park naturally feature in the recording. It was really special to watch the performers make this piece come alive in that rustic and natural environment, and you could hear how the music really reflected the environment!”
Birds Calling, a part of Classical Music Indy’s Music in Nature Concert Series, was made possible by the Indiana Arts Commission, a state agency, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
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