Carol of the Birds

Brian and I mused cautiously about doing a “surprise installation art” offering at the garden for visitors. Brian was a sound designer. I had a theater background and had done a lot of visuals in my career involving lighting design. We had taken a lighting course together at Angstrom Lighting in Los Angeles, and were well on our way to mixing light and sound together in an alchemy of expression. But we were both highly opinionated and had artisan temperaments. One hopes not to fight to the point of breaking when working with another creative type.

I was in charge of the holiday festival and we had one California winter night in the garden to use. All my other programming for the evening was already set and predictable for a holiday evening in the garden. I asked Brian is he wanted to work with me on something unexpected. OF COURSE, he said yes.

We worked “off the radar,” telling no one on the staff. You can manage to pull this kind of sneaky thing of once in a great while.

There were three reasons that we proceeded in a stealth manner.

One was because we were working with professional lighting equipment that had not been used in several years, and we were unsure what challenges might manifest. Therefore, we did not want to commit in print to something that would require spending unexpected money should some of the gear not work.

Second, we did not want to go through a bureaucratic system of permissions. "Ask for forgiveness, not for permission."

Third, we wanted the serendipity of surprise and discovery for the staff and the visitors.

Brian, being far more strange than I, wanted to do something fantastically bizarre. I had to help him dial that back a bit for this event (smile). We agreed that it needed to have at least a smidgen of familiarity or sentimentality to it and that we wanted the piece to be beautiful and haunting.

I became aware of the history of the Carol of the Bells. When I discussed it with him, we fell in love with the possibilities and decided that this would be the anchor for the work.

Here is some background for you:

"Carol of the Bells" is a well-known and recognized holiday song, yet most of us do not know it's origins and that the original folk song had nothing to do with Christmas. The beautiful circular tune was originally a Ukrainian folk song - a "winter well-wishing song."

Anthony Potoczniak, a Rice University anthropology graduate student is studying the song's history: The original folk melody that Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich used and titled "Shchedryk," tells the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful year that the family will have. The song's title is derived from the Ukrainian word "shchedryj," which means "bountiful." The folk song was one of many well-wishing tunes sung in many Ukrainian villages on Jan. 13 -- New Year's Eve on the Julian calendar -- performed by adolescent girls, visiting house to house in celebration of the new year. As the girls sang the tune predicting good fortune, they were rewarded with baked goods or other treats.

"The swallow is a herald of spring coming," Potoczniak informs us. The original lyrics tell the lofty tale of a swallow calling out to the master of the home and telling him about all the wealth that he will possess -- healthy livestock, money and a beautiful wife.

So sound, in the form of the song, would be the anchor. We had our location – an open-air theater surrounded by a dense grove of oak trees. We had the long-neglected lighting equipment. We knew our intended audience would be people looking to celebrate Christmas communally. We knew that there would be many fantastic wee-ones present.

Brian began designing his audio piece. Our discussions revolved around bringing the birds into the song, and also the dreams of children. He began deconstructing the carol tonally and started mixing bird song and the laughter of children in his soundscape.

I began working with the lighting gear, wiping off cobwebs, checking light bulbs. As well, my challenge was to forecast how to help people interact with the space, not just stand by and look and listen. By procuring what we called “jingle sticks” - sticks with jingle bells and ribbons attached– I hoped to invite people to join in to dance and play on the stage together, enveloped in the sound and light.

We kept an eye on weather reports, praying that it would not rain. The night before the event, we arrived at the garden stage only after everyone was gone and it was pitch dark. At first, we used the Jeep's headlights to see as we drug lighting gear up the 20 foot ladder to the lighting armature. It was freezing cold for us California types, somewhat dangerous in the dark, and a challenge of the wits. It pushed my physicality to the limit, lugging the heavy leko theatrical lights up the ladder and tightening the bolts so that they lights held safely in place. Slowly, the lights went up and the intense colors of the gels cut and sliced into the blackness of the garden. Fusia. Red. Orange. Purple. Teal. Yellow. Instead of only lighting the stage as you would in theater, we tipped many of the leko stage lights to light the surrounding oaks, to make the forest actors in the scene. We fired up the audio gear and started to play Brian's soundscape.

And, I began to believe. Believe that all the work was worth it. Believe that our skill sets could compliment each other and that we could create interesting installation art together. Believe that tomorrow might be tender and magical.

And it was.

We probably had a couple hundred people come through. Some danced. Some hopped. Some skated. Some wiggled. Everyone seemed to love the bathing colors and sounds that took them to an imaginary space. I should have videoed the evening. I should have taken more pictures. When it got busy, I could not take the time to photograph people.

Brian was fussy about audio. He did not like compressed mp3 or mp4s. He would have wanted you to hear this piece on an excellent system, not likely found on your computer. But I have no means to share his soundscape with you, and so I know he might forgive me as I share this less-than high quality version of his work with you. Click the button to watch and listen to my very humble little slide show with audio:

I think this may have been one of the best moments in his creative life, because he got to experience people's direct reaction to his work. I know he was on cloud 9 when the evening ended. I continue to be grateful that I helped make this highpoint of his career happen for him. I think, for me, it may have been my best Christmas season to date.

Side note: Birds usually do not sing at night. We had a very interesting reaction from the native birds in the garden the evening we were setting up and doing our dress rehearsal. The birds came. They sang. And, some of them made angry dives at us as we were there with the audio running. I suspect that they were confused about the sound and the territory that was being invaded by outsider birds! Luckily, the night of the event, there was no dive-bombing birds. Perhaps they had gotten used to the sound or were dissuaded by the crowds, we will never know.