This sound of music is for the birds

A white-throated sparrow is among the many birds that makes the Shenandoah Valley home — at least for a while. (Photo provided by Amy Goodall via the Shenandoah Valley Ever Green project)

By Stephanie Spernak, contributor

Local pianist Anna Showalter will headline a May 5 free concert with music inspired by birdsongs. The event will close out this year’s “A Book for the ‘Burg” program, co-sponsored by the James Madison University Institute for Stewardship of the Natural Environment.   

“A Book for the ‘Burg” program began in 2013 to engage the Harrisonburg community in discussions of a book with “a thought-provoking theme.” This year’s selection was Rachel Carson’s 1962 award winning best seller, “Silent Spring,” a book that raised public awareness of damage use of chemicals, particularly pesticides like DDT, can do to the ecosystem.  Carson warned that if these practices weren’t controlled or stopped, then people would wake up one silent spring morning because there would be no birds left to sing.  

In an online interview with The Citizen, Showalter wrote the concert — starting at 7 p.m. Friday at 17 N. Court Square — should be a “fun, family friendly event” during which seven of her piano students, ranging in age from 6 to 17, will play “bird-inspired pieces that they have worked on with me this semester.”  

Those inspirational birds include the robin, purple finch, woodpecker, cuckoo and chickadee, Showalter added.

Other professional musicians, Lydia Carroll on flute and Amanda Gookin on cello, will also play at the concert. Gookin will play a piece for cello and electronics called “For the Birds” by Charlottesville composer Judith Shatin.  

The A Book for the ‘Burg program opened Feb. 17 with the “Great Backyard Bird Count: Winter Birdsong” at the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum on JMU’s campus. The program included discussions of Carson’s life, her other books focusing on ocean ecology — she wrote three of them — and a talk about “the ‘Burg and the Bees” by the local apiary, Knapp’s Bees.  

Sharing a soundscape

Showalter wrote she will also play a piece she premiered earlier this spring at a lecture about urban birdsong and sound ecology at the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts. JMU Assistant Professor Dana Moseley, a sensory ecologist in the Department of Biology, presented the lecture. And Showalter’s music accompanied the talk. 

“When I learned about Dr. Moseley’s research,” Showalter wrote, “I was fascinated by the way that sound is a way of understanding the health of an ecosystem. I was interested in this idea not just as someone who loves nature, but also as a musician who spends much of my time listening to sound and producing sound and working to build communities around sound.” 

Showalter wrote that “we need to use our ears not just our eyes to pay attention to the animals who live in our neighborhoods, and we need to understand that the industrial noises we put into our environments have an impact on animals.”  

At the lecture, Showalter played a new piano composition written by composer Ashkan Tabatabaie, visiting assistant professor of music and digital media at the New College of Florida, called “The Gray Catbird.” That score was inspired by Moseley’s research and was born out of the idea that humans share their soundscape with other creatures.   

“’The Gray Catbird’ adapts to different sound environments in rural and urban locations,” Showalter wrote, adding that the bird sings differently in urban environments. “They sing just a little bit higher to avoid having their songs masked by urban noise.”   

Sound or soundscape ecology is the scientific study of the causes and effects of sound on the environment and humans.  

According to Garth Paine, associate professor of digital sound and interactive media and director of the acoustic ecology lab at Arizona State University, “conservation research puts a heavy emphasis on sight – think of the inspiring vista, or the rare species caught on film with camera traps – but sound is also a critical element of natural systems.   We use sound to advance environmental awareness and stewardship and provide critical tools for deeper consideration of sound in nature preserves, urban and industrial design.”  

Moseley described her research that focuses on the impact of urbanization on the song and behavior of a vocal mimic, the gray catbird, that like parrots, can mimic many different sounds that they hear. Moseley is collecting data for her project at the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum among other places in the city.  

Listen here to a collection of eight classical music selections inspired by birdsong.

A return to Silent Spring

All that comes back to the fears Carson outline in “Silent Spring.” 

Carson dedicated “Silent Spring” to Albert Schweitzer, 1952 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, noted for his “reverence for all life.”  

In keeping with the purpose of her book to motivate the public to take action to protect the environment, she chose a pessimistic quote by Schweitzer in which he said that “man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.”   

In Chapter 8 of her book, entitled “And No Birds Sing,” Carson wrote “over increasingly large areas of the United States spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”  

Carson also describes a 1958 letter written “in despair” by a woman from Hillsdale, Illinois, to Robert Cushman Murphy, world-renowned ornithologist in Washington, DC. According to Carson, the letter to Murphy said:  

Here in our village, the elm trees have been sprayed for several years. When we moved here six years ago, there was a wealth of bird life; I put up a feeder and had a steady stream of cardinals, chickadees, downies, and nuthatches all winter… [but]  after several years of DDT spray, the town is almost devoid of robins and starlings; chickadees have not been on my shelf for two years, and this year the cardinals are gone too….  It is hard to explain to the children that the birds have been killed off.”

All these years later, “Silent Spring” remains notable because Carson not only documented the hazards indiscriminate pesticide use, but she also urged the public to question government officials and scientists about the effects of these chemicals and to demand information and accountability.   

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency, and two years later the agency banned the use of DDT in the U.S. 

Although DDT was believed safe for human exposure at the time, some scientists, including Carson, thought otherwise.   

DDT is a synthetic chemical made in a lab, and its toxic effect on a variety of insects was first discovered by Swiss Chemist Paul Herman Muller, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1948 for this discovery.

The banning of DDT remains controversial to this day because it has beneficial applications and is still used in many other countries. During World War II, the U.S. military began widespread use of DDT to protect troops from malaria and other diseases transmitted by insects.

Other sponsors of the “A Book for the ‘Burg” program are the Arts at JMU, the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum, Massanutten Regional Library and Eastern Mennonite University.

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