Creating The Messenger Soundtrack & Music Sneak Peak

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The music and sound design for The Messenger as well as our upcoming CBC TV Nature of Things program is being created by Phil Strong. Phil and I have worked together for a number of years on a variety of projects. He’s an incredibly creative and resourceful person, and often collaborates with his partner Laurel MacDonald.  Stay tuned — you will hear Laurel’s incredible vocals in The Messenger soundtrack.

A great sound track has many elements including the sound recorded on location, additional ambiences and effects, sound design and music. Often these are delegated into distinct departments, except when working with Phil. He often mixes and merges these “categories.” For example, a sound from the wilderness might be sampled and transformed into music, or a musical tone he created in studio may sound so organic, it feels as if it was part of the natural landscape.

On this project, our budget and timelines are punishing, so we have been burning the midnight oil. Recently on one of these cold winter nights, Phil played a new track for me, which I absolutely loved. It’s quite fantastic, and the sound is really unique. I asked Phil how he created it….

“I wanted to create a kinetic, rhythmic, texture… the sound I was after is much like fiddlers as they hold down several strings and bow across them, varying the angle of the bow to create a harmonic rhythm. So I called my musician friend Sarah Shugarman, and we recorded several variations riffing on this idea. I later arranged these into a song order.”

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Would it be a stretch to say that this idea was inspired by the subject of the film — songbirds themselves?

“Because the strings on a viola/violin form an arch, they cannot all be bowed at once. The bow has to change angle to get each string. Rapid bowing and angle shifts (are not unlike the flapping movement of a birds wing ) – and create a flowing series of notes – a harmonic rhythm – without needing rapid movement in the left hand.”

 

Violin Quadruple-Stops

 

So, if you want to try this at home, Phil Strong shares how this is done.

“Here is the music for a set of “quadruple stops” which represents all the possible combinations a player can make holding down all four strings. “Stopping” a string just means shortening its effective length by pressing it against the finger board with your finger (the effective length of a string [and tension] determines the “pitch” or note). A quadruple stop means that all four strings are pressed down with each of the four fingers in the left hand.”

 

 

We call this piece of music “Boreal theme”. Here is a taste of what is sounds like.

 

Below are me and Phil working in his studio.

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Here’s Phil, Lauren and my Mark Bell having a late dinner after a long day in the studio. Mark is a contemporary artist (painter) and he’s donated  three really beautiful paintings to our crowdfunding campaign.

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Phil and Laurel also created memorable soundtrack for my dramatic feature film Kardia. You can hear some of the music on the Kardia web site.

More on Phil:

Phil Strong has produced acclaimed albums and soundtracks with his partner Laurel MacDonald, and notably Cape Breton singer, Mary Jane Lamond. Lamond’s CD, Landuil, which was arranged and produced by Strong, won the 2006 East Coast Music Award’s “album of the year”. Phil assisted John Oswald with his various Plunderphonics artworks and from his mentor also gleaned the art and dynamics of dance composition. He received several dance commissions and found his stride in this asynchronous form. In 1999, Phil scored the soundtrack for Nest, the first of 9 major works he created with Toronto Dance Theatre. His work on TDT’s Timecode Break earned a Dora Mavor Moore award.

Stutchbury Tracks Tiny Songbird Migration with Geolocator

Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, Ornithologist and author (Silence of the Songbirds) was one of the first scientists to use light logger geolocators to track tiny songbirds. Watch this exclusive SongbirdSOS video of Bridget retrieving a geolocator from a Hooded Warbler for the first time.

Bridget told us how it came about…

I started tracking migratory songbirds in 2007, after discovering that light-logger geolocators had been miniaturized to only 1.5g by the British Antarctic Survey.  For the first time ever it was possible to attach this device to songbirds and, if they returned the next year, re-construct their start-to-finish migration routes and timing.  At this size it was only safe to track relatively large songbirds that weighed over 50 grams but most songbirds weigh far less than 50 grams.  As with any technology, the geolocators were soon made even smaller, allowing researchers to track smaller songbirds.

In 2010 I had the good fortune to test the smallest tags at that existed at that time (0.6g). The tags were built by James Fox from the British Antarctic Survey. I wanted to know if it was possible to track warblers, which typically weigh less than 15g.  In the spring of 2010, after receiving permission from the US Banding Lab to do a pilot study, I caught five Hooded Warblers at my long-term study site in northwestern Pennsylvania. It was with some trepidation that I gave these little birds a relatively large piece of luggage to carry for the next year. I followed them carefully over the next months to make sure they were healthy.

Bridget and Student

You could not tell that a male Hooded Warbler was carrying a geolocator unless you happened to get a really good look at his back.  They sang vigorously, chased other males, mated with their females, and all five males successfully raised a family.  That August, just before they were about to depart for their winter-time migration, I recaptured three of the males and I was pleased to notice that their weight was healthy and that they were moulting their feathers normally.

Then came the long nine month wait.  The next year two of the five males returned to re-claim their territories in May and seemed no worse for the wear.  Amazingly, Director Su Rynard  and her SongbirdSOS documentary crew was there when we captured the first warbler ever tracked with a geolocator! After analyzing the light data I discovered that this bird, 2430-41205, had flown south to the Florida panhandle, across the Gulf of Mexico, and spent the winter in central Nicaragua.  In spring, he flew up to the Yucatan peninsula, across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River valley back to his exact same 100m x 100m territory in Pennsylvania.  Even after tracking several hundred songbirds, I still find it amazing that such a small bird can travel so far and with pinpoint accuracy.

Banded Hooded Warbler

What become of this infamous bird? Bridget’s colleague Dr. Ron Mumme from nearby Allegheny College has been studying Hooded Warblers in her backyard forest ever since. He reports that this bird survived to make a second round-trip the next year and again nested successfully, although he has not been seen since.

The second Hooded Warbler Bridget tracked also wintered in Nicaragua and has nested on the same breeding territory every year since 2010. He was at least two years old when first banded, which means he’s flown the 7000 kilometre round-trip at least four times in his lifetime for a total of 28 000 kilometres!!  He wasn’t spotted in 2014, and a new male has laid claim to his territory.

Bridget reminds us that Aristotle believed that migratory swallows buried themselves in the mud over the winter like frogs.  In many ways that seems far more likely than a little 12 gram bird flying over half-way across the globe.

Bill Evans Unique Songbird Acoustic Monitoring

For nearly 30 years, Bill Evans has had his ear to the sky,  listening to the calls of songbirds as they travel through the night. The process is called acoustic monitoring and the data he collects provides valuable information on songbird migration and the health of their populations.

Bill’s journey as a renegade scientist began in 1985 after a long night of delivering pizzas. He was resting on a bluff in eastern Minnesota at two in the morning when he heard it: the sound of hundreds of unseen birds flying overhead in the dark spring sky. He was entranced by their calls. “It was just such an enthralling experience for me,” said Bill. “To hear those calls so clearly – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Bill Evans night sky

At that time Bill was a history of science student at the University of Minnesota. He didn’t know how, but that day he decided he would find a way to record those calls over the duration of an entire night and to archive the data for others. He’s been committed to this work ever since.

Bill’s process has evolved with technology. He recorded his first calls on hifi VCRs, playing back the tapes and noting the calls by hand. The advent of computers has sped up the process and he now uses software that can extract the calls automatically.

He left his academic path to pursue his passion full-time and now works from his make-shift laboratory at his home in Ithaca, New York. His methods are unorthodox.  He constructs his microphones with the cheapest materials he can find: buckets, rubber bands and plastic wrap. He publishes his songbird data and his do-it-yourself methods on his website, www.oldbird.org, in the hopes of empowering citizen scientists to participate in this ambitious and important long-term bird acoustic monitoring project.

Similar to the Breeding Bird Survey, bird acoustic monitoring employed by citizen scientists across the continent has the potential to become a valuable tool for ornithologists and conservationists. He wants his work to become an index for looking at change, not just for the birds, but for the health of the planet as well.

Mic and Observatory

“These birds are tied down to habitat,” said Bill. “If you’re monitoring the population of the species, especially those neotropical  migrant songbirds, you have a sort of pulse on the condition of central or southern America wherever those birds go. You have a way of tuning into the changes of the planet from your home.”

Bill’s innovative methods give scientists a new way to measure the population trends of migratory songbirds. He is still driven by the same passion from that awe-inspiring moment but now, considering the many threats faced by songbirds, with a greater sense of urgency.

The SongbirdSOS documentary crew filmed with Bill on a beautiful night near the Cornell Night Sky Observatory in Ithaca, New York. 

Breeding Bird Survey Provides Valuable Songbird Population Data

It’s that time of year when many die-hard birdwatchers go out to count birds.  For some birders, the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is simply a fun tradition, but the BBS has become a valuable, one-of-a-kind resource for biologists, and conservationists.

Being able to identify two to three hundred songbird species by their vocalizations is a skill in and of itself. BBS participants will often inherit their routes from birders that have mentored them for years.  That was the case for Sheldon McGregor, who assisted a more experienced birder as a teenager and eventually took on the route when he was ready to pass it on.

We filmed with Sheldon and his birding partner Jim Blakelock on their last annual route in southern-central Ontario. “I’ve been doing my route almost 30 years,” said Sheldon. He’s noticed his route has grown quieter over the years. Especially absent are some field birds, such as meadowlarks and bobolinks.

The BBS has grown into a continent-wide population-monitoring program involving 2000 participants each year.  Close to 500 BBS routes are run by over 300 volunteers each year in Canada while more than 2300 routes are run in the U.S. Canadian participants run their routes between the May 28 and July 7.

Our documentary crew also went to Maryland and met with Chandler Robbins, who launched the BBS all the way back in the 1960’s.    The survey he created was standardized with skilled observers stopping 50 times along a route approximately 24.5 miles long. With every stop, the participant listened and watched for songbirds & other birds for three minutes and recorded the number of each species they saw.  Almost half a century later, except for some new gadgets, the process remains relatively the same.

When we walked into the basement at the Breeding Bird Survey headquarters at the USGC Patuxent Wild Life Research Center in Laurel MD,   it felt like we were stepping back in time. Over 100 cardboard boxes filled the archive room in rows of metal shelves. Each box was filled with carefully logged data sheets containing bird detections from regions across North America.

“We have 48 years of Breeding Bird Survey data in total. Over 80 million bird detections, “ said Keith Pardieck, Head of Operations at the BBS. “Those data are used to monitor the status and trends in North American bird populations, over 400 bird species.”

In 1962,  Rachel Carson used some of Chandler Robbin’s early bird population data research when she herself noticed some songbirds were dying while writing her revolutionary book Silent Spring.   Her book alerted the public to the disastrous consequences of DDT pesticides and was key to the start of the environmental movement.

Pardieck hopes that the Breeding Bird Survey’s alarming population data can be the inspiration behind a similar movement. “Birds are bell weathers of their environment. So, if we know that they are in trouble, I think it’s pretty clear that there could be things coming down the road that will be affecting us as well.”

The Breeding Bird Survey is always looking for experienced birders to volunteer in Ontario and British Columbia.  Check out their website for more information.

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