The Dawn Chorus blends birdsong with human voice in 'musical wake-up call'

Assistant professor of religion Alexander Hampton and opera singer Nicole Percifield teamed up at the University of Toronto to launch the Dawn Chorus project — incorporating birdsong recorded by students into a composition sung by Percifield, to celebrate and raise awareness of the wildlife existing within urban centres.

The Toronto-based initiative 'explores a human-bird dialogue', says religion prof co-creator

A chickadee. (Alexander Hampton)

Alexander Hampton wants people in his city to enter into a dialogue with the nature around them. Early in the pandemic, the assistant professor of religion at the University of Toronto noticed that people he spoke with seemed quick to dismiss the pandemic as an inevitability — an event that was probably overdue for the human species. The gist of the argument went something like, "'They happened in the Middle Ages and they happened with the Spanish influenza. And it's just sort of the course of the way things go,'" he told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

But Hampton was dissatisfied with that response. "I feel like this pandemic has a lot of human causes to it," he explained. "And that has to do with really bigger questions about whether we're respecting the boundaries between humans and nature, whether we're giving animals and ecospheres the spaces they need to thrive and sustain us and themselves at the same time."

Those conversations led to his latest project, called the Dawn Chorus. Here's some of what he told Hynes about the initiative.

Alexander Hampton is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Toronto, and the architect of the 'Dawn Chorus' project. (Submitted by Alexander Hampton)

What was it about the pandemic that inspired you to start recording birdsong in the mornings?

The project came out of a conversation I had with a graduate student here in the music faculty, Nicole Percifield, who played an important role in the project. The University of Toronto is a downtown campus surrounded by a lot of construction, a lot of human noise, what one calls anthrophony. That abated in the context of the lockdown. And the amazing thing that happened — if there was any kind of silver lining to all of that — is that we realized we're actually surrounded by this biophony as well, which is usually obscured. 

biophony (plural biophonies)

  1. (ecology) The cumulative non-human sound produced by living organisms in a given biome. (Wiktionary)


Tell me about the Dawn Chorus project you and your students have been working on. What are you doing?

The students in some of my classes went around and recorded birdsong on their mobile phones. And they used this wonderful app developed by the Cornell Ornithology Lab. One student described it to me as Shazam for birds. There are over 25 species of birds on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. This was done during terms or not even during the height of the migratory season. And so that was kind of the first step.

Alexander Hampton's undergraduate students were tasked with recording birdsong for the project. (Submitted by Alexander Hampton)

These recordings, they submitted them, and they recorded some of their own observations. But they also did things like poetry. And from these wonderful compositions and reflections, we passed those on to some students in the music faculty, some graduate students — the composer, Gavin Frazier; also a voice student, Nicole Percifield. They're both doing doctorates. And they transcribed some of the birdsong into musical notation as well, which explores a kind of human-bird dialogue.

It's called Awaken the Dawn, My Fair One. This whole project could easily be happening entirely within the music department, or in a biology seminar or in an ecology class. Why does it find such a good home in a religion studies class?

We all know that we're in an environmental crisis right now. And the sad fact is we have all the kind of technology, we have all the scientific know-how to address this crisis we're in, and we seem unable to do it. And I think that points toward something much bigger, which is, it's not our lack of knowledge or know-how. It's the kind of cultural and civilizational framework in which we deploy that knowledge. And I think one of the greatest resources we have for addressing this problem has to come from exploring our feeling-based relationship to nature — our kind of spiritual or eco- or spiritual connection to nature. Something which I think often goes unspoken or unshared, but which is something that so many of us have — whether it's seeing the kind of flash of a cardinal in a bush or whether it's vacation and seeing the Grand Canyon. And I think exploring, expressing and empowering that feeling is actually one of the ways we can really effect change.

Tell me about a time when you've felt that connection in a profound way — whether just in a city street or on holiday somewhere, where you had a very strong sense of a felt connection to nature ... I want to say primal, just about the way you were feeling.

Really one of the best examples of that for me is just outside of my apartment building in downtown Toronto, in the middle of winter. And there was this very thick bush, and it was full of sparrows who were sort of huddling and puffed up. And I stood next to it and I could see into it. And I could see them. And I could see right into the eye of a sparrow, and I could see his little pupil dilating as he looked at me. It was one of those moments that takes you far beyond words, because you see a sparrow every day. But in that moment, the sparrow was more than just one of innumerable sparrows. It was an individual that I share my city with — that I share my living space with, and that we often tend to walk by and ignore. And I think many of us have moments of that kind of connection.

Mezzo soprano Nicole Percifield and pianist Geoffrey Conquer with composer Gavin Fraser. (Submitted by Alexander Hampton)

Why do you think music is such an important way of connecting with the world around us?

Well, there are two things. One is the capacity of rhythm to connect us. Rhythm is something that's so primal and basic to us as human beings. It's something that's intrinsic to our biological selves, in the beating of our heart, or our waking and sleeping. It's also fundamental to the environment that's around us, to the seasons or the days. It's also something that's central to the spiritual lives of many individuals. I think that there's something about rhythm which connects our spiritual selves and our physical selves, and our broader environmental selves together. And music, of course, along with poetry and other forms of art, have a real capacity to get at that.

There are no words to this piece. The intention is to transcend words, and in doing so, to transcend ourselves. And we're exploring, I think, in this piece, this capacity of music to allow us to transcend ourselves and to engage in a dialogue with nature.

Sheet music for Gavin Fraser's composition (Submitted by Alexander Hampton)

Can you tell me about a time when you were profoundly moved by the rhythm, by the pulse?

I remember the first time I ever read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And if there's ever an ecological and religious poem, I think that is one. It is in a ballad rhyme structure. So it is naturally a musical piece, and it's a fantastical journey around the world, on the seas, and it has a kind of ecological catastrophe. And it's beginning a reconciliation of this person who does a horribly destructive act and then finds himself — finally, at the conclusion of the poem — reconciled to both himself and to the greater natural world of which he is a part. I think the rhythmic quality of that ballad moves one beyond the words that the poet himself uses in that context.

An excerpt of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, read by Tapestry producer Arman Aghbali

Are there lines? Are there a pair of lines that worked their way into your heart in terms of rhythm and the scansion of it?

It's once he becomes aware of being alienated from nature. There are these lines where Coleridge writes, 

Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

And that's the depth of the mariner's sense of despair, and alienation from nature. And then there's that moment where the mariner finds himself unconsciously transcending himself and reconnecting with nature. He describes these water snakes, and then he says, And I blessed them, unaware — that moment of self-transcendence. That is a poem I enjoy sharing with my students, too, because I think we all find something of our of our own story in relationship to nature, in that very beautiful composition.

A red-tailed hawk. (Alexander Hampton)

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Produced by Arman Aghbali. Written by Kevin Ball.