Martha fell off her perch in the Cincinatti Zoo one hundred years ago.
I wish I’d known her, known the darkening skies when 2.5 billion of her species, the passenger pigeon, flew in one large airborne colony, their beating wings deafening human ears below. Drawings by Audubon show a pretty bird, refined lines, the female colouring subtle and elegant. With a single flock taking three days to fly over Chicago only forty years before Martha’s death who could have imagined their extinction? We hunted, made pigeon pie, tore down the trees that made up their habitat, and despite their vast numbers and intrinsic life skills…flocking, foraging and reproducing…they did not survive.
Is a domesticated woman a woman in danger of extinction?
Several times this year I have flown over Chicago’s suburbs, my commuter plane alighting on the Midway tarmac. I am here to create the vocal work for an opera about women raising their voices against unjust labour practices in the garment industry in the early 1900s.
A person’s voice is emotion laid bare. Coming from the Autonomic Nervous System, it is the perfect instrument of self-betrayal, of exposure. Women come to me every day for singing lessons, some have lost their voices through tension or the desire to do well, the need to measure up or to become someone they are not. Some no longer feel any pleasure when they sing and some have never sung but always wanted to and had a hunch they could. Some even say they want their voices to stop betraying them! So strong are their social instincts that they would rather disguise the truth and fit it.
The female voice is expected to be docile, pleasing…a certain kind of ‘musical.’ This is what the ancient Greeks ordained within Athens’ walls and these strictures continue to influence us today. But the free female voice is the call of a siren, ecstatic like the voice of Janis Joplin, Eva Cassidy, Aretha Franklin or Ann Wilson. A powerful range of emotional colour: joy and sorrow and rage. Ask Odysseus – he had to lash himself to the mast to maintain his boundaries.
Everyone seems to know that singing is high stakes, lying close to the bone. The inside of my mouth, openness of my sinuses, grip or ease of ribcage, neck, diaphragm, belly and anal sphincter, all make my voice sound the way it sounds. Shapes and holds influenced by family and culture; I conform or react, often unaware. Personal resonance sacrificed, vocal cords no longer in tune with my true self.
I wonder if I am on an endangered species list?
To make the opera we start with birdsong and forbidden female sound. I want women to learn the ‘ugly’ in their voices, give themselves permission to scream. I want us to de-commodify our bodies and souls and sounds, consciously identifying with the full range of our music making, from beautiful to terrifying. I want us to no longer have to please or to be our own lovely product. I want women to taste the fineness of their nervous systems by giving voice to moan, groan, sigh, whisper, whine, screech and holler. Women singing from upper and lower mouth; these mouths making us real in this world…staking territory, calling for a mate, protecting offspring, sounding alarm, singing for the sake of song making, thriving creatively, working meaningfully, migrating, making community. What a fine weave it takes to yield and to aggress. Would we hold duality more easily if we had the temerity to be more animal than domestic?
The Chicago opera, 3 Singers, is one of two performances I have been developing this year with birds at the core of the vocal creation. Visual artist Sara Angelucci has invited seven singers to co-create a piece about avian extinction called A Mourning Chorus for the Art Gallery of Ontario and in this one I am a vocalist as well as one of the composers.
Trying to sing like a bird has been humbling. Humans have a single voice box that houses two vocal cords; when they vibrate against one another even gentle contact brings forth scraps of sound, small gauges of feeling. Birds have two syrinxes, low in the chest, not in the throat like ours. Each syrinx is made up of a single vocal cord and controlled by the air blowing from one of their lungs into that side’s bronchiole. This is why bird sound is so complex, so hard to approximate. A human would need two voice boxes coordinating at lightning speed to come up with the compositions that their two syrinxes make by nature.
I’ve become hyper-aware of how tiny birds are; this is part of what makes their range so high and their song so agile. Their heartbeat and breath rate are much faster than ours, their tiny ‘vocal cords’ vibrate more quickly, their resonant spaces are ever so fine, it is natural that they spin out higher melodies. Gradually slowing down the recording of a bird call allows the tone to drop and at a certain point the bird’s song inhabits my human body, sitting in a heftier resonance, with a pitch that feels true to my womanly range. A sweet compassion settles in as my bird brain comes to life.
What I am thinking about while trying to sing like a bird is an individual woman’s true instinct and how that might intersect with or differ from our strong social instincts. The birds are offering a way to play with voice outside of the rights and wrongs we might associate with female sound. Could this shift expression and interaction; would there be value in finding some true wilderness together? The more deeply we delve into creation the more differences I experience between my idea of what a bird is and my experience of being a woman. I just can’t get over the fact that a bird uses 100% of its air when making a sound. Oh! How often I have held some breath in reserve, hedged my bets, been stingy! Where has my sigh gone? That flow of feeling from behind the sternum, close to my heart…speaking from my heart. How I wish I could be free of learned behaviour that limits or lies.
Is it possible for a woman to fully inhabit her voice, like a bird does?
The first female workers in the American garment industry must have been flying blind as they took on employment outside the home and then on top of that took on factory owners who were not providing safe environments or decent pay. I develop an improvisational structure for rehearsal, hoping to prompt vocal material full of discovery and transgression, so that we too can fly blind. I ask the performers to start with 1) their already well developed, individual, bird sound and then transform that into 2) sounds which contain both vowels and consonants while retaining ‘birdiness’ and from that stretch musically into 3) complaint, expressing freely, through partial words and sung sound, something that is of great personal concern, something worth fighting for, and then 4) turn this into a slogan that could be used by women demanding control over their work lives and their bodies.
We work on this exercise over two full days. The women touch and amaze me; this is difficult terrain. The low, throaty moan of the rock pigeon (Lara) moves through a sexual abuse lament, into a string of NOs that reclaim self and spirit, finally arriving at a divine slogan, more aria than chant, “No gods, no masters!” The high, frenetic, and brilliantly shrieked cries of the blue grosbeak (Jenna) transform into an academic rant about how individual each person’s body and needs actually are, leading to the metallic shred of “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will!” No vocal decorations remain to distract us from the urgency of her bodily convictions. Our third bird, the ruby kinglet (Maggie), has a cheerful and tuneful little hook. She moves all flap and feather into a driving rap about the amazing resources a woman has, the beauty of her sex, her moon led rhythms and fecundity. The slogan “Bosses beware, when we’re screwed we multiply” is completely ‘experienced.’ All three of the slogans we land in were used in the American labour movement of the early 1900s.
As I get off the homeward-bound flight from Chicago a song is playing at low volume on the plane’s PA. Innocuous orchestration, bland female voice, ‘on message’ with what we women have been learning and singing for eons. Trapped in the aisle I remember that Muzak was created for factory workers, to keep them both motivated and placated. The song’s words are trying to convince me to ‘hurt’ for the sake of love; apparently it is my job, as a woman, to suffer, wait and repair. Stepping off the plane into a grey Toronto morning I find myself so full of ‘why’ I could choke. I think of those first garment factory workers being forced by their foremen to trade sexual favours for the thread they needed to do their jobs. One hundred and forty-two women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, and in 2013 over a thousand lost their lives in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building collapse – in each of these cases the women had foreseen the dangers and cried out their concern.
What will keep us all alive – women and children and men?
I would like to think that voice will…authentic voice, expressive voice, balanced voice…listening well, unmasking truthfully. Hearing everyone, making sound in community, ringing out the sound of community, not blending…and therefore no risk of blanding…into one another. True community coming out of unique individual voices. Space for each and every bird call within the canopy of life.
After the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union pushed for progressive reform, flocking together to call for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws. In ‘A mourning chorus’ seven women inhabited birdsong, empathizing with extinct and endangered species, striking a chord with audiences through the voice’s ability to deeply touch a listener’s autonomic nervous system.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – (Emily Dickinson, published 1891)
I now hear birdsong everywhere; their cries, murmurations in my blood, helping me to identify my own unmediated voice. I pull a twig out of my hair and call a friend for tea. Let’s start the truth telling now.