Lawrence students play their instruments amid the trees on the Bjorklunden property.
Lawrence musicians practiced for the outdoor performance of “Ten Thousand Birds” during a trip to Bjorklunden in Door County. They’ll bring the performance to the Main Hall Green on Sunday.

Story by Emily Austin ’21

Nature lovers and musicians of all kinds will be gathering on Lawrence University’s Main Hall Green at 2 p.m. Sunday to experience a performance of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams’ “Ten Thousand Birds.”

The piece is a soundscape experience of bird songs and other natural sounds, played by 40 musicians on percussion and wind instruments, strings and piano, a celebration of music and nature for all to enjoy on the expanse of lawn that serves as Lawrence’s front yard.

It’s designed to feature natural sounds from the region where it’s being performed. In this case, it’ll be the sounds of animals native to the Midwest or which migrate through the region.

The performers will be made up of Lawrence students and a few faculty members.

Audience members will be free to move about, walking amongst the musicians and choosing their own pathways through the concert in order to create an individual experience of the music. In effect, the performance is an experiment on breaking the walls between performers and their audience as well as between the natural world and human musicianship.

Take a listen to a snippet from rehearsal of “Ten Thousand Birds.”

Directors of the Lawrence University New Music Ensemble, Michael Clayville and Erin Lesser, brought “Ten Thousand Birds” to campus after premiering it with their award-winning group, Alarm Will Sound. The group commissioned Adams to write a piece for them in 2014, intrigued by the “sound worlds” he so masterfully creates in his compositions. What they received was a “folio” of bird songs, an open-ended score that was intended to be performed outdoors, and arranged in any way the ensemble wished.

Alan Pierson, artistic director of Alarm Will Sound, formatted the bird calls into a day-long journey. With a run time of 90 minutes, audience members will travel through an entire day of bird calls, opening with a chorus of dawn birds, moving through the afternoon and into the nighttime, and again hearing the reawakening of the natural world in the early morning.

Listen carefully for the field sparrows, played on piccolo and temple block, song sparrows on piccolo and bongos, and even the raucous blue jays, played on timpani, bassoon, oboe, trombone, trumpet, flute, and French horn.

While the piece has been performed in art museums, sculpture gardens, and parks, this will be the first time it is presented on a university campus, and only the second time Lawrence has had an outdoor performance of this sort. On both occasions, the outdoor concerts have been performances of Adams’ work.

Clayville said that Adams’ music is political in nature, though the composer wouldn’t call it political.

“He doesn’t set out to write political art,” Clayville said. “But it’s something that tries to bring awareness to the environment in which it’s performed.”

A college campus seems fitting then to present this music, as much of today’s environmental activism is taking root through the work of young people. Bringing this music into our outdoor world, allowing it to transform the space, and maybe even the people inside, and leaving it changed but undamaged, is a perfect metaphor for the environmental citizenship Lawrence and its students promote.

Clayville goes so far as to call it “a meditative experience.” 

If the weather doesn’t cooperate with an outdoor performance on Sunday, it will be moved into the Warch Campus Center. The piece also will be performed on Oct. 20 at the Green Bay Botanical Gardens, in the upper gardens. 

Emily Austin ’21 is a student writer with the Lawrence Conservatory.