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Lifestyle

January 23, 2014

Bird Song

At PEM, 70 finches plus guitars equals music

There used to be a rock band named The Byrds, which had several big hits in the 1960s. The Peabody Essex Museum has gone one better.

You can now hear a band of actual birds playing electric guitars in “from here to ear,” an installation by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot.

While their music may never appear in the Top 40, it should prove appealing to audiences.

“You hear these sounds and think, ‘I know that song, like, oh — that’s AC/DC,” said Trevor Smith, curator of contemporary art at the PEM. “Of course, it never resolves into song, but it is definitely music.”

The installation — part of the museum’s Freeport series of contemporary works — features 70 zebra finches set loose in a gallery where 10 Gibson Les Paul guitars and four Thunderbird basses rest horizontally on stands.

As the birds land on the instruments, then ruffle their feathers or take flight, they create sounds -- notes and power chords that are emitted by amplifiers set against the walls. They also contribute their own, natural vocalizations to the show, which envelops visitors in a synthesis of sight and sound.

The gallery’s unique environment features clusters of baskets hanging from the ceiling, where the finches can rest, and tufts of dried grasses standing in a floor covered with coarse sand.

A metal, mesh curtain allows visitors into the room, where a boardwalk guides them around the installation.

“You’re going to walk into an aviary which is populated with a flock of birds and a flock of guitars,” Smith said. “Each of these guitars has been individually tuned, working with the resonances of the room and the particular possibilities of the different amplification settings. The birds fly and alight on these guitars as if they are musical trees.”

Visitors play an important part in the installation, as their movements influence how and where the birds move.

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