By Will Broaddus
---- — 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.
“It’s almost like the room itself is a kind of three-dimensional score,” Smith said. “Celeste is setting up a score for the birds to play.
“The music they play very much depends on you, because as you move through the space, they’re going to be responding to you, moving away from you, toward you, looking at you. It really is the most extraordinary experience.”
Smith watched the birds grow accustomed to the gallery, which now includes cymbals filled with bird seed that are set in the floor.
“One of the reasons why the cymbals are toward the front like this is when people enter, it’s new information,” he said. “Something new has come into the ecosystem, and so the birds would tend to say away from the front.
“But with the food there, they eat, and then they get used to people entering and exiting.”
The birds are rented from a company that provides animals for movies and theatrical productions, which will take them back after the show, Smith said.
“These birds have been raised in captivity, generation after generation,” he said. “We’re not working with wild birds; that’s important to say.”
Attendants keep the guitars in tune, while monitoring the flow of visitors into the room and cleaning the space twice a day.
“They’re responsible for looking after both kinds of animal,” Smith said.
They also feed and water the birds, whose sleep patterns are maintained by UV lights, and whose health is checked once a week by a veterinarian.
This is around the 20th time Boursier-Mougenot has installed “from here to ear,” which has proved very popular.
“I have two hits: the pool work and this work,” he said. “It’s like I’m playing my standards.”
The pool work, “clinamen,” features porcelain bowls floating in pools and colliding as the water circulates, creating a resonant song.
Boursier-Mougenot trained as a musician and played piano for many years.
While he said he has no message, most of his works challenge our ideas of how music is composed, and ask us to appreciate its creation in many ways.
“In certain ways I’m always looking at the same music, but doing different means to make it,” he said. “Like the piece I did, which is called ‘indexes,’ which is made about people (making) keystrokes, working on computers. I did program to extract all the elements which can be compared to music.”
He is currently working on an installation in which pianos have been motorized so they knock into each other, and the resulting sounds are captured by contact microphones.
Working with animals gives Boursier-Mougenot another way to introduce random elements into the means of composition.
He first worked with sparrows in 1995, and has also created installations that involve bees, fish and sheep.
“I have a project with cats, but it’s very complicated,” he said. “They’re independent.”
If you go What: "From here to ear," by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, Freeport [No. 007] When: Through April 13. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the third Thursday of every month until 9:30 p.m. Closed Mondays except holidays. Where: Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem Admission: $18 adults, $15 seniors, $10 students; free for Salem residents and for kids 16 and under. Information: www.pem.org, 866-745-1876.