Composition Date: 2017
Duration: c. 3.30′
Instrumentation: String Orchestra
This piece was inspired by the astonishment and delight that I felt when I first came across magical phenomenon called ‘Murmuration’, which occurs when hundreds or thousands of starlings fly together in a whirling, ever-changing pattern. (See here for a stunning photo.)
I wondered if it might be possible to compose a short piece that expressed how I felt by capturing something of the ebb-and-flow, the shifting textures, and soaring dynamics of Murmuration.
So I started by doing some research on how the starlings coordinate their movements, even when there is no apparent leader.
It turns out that group cohesion is, in part, maintained by individual starlings responding to seven of their nearest neighbors.1 (Other environmental factors also play a role, such as the presence of a predator such as a falcon.) It occurred to me that this ‘respond-to-your-seven-nearest-neighbors’ principle could perhaps be incorporated into the music to give it some structure or coherence.
I also happened to be studying Takemitsu’s ‘November Steps’ at the time, which divides almost the entire string section into individual instruments. Following his example, I used a 12-10-6-6-3 string orchestra and created 37 separate parts, placing them (more or less) into groups of seven. The idea was to generate musical cohesion, not by having each group play in unison, but by applying the ‘respond-to-your-seven-nearest-neighbors’ principle. To achieve this, I used a sequential approach:
For each grouping, once an instrument begins a pattern of rhythms and intervals, each group member will respond, one after another, with (more or less) the same pattern.
I also used a number of other compositional ideas, including: linking or combining the groups in various ways, often sequentially; using harmonics to create a re-occurring background high pitch, which suggested to me an impression of gliding, height and/or the presence of a threat or predator; and using a blend of glissandos and various scales to create a (not entirely atonal) soundscape of movement, rather than a recognizable harmonic progression.
I had virtually completed the piece when I stumbled across a beautiful video of a murmuration online. When I played it alongside my work, it seemed to ‘fit’ almost perfectly. I made a few minor adjustments to the music, and, with the kind permission of the film-maker, Dylan Winter, attached it to the piece:
1 “Recent analysis of position and velocity correlations in empirical data collected for large flocks of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) has shown that each bird responds to a fixed number, seven, of its nearest neighbors.” Young, G. F., Scardovi, L., Cavagna, A., Giardina, I., Leonard, N. E. (2013). Starling Flock Networks Manage Uncertainty in Consensus at Low Cost. PLoS Comput Biol 9(1): p. 1.