This September, Glasgow Cathedral hosts the global premiere of British-Finnish artist and composer Hanna Tuulikki’s new vocal musical work, the bird that never flew. Commissioned by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) with Arts&Heritage, the song cycle explores the ancient cathedral’s roots in ornithological entanglements, bringing together sacred lament and ecological political protest to raise the alarm for critically endangered birds and the impacts of climate change.
Inspired by the story of St Mungo, Glasgow’s patron saint, it is performed live, featuring field recordings and electronics, alongside the voices of Tuulikki, Mischa Macpherson, and Lucy Duncombe. Tuulikki is also hosting a Dawn Chorus Walk in Glasgow Necropolis, for a deep listening exploration of the urban bird habitat that inspired the work.
How did the idea for the bird that never flew come about?
Do you know the story about St Mungo and the robin? It’s in the Glasgow crest, the bird that never flew. St Serf, St Mungo’s teacher, had tamed this wild robin. There were some other students who were jealous and they are said to have killed the robin and blamed St Mungo. He picked up this robin, held it in his hands and prayed over it until it came back to life. I was interested in this story not as a miracle, but as a story to think about in relation to how we can foster empathy with more than human kin, and specifically in relation to the biodiversity loss that’s being experienced.
I was also really interested in alarm calls. I started to think about alarm calls as a form of cross-species communication. Think about birds in your garden or parks, right? There are some birds singing away and then a cat comes along, and a blackbird or robin might set off an alarm call, and it ripples through the community of birds. That single alarm call can save a whole community. It’s altruistic, which is totally fascinating because it opens up lots of questions around evolutionary theory and Darwinian ideas of survival of the fittest. Which I think is interesting within late capitalism because this idea of the survival of the fittest underpins really problematic constructions of capitalism, and perpetuates that model.
So I was wondering what kind of behaviours might we find parallels with in human social life and I started to think about protest culture. I spent time gathering recordings of alarm calls of various species of Red List [endangered] birds, and started to translate these core calls into protest chants. So the piece becomes like a premise for speculative fiction: what if we were able to tune into these alarm calls, and actually discover that they were a call to rise up and protest against human oppression? That was the starting point for this work: bringing sacred lament and political protest together.
What is your composition process?
It completely varies, but my process with this was to gather a lot of material, to gather recordings of birds. I had to work out which species I would work with, and in the end I settled on woodland birds, partly because of the thinking about what habitats might have been around the cathedral when it was in its infancy, and also because of its proximity to the Necropolis. I was also thinking about how in the cathedral, the Gothic arches remind me of trees, and imagining this arboreal world. I then homed in on the robin initially, to try to think about what the robin’s journey is, listening to slowed-down recordings and picking out little melodies.
As a wake-up call about the climate crisis, what would you hope audiences take from the show?
Well, this work is quite new to me, so I haven’t explored meeting audiences before, but I am interested in music and art as a space for the feelings that come up with the climate and ecological crisis. They are difficult, and we’re not really given space to feel them. We’re bombarded with data all the time, but I think we can become so numb to it all and live with cognitive dissonance. I wanted to create a space where it’s possible to allow yourself to feel the grief, and through that maybe there’s a possibility of harnessing positive change in our communities. We don’t have rituals for these difficult feelings, so how can we create these rituals to come together in order to manifest change in our society? That’s my intention, and whether that really has any impact, I don’t know.
Do you use work like this as a way to give yourself hope about the climate crisis?
Absolutely: it’s definitely a space for me to feel. I feel like the pandemic taught us a lot, or at least I feel like I learnt something about this process of numbing. I remember, right at the beginning, when lockdown happened, and I was listening to the news. Every day there were more figures on people dying and I was distraught and crying. Some months went by and I just stopped crying, and I feel that collectively, over a long time, across generations, we have done that with our environment. I’ve had a few rehearsals so far, and certainly there are points in the composition where I am going to have to be careful not to be a complete wreck on the stage! It’s always moving, listening to music in a church, and performing music in a reverberant space.
You know how St Mungo appears on the Glasgow crest with the various symbols of his four miracles, including the robin, and often underneath there is the sentence: ‘Let Glasgow Flourish’? I think one of the things within this work is that there cannot be any flourishing on a dead planet.
the bird that never flew is at Glasgow Cathedral on 8th and 9th September at 8pm, with the Dawn Chorus Walk on 10th September at Glasgow Necropolis, at 6am.