Birdsong in E-Flat Major:
The Process-Relational Music of Robert Burrell
Patricia Adams Farmer
As a musician and lover of ornithology, there are times when the air is full of music.
—Robert Burrell, Australian composer and process thinker
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul--
And sings the tune without the words--
And never stops —at all--
The call of the Red Wattlebird-- Robert Burrell
Yatch racing to the final movement of a brass quintet by Robert Burrell
Dr. Robert Burrell is a composer and senior lecturer at UPSI in Malaysia. He gained his PhD and B.Mus from Griffith University Conservatorium of Music and his Grad.Dip.Ed from University of Queensland. Robert is twice winner of the Dulcie Robinson prize, has been commissioned by the ACCA, the Queensland Saxophone Orchestra, and others. Wirripang Publishing, Boosey and Hawkes, Scripture in Song and MusicaNeo publish his works. Some are also in the Australian National Library. He has presented papers about Process Philosophy and his work in the field of avian calls and their integration into the processes of music composition in Australia and South-east Asia.
Robert’s works Robinson Gorge, The Woodwind Quintet, The Brass Quintet, The Gilgandra Suite, Taman Malim, In the Presence, In the Corridors of Becoming, and the suite of Malay Sufi Texts have had recent performances, as have his works for guitar quartet, and in 2013 the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra recorded his symphony for string orchestra Serenade for Strings for release by Parma Recordings.
audio of music
Note to Readers: "Birdsong in E-Flat Major: The Process-Relational Music of Robert Burrell," will appear in an anthology of essays from JJB called Replanting Ourselves in Beauty: Toward an Ecological Civilization, edited by Jay McDaniel and Patricia Adams Farmer, available late fall 2014.
A Very Unusual Mind
“It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious,” said A.N. Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World. And for Robert Burrell, Australian composer and process thinker, an analysis of the obvious comes down to this: entering the complex musical world of birdsong as a means to express an entire worldview without words. And when he dared to integrate birdsong into the realm of his musical compositions, he finally discovered a way to express his vision of a process-relational world.
And the world is suddenly a more beautiful place.
One of his most intriguing process-musical expressions is called “Becoming II,” an electro-acoustic work featuring the Australian Grey Butcherbird (singing in E-flat), an ancient Chinese instrument called the “Erhu,” played by Nick Ng, and a coloratura soprano, Heather Lee (click on the image to your left to listen to "Becoming II"). His purpose was to “integrate sounds from ecology, zoology, and music composition in an attempt to articulate process thought in a non-linguistic form.”
Without the Words
A non-linguistic process philosophy? Truly, this is a fresh musical and philosophical moment that demands our attention—and it seems to be part of a larger evolutionary moment in human consciousness. The key here is the composer’s understanding of what process philosophers refer to as “panexperientialism” or the idea that everything from humans down to subatomic particles has some form of “experience” (not to be confused with consciousness) and that the experience is not fully determined. In this case, it means that birds feel and experience subjectively and are not simply biologically determined. Robert says:
"As part of Whitehead’s panexperientialism, where every entity has experience of some sort, I align with David Rothenberg's (Why Do Birds Sing) notion that birds sing sometimes, “just to sing.” I try to hear their voice and acknowledge their place in the greater world and to respect their consciousness and thus view their calling as “a mind speaking to my mind,” a trans-species consciousness transfer, and this mixed with concepts of responsibility for the environment, makes me use the bird's motif, as I might one by any other composer."
Birds, Music, Process: A Natural Trio
The world of process philosophy—a truly ecological worldview—feels like a spiritual home for lovers of birdsong. Whitehead would say that the bird sings, not just out of biological necessity, but also for the mere enjoyment of singing. So would Whitehead’s famous student Charles Hartshorne who wrote Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Birdsong. The great philosopher considered it his greatest book.
In the world of music, birdsong has long been a muse for composers, but an in-depth analysis of birdsong—or birdcall—has primarily been the purview of scientific disciplines outside the world of music. Exceptions to this include the famous French composer and transcriber of birdcalls Olivier Messiaen, and the jazz clarinetist and philosopher David Rothenberg from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, both of whom served as inspiration for Burrell’s own research.
One way that Burrell’s approach stands apart from previous birdcall-inspired composers is his intentional desire to express a process view of the world in sound—to actually capture “the process of becoming.” Influenced by his readings from process thinkers such as Jay McDaniel, Bob Mesle, Bruce Epperly, Catherine Keller, David Griffin, and John Cobb, Burrell’s own spiritual and philosophical awakenings began. The composer was particularly moved by Whitehead’s statement:
"God is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. The creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, [and] human hearts. But this creation is a creative process, and the process is itself the actuality." (Dialogues with Alfred North Whitehead as Recorded by Lucien Price)
Robert Burrell has created a entire repertoire of music based on birdcalls from his native Australia. Many of these can be found on SoundCloud His birdsong works can also be downloaded to your computer from the Griffith University Research Collections. (See Burrell's bio below for additional links.) Some of these works like “Becoming II” incorporate actual birdsong while others seek to imitate birdsong through instruments. From saxophone orchestras to brass ensembles—to an entire orchestral symphony performed by the Moravian Philharmonic—his process-relational music is finding welcoming ears around the world.
It All Begins with a “Lure”
According to the composer, here’s how it all came about:
"It all began with my PhD supervisor attempting to lure me towards releasing my “established tradition of composing with written notes” and to have a go at composing using electro-acoustics. I had dabbled in this medium but was struggling with “letting go” of all my knowledge, to move into a realm of music making where I did not make the music ... the birds did. About this time, a particular Grey Butcherbird sitting in a tree next door, began making a series of pre-dawn calls that began at about 4:40 a.m. and went through to about 5:30. This bird did this for a few days in a row, and finally I rose from my bed and went out and recorded its call, which lasted about 20 minutes. The bird would call, and call again with a note missing, or with an extra trill or embellishment. It was developing its call with fragmentary additions and subtractions. I felt that this moment had come about by the bird responding to a lure to sit in that tree and to call. I was reading Griffin and Epperly and was wishing to be open to the “greater something” that might enable other consciousnesses (birds) to speak, and that I might hear that speaking."
And so this fusion of Whitehead with an intense love of birdsong finally came together, we might say, in a “becoming” moment—a “concrescence”—that has made the world more sensitive to both nature and beauty.
Though you don’t need to do anything but listen to his music, those of us who also need philosophy-spelled-out can turn to the written portion of Burrell’s Ph.D. dissertation, “A Process of Becoming: A Musical Enquiry into Process-Relational Philosophy through Autoethnographical and Zoomusicological Means” (Griffith University, Brisbane, 2013). Here he describes the full integration of process concepts applied to his music with a view to “the creation of music of a new entity.”
But all that linguistic commentary is secondary to the non-linguistic feeling he creates: musical vibrations of intense harmony—what Whitehead would call “Beauty”—and a testimony to the reality of the “process of becoming” unfolding in the world, a world beyond violence and hatred and bifurcation of nature, a world where everything sings, where we find God in the world and the world in God.
For this reason, Burrell’s compositions stand out as a true gem for those who desire not only to understand process philosophy on an intuitive level, but to actually feel the “process of becoming” as is flows into the pores through the non-linguistic medium of music.
A non-linguistic understanding of a world-in-process makes good sense to those of us who have labored through the pages of Process and Reality. In Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism,” language itself does not even arrive until the fourth phase of concrescence—intellectual feelings—which happens only in a tiny fraction of all the actual entities in the universe. With this in mind, one could argue that the most important events in the universe happen at a non-linguistic level. Or, as the Hebrew Bible scholar Gerald Janzen describes this:
"We experience more than we know, and we know more than we can think; and we think more than we can say; and language therefore lags behind the intuitions of immediate experience.".[i]
Burrell’s non-linguistic approach to process-relational philosophy and his use of ornithological and ecological data to create music has resulted in a fresh emergent voice for lovers of beauty everywhere. Such novelty in the world gives me hope for the future—a future where ecological art lures us toward an ecological civilization. And hope, Emily Dickinson reminds us, “is a thing with feathers.” Burrell’s music, then, reveals that a new day has dawned, and that the birds are out there trying to tell us something “without the words.”
Let’s hope it “never stops—at all.”
[i] J. .Gerald Janzen, “The Old Testament in ‘Process’ Perspective: Proposal for a Way Forward in Biblical Theology,” Magnalia Dei: The Mighty Acts of God, Essays on the Bible and Archaeology in Memory of G. Ernest Wright, ed. Frank Moore Cross, Werner E. Lemke, and Patrick D. Miller, Jr. (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1976) 492
A Little Biographical Background . . .
Robert’s formative years were shaped by his family’s involvement in a Pentecostal, fundamentalist, apocalyptic, evangelical church environment. In the small rural town, his family was the only one of this Christian persuasion; thus Robert was ostracized and isolated within the community. The family was large. Robert is one of eight children and his father struggled to find reliable employment. They were poor. Though he received some music tuition in his early teens, this was cut short when he left home at 16 and was apprenticed to a trade. He was awarded Apprentice of the year in his graduating year.
At 21 he entered a interdenominational bible college and completed a short Diploma of ministries. This led to a short stint working for Vision Ministries, an organization that ran conferences for the charismatic movement of the late 1970s. Married at 22 to his childhood sweetheart, they immediately started a family.
Robert was predominantly ‘self-taught’ till his entry into the Queensland Conservatorium in 1983. Four years later he graduated with distinction.
With three children, Robert and Heather moved to Northern Queensland where he worked as the Regional Music Coordinator for local government. After this time he returned to study for his Graduate Diploma of Education. Robert has always been keen to ensure that he met the responsibilities of providing for his family, and the Grad. Dip. Ed led to 20 years of employment as a High School Music Specialist and Head of Dept in private colleges.
During this demanding and stressful time, he continued his musical craft as best he could (mostly utilitarian), and also embarked on reading widely through general philosophy, Jungian psychology, liberal theology and esoteric novels. Gaining insight in Buddhism and Sufi mysticism, he eventually arrived at process theology. With the support of his life partner, in 2010 he began his research into process philosophy, through autoethnographical and zoomusicological means.
A Student of Robert Burrell Writes . . .
Dr. Robert Burrell has a wonderful rapport with all the students, despite coming from a very different culture and background. One most distinguish account would be of him sitting on the floor in the corridor and playing a guitar, singing with students circling around him. Such a humble quality is hardly to be found.
Likewise, Dr. Robert is often motivated to assist his students with the comprehension of their work. There were a lot of such occasions. The first year he came to UPSI, we had private composition classes without payment. My blunt and non-procedural approach probably upset him, but he was just so motivated to teach me after seeing my composition. Though it was short-lived, it was undoubtedly fruitful. Other accounts would be: spending hours with us just to help with our final year project, song arrangement; spending weekends to prepare his teaching materials; making quite a number of arrangement lecture videos to be uploaded on youtube (very time consuming process); constantly inviting students to his office if they were encountering any problems; and his personal learning, including how to use new music notation software (Sibelius) which was unfamiliar to him so as to accommodate students' software preference; and constantly writing and composing for his own practice and improvement.
Not to be left out, Dr. Robert is constantly broadening his students' way of thinking. This is discerned through his lectures and the way he helps his student with their work. Students tend to think more and be more decisive with their work because of his "problem solving‟ technical approach to cognitive learning. I am personally intrigued by the way he perceives things, constantly making me wonder, “Why have I not thought of that?” Some of my favorites would be explaining cosmological phenomena in musical perspective, extrapolating theology in musical terms and his personal insight of life and philosophy. . . .
TANG JUNG SIONG
Degree in Music Education, UPSI.
Patricia Adams Farmer is an essayist and novelist in the tradition of process theology. She is the author of Embracing a Beautiful God and the Fat Soul Philosophy Novel Series (The Metaphor Maker and Fat Soul Fridays). She and her husband, Ron Farmer, live and write on the north central coast of Ecuador. Visit her website at patriciaadamsfarmer.com. Other JJB articles by this author include: Theology in 5/4 Time: Brubeck and Creative Transformation, Beauty Can Save Us: Mozart and Whitehead, The Quaking and Breaking of Everything, The Beauty of Imperfection, Replanting Yourself in Beauty (with Chinese translation), The Whole World in a Single Note: Lang Lang (with Chinese translation), Van Gogh's God (with Chinese translation), The Numinosity of Rocks, and Fat Soul Philosophy.