This programme note is excerpted from the blog post “Why MacDowell Now? On lockdown, wood pigeons, and grounding ourselves in the natural rhythms of creativity” (Emily Doolittle, August 14, 2020).
When Scotland went into COVID-19 lockdown on March 23, 2020 – a date now permanently emblazoned in my mind – I found it very hard to do any of my work as a composer, researcher, or writer. After several of weeks of anxious nothingness, some inspiration crept in, albeit in a form I did not recognize at first. That form was a common wood pigeon, Columba palumbus, which took up residence in the cherry blossom tree outside my window. Those of you who have spent time in Europe in the spring will need no description of its call, but for those who haven’t heard it, some words that come to mind are “repetitive,” “persistent,” and “intrusive.” I had the idea to write a piece called, in reference to a baroque form based on repetition, Chaconne for Bassoon and Piano: or, Is This Wood Pigeon Ever Going to Go Away? (I may yet write this piece.) And suddenly, as soon as I thought of turning my annoyance into music, I was back. I could think again, could feel, could engage with my surroundings: perhaps I could even appreciate and create art again. Because in wrenching my attention away from my unsettled brain and the newsfeed, this wood pigeon reminded me to attend to the world around me. Pandemic or no, the shared garden outside my window is home to a kaleidoscopically varied wealth of life: not just the insistent wood pigeon, but also the joyfully melodic blackbird, the tiny but mighty wren, the carefree blue tit, the marauding flocks of lesser black-backed gulls. I may be complaining about the persistence of the wood pigeon’s call, but it was this very persistence that brought me out of my own head and back to the world.
In a bit of well-timed good luck, I was asked to write a short lockdown-related commission for violinist Ruta Vitkauskaite by the organization Contemporary Music for All. I decided to transcribe the songs of the birds which came to our garden – not just the species, but the individual birds – and create a piece in which Ruta could record or loop multiple layers of birdsong and environmental sounds to create her own garden soundscape. As I listened, made recordings, and transcribed the songs, I began to relax into our bizarre time. I relearned how to appreciate what was still around me, rather than just mourn what wasn’t. I thought about past times when increased attentiveness to the natural world helped form who I am as a composer and a person: when I moved to Amsterdam in 1997 and heard a European blackbird for the first time; when I participated in workshops and collaborative projects with Canadian composer Murray Schafer and learned to make music outdoors working with rather than against the environment; when I followed my interest in Scottish folklore to the Outer Hebrides and heard grey seals howling in response to human singing; and my two wonderful residencies at MacDowell (2004 and 2012) when I was able to immerse myself in the natural rhythms of days and seasons, and let these permeate the rhythms of my own creativity. I began to feel like myself again.
Emily Doolittle is a Canadian-born, Glasgow-based composer and researcher with an ongoing interest in zoomusicology, the study of the music-like aspects of non-human animal song. Doolittle’s outputs include compositions such as Reedbird, commissioned and performed by the Vancouver Symphony (2019) and Gannetry, commissioned by Modern Chants/Ruta Vitkauskaite for clarinettist Jo Nicholson (2021); musicological research, such as “Hearken to the Hermit Thrush”: A Case-Study in Interdisciplinary Listening (Frontiers in Psychology 2020); and interdisciplinary collaborative research with scientists. Other interests include gender and creativity, musical story-telling, and arts-based environmental activism. In addition to her own research, she facilitates interdisciplinary research for others through SHARE (Science, Humanities and Arts Research Exchange). Doolittle received her PhD at Princeton University in 2007 and is now an Athenaeum Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
German-American violinist Hannah Schoepe follows a diverse and eclectic path in her music-making and repertoire. She is currently studying violin in the master’s Performance Programme at the Lucerne University of Music, under the direction of Isabel Charisius. Hannah earned her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin Conservatory with David Bowlin, where she had the opportunity to work with numerous renowned conductors and chamber musicians. As a student, Hannah was part of several festivals, including the Voksenasen Academy in Norway; Bowdoin International Music Festival, Round Top Music Festival, and the Meadowmount School of Music in the U.S.; and, in Switzerland, the Lucerne Festival, Dieter Amann Festival, Wege der Wahrnehmung, and Szenenwechsel in collaboration with the LSO. An avid academic, Hannah was the youngest graduate of Western Washington University in 2016 with a BA in International Business, and additionally holds an associate’s degree with honours from Whatcom Community College, which she earned while in high school. Outside of her own artistic endeavours, Hannah teaches at BaBel Strings, manages the blog for the German-based organisation Musicians for Solidarity, and works on social media strategies for the ARD Music Competition for Bayerischer Rundfunk.