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70 Zebra Finches Rock Out On Electric Guitars At The Peabody Essex

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot installation for The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, 2010. (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum via AFP/Getty Images)

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Here’s a kind of crazy question that sounds like the beginning of a joke — or maybe Japanese Koan:

How do 70 live zebra finches play about a dozen electric guitars?

Well the answer can be found through the new art and sound exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., titled, “From Here To Ear.”

“I mean you probably came here with this mental image of what are these birds going to sound like,” museum curator Trevor Smith said to me when I arrived. “Of course birds are very much something we associate with music. But when you go in there and hear that first power chord when the bird lands… it’s a beautiful feeling.”

And a surprising one. I’ll admit I didn’t expect the music to be so, well, rockin’.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, “From Here to Ear” installation for Nantes Creation Estuary, 2009. (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum via Franck Perry/AFP/Newscom)

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, “From Here to Ear” installation for Nantes Creation Estuary, 2009. (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum via Franck Perry/AFP/Newscom)

The gallery where the show is set up sounds more like an underground music club than an art museum. To enter you push through silver, chain-link curtains designed to keep the zebra finches from escaping. The room isn’t dark, though. The orange-beaked birds soar around the airy exhibition space that’s been transformed into a walk-in aviary. Their little clawed feet randomly alight on the bodies and necks of 10 white Les Paul electric guitars and four Thunderbird basses. The instruments are posed horizontally on stands, like perches.

The day I visited, French artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot and Smith were tweaking amplifiers they strategically placed around the room. At one point a low note turned into a hum then a screech that would not stop. Smith says runaway feedback is one of the challenges that come with staging an art show in a museum that involves unpredictable living creatures.

“You know we’re working with industrial hygienists, we’ve done air-flow analysis. We had to hump several tons of sand up three flights of stairs,” he said, laughing.

That sand now blankets the gallery floor. Visitors mosey through the space on low, thin platforms. Woven nest “condos” hang from the ceiling. The museum enlisted local musicians and attendants to tune and clean the pooped-on guitars each day. Then there’s the veterinarian.

“I thought it was crazy,” said Elizabeth Bradt who owns All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem. For the next three months she’s got an additional title: vet for the art museum.

A quote from musician/artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

A quote from musician/artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Bradt doesn’t see herself as the “artsy” type and admitted she had trouble getting her head around this birds-playing-guitars concept. She recalls when people from the museum called to ask if she’d be interested in helping them prepare the gallery for the finches.

“They showed me pictures of the exhibit at another museum,” she recalled, “and I saw this light-filled space — and it was beautiful — and I saw the guitars. But I couldn’t even imagine how they’d make all the changes.”

Changes like lighting, temperature and humidity, Bradt explained.

“The lighting was very important because they need UV light in order to be able to process calcium and vitamin D,” Bradt said. “They needed to have the right temperature.”

Bradt was here when the finches were released from their cages after being shipped up from an exotic bird supplier in New Jersey. The day we met at the museum, the veterinarian got the chance to listen to the birds shredding their axes for the first time.

“I could not believe what I just heard,” she gushed. “I thought a human being was playing the guitar. I pictured something really light and thin sounding.”

The birds are extremely delicate though, Bradt said, and she’ll be checking them every week throughout the show’s run.

“A finch’s legs are like little toothpicks,” she described. “So I’m not grabbing these birds and giving them physical exams. That’s almost more of a danger to them. If there’s one that’s looking sick we can chase it around with a net and get it into a little hospital situation to make it feel better.”

That said, Bradt predicts — and hopes — the birds will be happy and healthy in their temporary home at the museum.

French musician/artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

French musician/artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“I call the space finch’s territory,” French composer Celeste Boursier-Mougenot told me. He’s the man behind this flight of fancy.

The musician has also worked with fish, bees, cats and sheep — but the birds are one of his “hits,” he mused. The black-clad musician also joked that when he first paired sparrows with guitars in 1995 it was something of an accident.

“It’s because I was very limited as an instrumentalist,” he said, laughing. “So I found a strategy to get fingers — but they are flying fingers.”

Boursier-Mougenot tunes the electric guitars to rock and blues chords so they are musically compatible. He admires the birds’ unintentional creativity and calls them “funny little collaborators.” For him, working with them is a way to push the boundaries that often limit our ideas about what music is and can be.

Some people don’t like the finch’s music, Boursier-Mougenot has noted. Others, he said, stay for hours, perhaps mesmerized not only by the sounds they hear, but also by the ever-moving flock’s spontaneous swooping around the room.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, “From Here to Ear” installation for The Curve, Barbican Art Galler, 2010. (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum via Paula Cooper Gallery/Lyndon Douglas)

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, “From Here to Ear” installation for The Curve, Barbican Art Galler, 2010. (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum via Paula Cooper Gallery/Lyndon Douglas)

Only 20 people at a time are allowed in the gallery. Bradt said it seems the birds are used to being around people, so a Hitchcockian encounter is pretty unlikely. But the feathered musicians’ doctor does have one request.

“Please don’t step on the birds!” she implored with a smile. “Watch your feet.”

“From Here to Ear” opens Saturday Jan. 18 and runs through April 13 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

Comments

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  • RichSPK
  • ELKennelly

    I love art, I love this museum, I love birds, and I grew up with ’60s and ’70s rock, but … is anyone else bothered by this particular combination? All the players here — the Peabody Essex, WBUR, and NPR — shouldn’t be promoting exotic animal / bird trade (which was recently soundly condemned in PBS’s documentary, “Parrot Confidential”) And it’s difficult to imagine the birds would voluntarily “collaborate” in such confinement and with these sounds. Little wonder the flock is constantly flying about the room.
    How perfect that this piece would reference Hitchcock, whose own trailer to his 1963 “The Birds” makes perfectly clear that the birds attack as payback for our long history of exploiting and killing them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCxR7dlavwg Worth the watch!

    • PK

      Here’s some information about where the birds were obtained, from a Boston Globe article: The PEM finches were raised in captivity and rented from a special
      animal casting company, making it easier to have them mix with humans.
      http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/style/2014/01/15/peabody-essex-museum-electric-guitars-birds/qGCnoCevXDCuUyOEUH9r0M/story.html

    • kaydo

      >>is anyone else bothered by this particular combination?

      Yes! I heard the story the other morning and thought it sounded like one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. Did anyone consider whether the birds would WANT to hear electric guitars all the time? What a contrived, forced, foolish, ridiculous idea for an installation.

    • Joyce Conlon

      Yes! I was both attracted and repulsed by this article/exhibition. The birds are beautiful and their songs connect with our human capacity to make and love music. On the level of imagining such a collaboration it is a lovely idea. There is, however, no collaboration when one party is bred and held captive. Rather, it perpetuates animal exploitation. Maybe if the guitars were outside where wild birds could choose to land on them this concept could be elevated to the level of art.

  • Steve Maciel

    Awesome.

  • Kristian Idol

    Great idea, but they could go so much further. It sounded like one guitar in one key. They could tune different guitars to 1, 4 and 5. They could color the key guitar differently so more birds would land on it. They could have a couple sensitive drum machines. Rock on, birdies!

  • Robert Packard

    Really, a Gibson Les Paul !! How about using a cheap First Act or maybe an old Sears and Robuck electric guitar ?? I know a lot of kids who can play guitar so much better then birds and would do anything to have a Gibson. Heck I know adults too that can not afford a Gibson , so to see you wasting a grate guitar on bird’s blows my mind.. You should be ashamed of yourself , and if not that just goes to show us you have too much money and should be giving it to your local school to keep the music program strong , forget about the birds they have kept singing for millions of years with out your help !!!!

    • http://www.massmurdermedia.tv/ MASSMURDERMEDIA

      the equipment is just the tip of the iceberg, you should see their concert rider… demanding little prima donna sh!ts…

  • Jenny Jimmy Desmond

    This is not “beautiful” – the birds were bred, shipped and are being kept inside a museum in a completely unnatural environment. Beauty would be these lovely birds not being forced to listen to the sounds of guitars all day and night, not being bred to live a life in cages, and not being shipped around in the name of art. Beauty would be these birds free and happy in a natural habitat That is Art!

    • http://www.massmurdermedia.tv/ MASSMURDERMEDIA

      like many immature artists they’ve been given too much too soon… this will end in an all too predictable downward spiral of sex, drugs and a VH1 Behind the Music episode… they are also facing lawsuits from both The Byrds and The Yardbirds, respectively…

  • Gini Maddocks

    when seeing birds on wires, I’ve often wondered if they were there to “feel” the vibrations… ‘guess so!

  • comment1001

    Where is the recording of the music?

  • lenore

    Please be aware that you must sign up for a time to get into the finch/music room. It is a staggered entry thing. Traveled a long distance today, meeting with someone who also traveled a long distance, got to the museum at 3:00 PM and were told we could get into the finch room at 7:20 PM. We couldn’t stay that long as we relied on public transportation that ran infrequently. We were totally bummed out.

  • comment1001

    Thank you, but that was actually sarcasm. These sounds on guitars that are tuned into a chord (instead of their regular tuning) don’t sound like music at all. “I thought that a human being was playing guitar” is really ignorant. Music is intentional. The story is really…. an insult to humans. And btw, I do have deep respect for animals and their instincts and sentience, but music in this randomness… no. I hope they have something else to sit on than 12 guitars.

  • whatever

    Interesting story but loses a ton since you failed to include useful photos of the actual space.

    Do the birds have many others places to alight other than the guitars?

  • Janet Allen

    I visited this exhibit last week, and I would say the photograph above is a bit of an exagerration. During my visit, I witnessed 3 or 4 birds at the most, “playing” a guitar at any one time. The rest of the time the birds were crowded around on the floor eating seeds or flying back and forth from their nests to the guitars or elsewhere. The birds don’t make “songs” or even “music” necessarily. What you will hear are strums on this guitar and then a strum on that guitar, etc. While it was interesting to observe the birds in this environment, overall I found the exhibit underwhelming.