The Pleasure of the Dawn Chorus: Preserving the Pandemic Soundscape

April 21, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

The Pleasure of the Dawn Chorus: Preserving the Pandemic Soundscape is a musical exploration of conservation and our connection to nature written and performed by students from the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Throughout 2021-22, students recorded birdsong in a multitude of spaces - on campus, in parks, and in backyards. They also reflected on the meaning of nature awareness by producing poetry and photo essays. These recordings and reflections inspired the musical composition.

The project culminated recently in a lecture recital that included a premiere performance of the musical composition, as well as some of the reflections by faculty and students upon nature and music, nature and spirituality, and urban wildlife conservation. Speakers included Prof. Alexander Hampton (Department for the Study of Religion); Prof. Wendy Nielsen (Faculty of Music); Andrew Crozier, ecologist (Biology, Environmental Science, UTM); Nicole Percifield, mezzo soprano (Faculty of Music); Gavin Fraser, composer (Faculty of Music). The performers were Nicole Percifield (mezzo soprano) and Jeffery Conquer (pianist).

Alexander Hampton gave us an overview of the project.

JHI: What motivated your idea of the The Pleasure of the Dawn Chorus?

AH: The project began with the fascination around hearing birdsong again in our urban environment. This happened in the context of the pandemic lockdowns as human created noise abated. It was as if people had rediscovered the nature which had always already been there.

JHI: What do you hope your participants took away from your recital/lecture series?

AH: The first step to conservation is awareness. If we know that nature is around us to be preserved, if we have a sense that we share our urban spaces with the nature we usually think of as living in provincial parks, beyond the confines of the city, then we can begin to change the very concept of nature that we have. We can begin to see that we are not apart from nature but indeed a part of it. That no matter where we are we are surrounded by it in one form or another. Generating an environmental consciousness, based not on eco- anxiety alone, but eco-appreciation, is an essential part of addressing our environmental crisis.

JHI: How did the recital turn out? What was the reception/feedback like?

AH: We were delighted with the turnout for the online lecture recital. Not only were we joined by people from across U of T, including undergraduates, graduates and people from across the disciplines, we were also joined by colleagues working on the environmental humanities from around the world. Colleagues from Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, and the United states all tuned in to hear the fascinating reflections which students produced and the wonderful music they composed and performed.



JHI: Are you planning any other related events in the near future?

AH: The performance of the musical composition has been turned into a music video, which is now available on YouTube. We have also made videos of the recital, the full lecture recital and student reflections.

We are now talking to a local museum which is interested in exploring the intersection between conservation, our emotional connections nature, the arts and multiculturalism. With this we hope to carry forward and expand some of the ideas explored in this project and bring them to the wider community.

JHI: How did you hear about the JHI's Program for the Arts and what made you apply?

AH: It's been wonderful every year to enjoy the JHI’s arts programming. It was this work by the U of T community that inspired my application to the program.

JHI: Can you say a few words about your Program for the Arts experience for others thinking of applying?

AH: This was a tremendously satisfying research endeavour. Whilst we all enjoy spending time in our libraries or laboratories undertaking our research, this project inspired new connections across disciplines and brought together faculty, graduate students and undergraduates. In doing so we had an impact far beyond our disciplinary boundries. It's truly worth making an application to the program.