The Conference of the Birds: the cost of enlightenment

By Lembit Beecher, Music Alive Composer-in-Residence

This weekend, April 6-8, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performs my composition The Conference of the Birds (commissioned by A Far Cry and premiered Jan. 13, 2017 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Boston, MA). It will be followed by SPCO violinist Maureen Nelson taking center stage for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ iconic and gorgeous The Lark Ascending. The concert concludes with Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, a piece whose warmth and poignancy made a deep impression on me as a child: I remember listening to over and over again, sometimes just letting it play on repeat as I fell asleep.

The Conference of the Birds is a 12th-century Sufi epic poem by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. It tells a story about the birds of the world who gather together in a time of uncertainty. Led by the hoopoe bird, they decide to set out on a long journey to find their king. Many birds desert or die along the journey, but after passing through valley after valley, the remaining 30 arrive at a lake at the top of a mountain. Looking in the water at their own reflection, they realize they are in fact looking at their king. I first came across it through an adaptation (“reinterpretation” might be a better description) by the brilliant Czech-American illustrator and author Peter Sís. This was one of the most beautiful books I had ever seen: an adult picture book with an unusual graphic sensibility, a concise and beautifully ambiguous text, and full-page illustrations of mysterious landscapes that carried surprising emotional weight.

Attar’s original epic poem is an allegorical tale full of mystical parables. Numerous modern adaptations, including plays, children’s books and pieces of music, have been made that emphasize the story’s straightforward yet colorful narrative and moral lessons. But what drew me to Sís’s version, aside from the expressive, textural drawings which so suggested music, was the deep sense of loss in the pages. So many birds are left by the wayside during this journey towards truth and self-discovery. Does progress or attempted progress always come at a cost? What are we to make of the hoopoe who leads so many others to their deaths even as a few find enlightenment?

I initially thought about trying to turn the story into an opera, but I realized I was less interested in the narrative scope of the story than in the emotions and visceral energy of specific moments. I also knew I wanted to write music as Sís created his drawings, with strong gestures and lots of small figures combining to form large shapes. A string orchestra seemed perfect for creating solo lines that gathered into clouds of sound.

I wrote The Conference of the Birds on a commission from A Far Cry, a self-conducted chamber orchestra based in Boston whose members rotate leadership positions in the group. Having gotten to know the players as peers and friends, I felt inspired to write music that allowed the individual personalities and playing styles of the players to emerge: each member of the ensemble has his/her own part. These parts join each other in different combinations, but just as quickly split up again. The leadership of the music, and the relationship of individuals to the group, is always changing. As I wrote I thought about the power of crowds, the motivating capability—both dangerous and inspiring—of leaders, and the contrasting values of individuality and unity, but I also thought about the way a chamber orchestra functions as an ensemble—how its members share leadership and make music together.

Enjoy the SPCO performance of The Conference of the Birds on Saturday, April 7, wherever you are! The evening’s concert will be live streamed at 8 pm CDT. All you need is an Internet connection. Watch the live stream.