Richard Torchia

Richard Torchia
Director, Arcadia University Art Gallery

In January 2003, Arcadia University Art Gallery confirmed its plans to present The Mirrored Catalogue D’Oiseaux, an installation by Glasgow-based artist Dave Allen. The piece is comprised of an aviary housing two Northern Mockingbirds listening continually to a recording of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux (Catalog of the Birds), a composition for solo piano playing on a stereo in the exhibition space. Completed in 1958, this 150-minute masterwork is based on Messiaen’s notations of birdsong, gathered in the wild without the aid of recording equipment.

The project represented a logical step in Allen’s evolving fascination about “how music circulates in the world: how it is created, learned, consumed, and passed on.” It was an attempt to create ideal conditions in which mockingbirds (known for their ability to copy the calls of up to 200 bird species), exposed to a constant stream of music based on these songs, might duplicate its melodies, reverse Messiaen’s process, and thus reconnect his composition to its original sources.

Even if the mockingbirds never managed to mimic the piano music—as reportedly occurred during the work’s first presentation in Lüneburg, Germany, two years earlier—the potential of the caged performers to do so remained tantalizing.

The success of Allen’s project hinged on our ability to secure a pair of Northern Mockingbirds. Easily obtained in Germany, these songbirds, native to the United States, are protected by regulations that make it illegal to hold them in captivity on American soil. Allen overturned this initial stumbling block when he advised us to find a pair of their best understudies, Tropical Mockingbirds. In March of 2003 we located two in Paraguay and contracted to have them
flown to Florida for the standard month of quarantine, after which they would be delivered to Arcadia.

Pleased that the most challenging portion of the process was behind us, we continued with the rest of our plans, including the construction of an aviary built to the specifications of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. It was not until a week before the opening, with Dave Allen en route to Philadelphia, that we received the news that our duo from Paraguay had been exposed to a fatal avian virus while quarantined in Miami. Our eagerly anticipated guests would have to be returned to South America or else be put to sleep.

This news propelled Allen and me into two parallel and frantic paths of action. The first was to attempt to find another pair of Tropical Mockingbirds (an effort that would require more luck than we could expect on such short notice); the other was to re-imagine Allen’s installation minus the live birds. Without abandoning the first strategy, we launched earnestly into the second. One desperate scenario had us shopping for turntables on which to play 45-rpm recordings Allen had made of his original mockingbirds singing in Lüneburg. Hoping against hope, we imagined that we could place these turntables in the empty aviary and perhaps lure some mockingbirds into the exhibition space. They would enter, we assumed, through two windows that took us days to cut open due to their having been sealed shut for so long. Sparrows and swallows had often found their way to the 30-foot high rafters inside the historic power plant that housed the gallery, so it did not seem so strange that a few mockingbirds might fly inside as well.

In the meantime, I spent every spare minute phoning rehabilitation centers across the county to identify juvenile or injured mockingbirds we might borrow. With three days remaining, we got a call from Jacqueline Genovesi, our consultant at the Pennsylvania Academy of Natural Sciences. She told us that a colleague had reminded her that starlings were also decent mimics and, not being native to the U.S., could be held in captivity. She also mentioned that a rehabilitation center in State College, Pennsylvania, might be able to supply a few for our exhibition. Thus, on eve of the opening, Jacqueline arrived at the gallery with five fledgling starlings that had been salvaged from a fallen nest and reared at the shelter.

These birds, as young as they were, contributed some far-ranging cultural associations to the installation at Arcadia. All of the approximately 200 million starlings currently residing in the U.S. are descendents of 100 birds released in Central Park in 1890, introduced by a literary society wishing to populate America with every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps more pertinent was information about their musical pedigree, including an account of Mozart’s purchase of a starling from a Vienna pet shop in 1784. The composer’s diary records his astonishment at hearing this bird whistle a 17-note theme he recognized from his Piano Concerto in G Major, yet unperformed at the time but not unlike a folk tune which it resembled. Speculation about the origin and transmission of this melody related directly to Allen’s musical experiment in the gallery. This confluence of unruly associations, exposed by the detour of not being able to present the work with the intended mockingbirds, directed us to a variation of the project that expanded its reach while remaining faithful to its essence.

Reaction to the exhibition varied. Some who came to gawk at a pair of mockingbirds (as advertised on the announcement card) seemed pleased, instead, to discover twice as many starlings. Others returned to draw them. Our sense that the birds had indeed begun to mimic Messiaen’s music was confirmed by a comment in the gallery sign-in book left by a visitor who claimed to have heard one of the birds copy a passage verbatim.

As exciting as this seemed at the time, Allen’s project had its most powerful impact shortly after the exhibition closed. After learning that the Academy had released the starlings in New Jersey, by chance I found myself in Pennsauken with friends who had seen the installation. One of them, a veteran birder, noted that there on lawn before us were dozens of starlings. The thought that one of them might be passing Messiaen’s transcribed birdsong onto a colleague was hard to resist.

Arcadia University Art Gallery

Special thanks to Sandra Q. Firmin, who, as a curatorial intern at Arcadia in 2002 (a position funded by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative), suggested that we bring Allen’s installation to Glenside. She is now Curator at the UB Art Gallery, University at Buffalo, State
University of New York.

Photo: Aaron Igler, (detail), 2003