There's an old saying that if you sit enough monkeys at enough typewriters, eventually one of them will produce the complete works of Shakespeare. That may be true, but acquiring the requisite number of monkey/typewriter combinations poses quite a challenge, given the primates' less than prolific literary traditions. Birds and music, on the other hand, go back a long way, which raises a slightly different question: if you put the right birds with the right instruments, would they accompany their own singing?
An appealing installation at London's Barbican Centre is addressing this chirpy issue. The French composer-turned-artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has transformed the centre's Curve gallery into a sort of aural aviary, equipped with various instruments on which the conscripts can hone their rock 'n' roll riffs or, as it actually transpires, their intriguingly abstract compositions. These birds are definitely inclined toward more avant-garde material, and yet have also managed to attract a sizeable audience. Many human artists will be green with envy.
Boursier-Mougenot is renowned for bold interactions of sight and sound and this commission is a larger, more ambitious version of a once rather modest idea. Visitors enter through a curtain of metal chains, pass along a dark corridor lined with impressive audio/visual effects and are then thrust into a bright, spacious and slightly curious room, which could easily be a set from a neglected Tim Burton movie: Alice in Birdland, perhaps.
Under the six-metre high Curve roof around 20 upturned musical instruments have been stood on small, grassy islands, their power leads disappearing into the sand. Each takes on a dual role: classic Les Paul guitars and bass guitars become perches, while cymbals are refashioned as birdbaths and seed trays. Making good use of these items are some 40 tiny zebra finches, which appear blissfully unperturbed by their human visitors and proceed to peck, pull and generally punish the equipment with great enthusiasm.
Given its random nature, the array of sounds this interaction produces is surprisingly coherent, even oddly calming. The guitars are tuned to major chords with the reverb set high, so each brush with a bird produces an enduring prang of ambient noise, and a minor flurry of excitement among the onlookers gathered on the wooden path. When a territorial squabble breaks out on one of the fretboards, as happens fairly regularly, it sounds like an audacious finch has embarked on a full-on virtuoso solo.
Observing the daily chores of these jolly, red-billed characters would be richly entertaining even without the sonic element, so you can understand the project's popularity. Queues have been snaking through the Barbican for weeks, with many visitors clearly making return trips, and a short YouTube video sample of the birds in action has attracted 700,000 visitors so far. "It's very accessible and understandable for everyone. There's no age at which it stops being interesting," says Ariella Yedgar, the assistant curator of the Curve. "It's obvious that these are not musically trained birds; they just do what they do, and then, because their instruments are tuned so well, it creates amazing sounds."
The project took a year to research and realise and, as Yedgar suggests, "it looks a lot easier than it was". Zebra finches were chosen for their gregarious, outgoing nature - and high noise tolerance - while visitors are limited to 25 at a time. Too many would disturb the aviary's inhabitants; too few and the birds might refuse to perform. "The installation only really happens when there are people in the space," explains Yedgar. "The birds don't necessarily fly around all the instruments naturally, but as people move around, the birds go to be with other birds, or move to another island. It's really a choreography of space and sound."
But is it music? The staff certainly seem to think so. Alastair, one of the Curve stewards, is "in here three or four hours a day" and likes "to listen and hear if they play anything I recognise". Virtual visitors are also convinced of the finches' technical merits. That YouTube sample drew numerous comparisons to two experimental noise bands from the States, Sonic Youth and Sunn O, as well as a proper rock legend's improvised score for a 1995 Jim Jarmusch movie. "Neil Young wrote the soundtrack for Dead Man and it sounded exactly like this," commented one video viewer. "They could have saved a lot of money by hiring these birds."
Thorsten Sideboard has his own take on the finches' influences. The Scottish-born, now London-based DJ/producer runs a record label called Highpoint Lowlife, which specialises in "head-nodding distorted noise and anything else that doesn't sound right". Having been enticed to the Boursier-Mougenot experience, does he rate the birds' output as comparable to human compositions? "Absolutely, it could easily pass as generative music, as it's very chance-related but completely harmonic and listenable," says the experimental connoisseur.
Generative music, once popularised by the production maestro Brian Eno, involves composers feeding various components into a pre-programmed system and letting the music make itself, which is, in essence, the path Boursier-Mougenot has followed. In fact, when it comes to certain forms of experimental music, these oblivious birds may have an advantage over their human counterparts. "It also fits really well with Eno's idea of ambient background music, because I think when humans try to create background music, there's still always a temptation to fall into some kind of structure," continues Sideboard. "Whereas here, we actually have birds and nature doing something like that. And the fact that it's tuned harmoniously, it could just keep going continually and would always be pleasing. It'd be quite interesting to do it in restaurants, have the birds always going round and creating this sound."
That might cause a slight hygiene issue, but the very suggestion that such random noise could be used for a practical purpose does thrust validity upon it. Birds, of course, were creating music long before the instruments were introduced, and their vocal contributions shouldn't be discounted. "The tweeting totally adds to it," says Sideboard. "It's all in the same key and really complements it quite well. Your mind can actually drift between the different layers of music. It's quite an interesting installation on so many levels, because of the attention paid to the tuning, because of the interaction of the birds with the music and just your actual closeness to the birds."
One aspect of the project that has particularly interested visiting musicians is its duration. The installation lasts an epic three months, although the sounds aren't being recorded, so if our feathered friends do recreate a famous guitar solo it will be lost for ever. "True," says Yedgar, "but it's the nature of the piece: it's temporary, but it's also durational - I think, for Céleste, the reason he chooses to work in a gallery context. He trained as a musician and was then a composer, but in a way this is the most satisfactory medium for him."
It is an attractive proposition: having set up the installation over the course of a year the artist can retire back to his home country and let the birds do the work, with no musicians to pay or egos to massage. Admittedly the project has suffered the occasional mishap due to several eggs being laid, which is more dramatic than it sounds. "I think the eggs are taken away and 'fostered' by other birds," explains the steward. "You can't really have chicks in here because the birds might get protective and start swooping at people."
Human composers rarely do anything quite so dramatic, but could be forgiven for feeling protective of their own work when faced with the proposition that birds do it just as well. The label boss Thorsten Sideboard reckons we should tread carefully before offering record contracts to random animals, however: the hand of man is still very much in evidence here. "The installation has got quite an illusionary quality to it, because I actually think the parameters are very close: the pallet that they're working within. People come in and are mystified because it's birds and you think it's so random, but really there's a lot of preparation that went into it. You couldn't recreate it yourself just by putting birds in a room with a guitar."
But, he continues, mischievously, "when I came out I did go straight to a pet shop, bought some birds and locked them in the studio for a few hours". He probably avoided zebra finches though. Small labels see enough red bills already.