Tunes That Tweet

Music inspired by the world’s original songsters.

Now through June 15 | Miller Nichols Library, Ground Floor


Spring is finally here in Kansas City and the air around us is filled with birdsong. These songs and their makers have long inspired musicians, who have woven birds’ trills and twitters into their musical language, seeking to capture their funny habits and majestic beauty.

Birdsong: Inspired by Nature

At a young age, Amy Beach helped the poet Edward Rowland Sill transcribe bird songs using her perfect pitch while on summer holiday in San Francisco. Later in her career, she utilized the skill again to write the works A Hermit Thrush at Eve and A Hermit Thrush at Morn (M25 .B4 op.92 2012).

W.A. Mozart (who would write the charming bird-themed The Magic Flute M1500 .M84 Z382 2006) kept a pet starling. The bird learned to sing some of his pieces, and Mozart would transcribe the bird’s versions to spot the difference. Author Lyanda Lynn Haupt even proposes the pet inspired Mozart’s work Ein musikalischer Spaß (“Music and Mozart’s Starling” RISM Editorial Center).

French composer Olivier Messiaen is famous for his many works inspired by birds and use of transcribed birdsong. The album Complete Bird Music for Piano Solo includes Catalogue d’oiseaux which has eleven movements, each personifying a different bird.

The UMKC Music/Media Library has books, scores, DVDs, CDs, and online resources about birds and birdsong.

Come Fly With Me: Fleeting Interaction

Zhou Long‘s Gazers (Hawk v Chen Yi) (M452.Z66 G3 2010) “is inspired by a photograph of Zhou Long’s wife Chen Yi staring face to face with a hawk that had landed near their house.” The interaction/show-down with nature led to an intense string quartet.

In Margaret Bonds‘ collaboration with Langston Hughes, “When the Dove Enters in,” (M1621.B657 W43 2021) the dove represents peace and parental love. The gospel song was one of the many texts by Langston Hughes that Bonds set to music as friends and collaborators.

Fantastical birds are used in two of the most popular ballets of the 20th and 21st centuries: Igor Stravinsky‘s The Firebird and Pyotr Tchaikovsky‘s Swan Lake.

Our Shining a Light Collection contains a flock of bird-related music from the 21st century, demonstrating the cross-culture attraction of birds: Adolphus Hailstork’s Oiseaux Romantiques de Paris, Barbara Harbach’s Freeing the Caged Bird, Adriana Hölszky’s Like A Bird: Hommage À GYÖRGY KURTÁG, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Pink Breasted Robin, Akira Nishimura’s Fantasia on “Song of the Birds,” and Shulamit Ran’s Birds of Paradise.

Hummingbirds: Musicians Who Took Flight

According to Chuck Haddix’s book Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker (ML419.P4 H34 2013), Charlie Parker earned the name “Yardbird” after bandmates heard him referring to chickens as yardbirds (a colloquialism from his school in Kansas City). To many, he is the single most important musician to have come from Kansas City. Parker left a musical legacy apparent in the books, films, and art that has been created since his passing. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre created For Bird with Love, available through Alexander Street in the library’s database subscriptions. You can learn more about “Bird” in the film Celebrating Bird (ML419.P4 C44 2009) and listen to The Many Faces of Bird (CD 2009:449) and Bird is Free (MGM Records: 65 107) in the Marr Sound Archives.

Zitkála-Šá was a member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux whose name means “Red Bird.” She was an activist, author, and musician who composed and played violin and piano. Zitkála-Šá inspired UMKC’s Barr Laurate composer Raven Chacon who wrote the piece For Zitkála-Šá (M1470.C43 F47 2022 ). You can learn more about her in the eBook Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Ša, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist.

William Byrd (c.1540-1623) was a favorite composer of Queen Elizabeth I. It is likely that his family name derived generations previously from bird catchers or falconers.

A Bird’s Voice

The flute is often the bird in the orchestra from Beethoven’s nightingales in his sixth symphony to the crazed bird in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The register and quicksilver melodic capabilities of the instrument help paint a pastoral or natural scene. The flute continues to be a choice instrument to represent the bird in modern times including Messiaen’s Le Merle noir, Shulamit Ran’s Flight of the Brave Chicken (M289.R27 F45 2021), and Kaija Saariaho’s Aile du songe (M1020.S22 A34 2002). As a flutist you get used to it, we’re always the bird.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to see more collection highlights. We also partner with the Marr Sound Archives to highlight LPs from their collection. Click the button below to see the resource list for the Tunes That Tweet collection display.

Collection display curated by UMKC Music/Media Library Staff Libby Hanssen and Bryanna Beasley and student assistant Abby Foehrkolb, with assistance from Marr’s Nikki L’Amour.

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