Tiny Birds Rock Out In Museum Exhibit

Feb 10, 2014

How do 70 live zebra finches play about a dozen electric guitars? It sounds like the start of a joke, but the answer can be found through a new art and sound exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., titled, “From Here To Ear.”

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Andrea Shea of WBUR has the story. The exhibition runs through April 13.


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Well, we want to end this hour on another note - many of them actually - and a story about the celebration of birds. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts is showcasing an artist who put 70 live birds in a 65-by-35-foot room with a 19-foot high ceiling and then added electric guitars. HERE AND NOW's Andrea Shea went to see what happened next.

TREVOR SMITH: I mean you probably came here with this mental image of what are these birds going to sound like.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: That's museum curator Trevor Smith.

SMITH: Birds are very much something we associate with music. But here, you go in there and you hear that first power chord, you know, when the bird lands, it's a beautiful feeling.


SHEA: The gallery sounds more like a rock club than an art museum. To enter, you push through silver, chain-link curtains designed to keep the 70 zebra finches from escaping. The orange-beaked birds fly around this airy space that's been transformed into a walk-in aviary. Their clawed feet randomly alight on 10 white Les Paul electric guitars and four Thunderbird basses that are posed like perches horizontally on stands.


CELESTE BOURSIER-MOUGENOT: I call the space finches' territory.

SHEA: That's composer Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, the man behind this flight of fancy. He's also worked with...

BOURSIER-MOUGENOT: Fish, bees, cats.

SHEA: The birds, he says, are a hit. The musician explains why he turned to them and their nimble legs.

BOURSIER-MOUGENOT: It's because I was very limited as an instrumentist(ph) so I found a strategy to get fingers, but flying fingers.

SHEA: Boursier-Mougenot open tunes the guitars to rock and blues chords. He says some people don't like the birds' music. Others stay for hours, mesmerized not only by the sounds but also by the flocks spontaneous swooping around the room. Boursier-Mougenot has been observing bird behavior for years and finds the fragile creatures fascinating. The composer is not pushing a message but believes music is waiting to be revealed everywhere.

Curator Trevor Smith says that runaway feedback you're hearing is one of the challenges that come with staging an art show that involves unpredictable creatures.

SMITH: You know, we're working with industrial hygienists. You know, we've done airflow analysis. We had to hump several tons of sand up three flights of stairs.

SHEA: That sand now blankets the gallery floor. Visitors walk around on low platforms. Woven nest condos hang from the ceiling. The museum enlisted local musicians and attendants to tune and clean the pooped-on guitars each day. Then there's the veterinarian.

ELIZABETH BRADT: I thought it was crazy.

SHEA: Elizabeth Bradt owns All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem. And for the next three months, she's got a new title: museum vet. Bradt helped the curator prepare the gallery for the finches.

BRADT: The lighting was very, very important because they need UV light, the proper sunlight in order to be able to process calcium and vitamin D. They needed to have the right temperature.

SHEA: And the right humidity. Bradt was here when the finches were released after being shipped up from an exotic animal supplier in New Jersey. But this is her first time listening to them in action.


BRADT: I could not believe what I just heard. I thought a human being was playing the guitar.

SHEA: The birds are delicate, Bradt says. And she'll be checking on them every week throughout the show's run.

BRADT: A finch's legs, they're like little toothpicks. So I'm not grabbing these birds and giving them physical exams. That's almost more of a danger to them. If there's one that's looking sick, we can chase it around with a net and get it into a little hospital situation to make it feel better.

SHEA: But Bradt thinks the birds will be happy and healthy in their temporary home. Only 20 people at a time are allowed in the gallery that, Elizabeth Bradt says, the birds are used to people so a Hitchcockian encounter is unlikely. But she does have one request.

BRADT: Please don't step on the birds. Watch your feet.


SHEA: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Andrea Shea.

YOUNG: For more on the exhibition "From Here to Ear" and to see pictures of the finches playing their guitars, go to From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.