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From Flying to Jiving: Ornithopera, AVIARY’s Final Migration

By Karyn Danforth / Lifestyles Editor

Set up in one corner of Maloney Hall’s second floor art gallery were four tables of piano harps: the gutted insides of the giant grand instruments.

“It’s a pretty amazing invention,” said Wesleyan University graduate student Max Heath. As his hands rested upon a large block of glass, Heath moved it across the piano strings as a camera projected the glass and strings onto the wall behind him. “I hardly have to move the glass to create sound,” Heath said.

This was only an element of Michael Pestel’s multimedia installation, Ornithopera, a closing performance of his exhibition Aviary, which drawn upon the lost voices of endangered and extinct bird species is also a celebration of the ones still alive. In the orchestrated event, it is scored for a minimum of 31 sound and a couple movement performers with additional participating members of the audience.

Students and faculty from Central Connecticut and Wesleyan were aligned against each side of the galley with different instruments, the majority being handcrafted by Pestel. Opposite to the piano harps was slate drawing tables and an upright piano; the other two contained of a row of typewriters and slate writing podia, which consisted of a board of holes with a mixture of stones in each.

The audience lay inside these four walls of sound and eight performers with assorted string and wind instruments are inside of them centered around a bird cage atop a circular moving platform.

Explaining the background of Ornithopera’s significance, Pestel spoke to the audience outside the center of the circle he’d eventually step foot in. “The most important thing about this is listening to the lost voices, the voices of extinct birds species that have disappeared,” he said. “These species have been eradicated since the 1500s by the United States. Fifty percent of all animals will be endangered and extinct by the end of the century.”

Pestel urged audience participation with slates and chalk to create their own additional noises. The slates weren’t ordinary however. Dan Yashinsky, a Toronto based storyteller, told the audience a tale of his mother and the slates were saved from her roof; they were perched on by eight decades of birds.

Two Butoh Slowalkers (movement performers) slowly made their way around the perimeter of the room; as they crossed an instrument, it signaled the noises initiated by each student. On the upright piano Brian Parks, a concert pianist and composer, pounded down random patterns of notes at the same time; each note represented a letter in the Latin spelling of the species of birds.

Briskly typing away bird proverbs into the old-fashioned typewriters, CCSU art history professor Dr. Elizabeth Langhorne’s eco-art class also chanted little utterances under their breath.

And just like that, Pestel was moving back and forth, using various instruments as he strolled around the room; his two-year old daughter Josey dawdled around holding a baby doll, ran to Pestel and, still playing his instrument, swiftly scooped her into arms and carried her around.

He then stepped to the center and sat down with the eight performers, which was the invitation for the audience to partake. Chalking it up, some did rhythmic beats with straight lines, some went more free-form and curvaceous onto the slate. While the performers inside the circle kept to one instrument, Pestel used several bite sized items; mixing the melange of noises in the air. Pestel pulled out a traditional flute, Josey crawled into his lap with a doll still clutched in her hand.

All of the different sounds did seem a little intoxicating, enhanced by glancing at the videos projected on the walls of Pestel’s various close up experiences with birds; playing an instrument as the bird chirps back at him.

The sounds lasted for a couple Butoh Slowalkers rotations; about 20 minutes worth of ears ringing with high, low and clinky-clanky noises. For what was seemingly a grand finale of sorts, Pestel arose from his seat, walked over and stood next to a gong, and shot an object out of his flute, symbolizing the end.