Page last updated at 08:58 GMT, Saturday, 27 February 2010

Birds of a feather strung together

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot

By Caroline Briggs
BBC News Arts Reporter

Some say it sounds like a Sonic Youth album. Others have likened the guitar noise to a rock concert soundcheck.

But this particular band is made up of 40 zebra finches jamming on electric guitars and cymbals at the Barbican, in London.

The walk-through orchestra-come-aviary by French artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot is the latest installation in The Curve, the centre's visual art space.

Boursier-Mougenot, who trained as a theatre composer, has placed plugged-in Gibson Les Paul guitars as perches, and upturned cymbals as bird feeders.

As the flock of finches fly around and land on the instruments, wipe their beaks, or use twigs to pluck at the strings, they create a unique and changing soundscape.

What you hear could be an experimental rock band, or a band warming up
Lydia Yee

Curator Lydia Yee said it was a auditory and visual experience for the visitor.

"You start to hear the birds chirping, you might hear a guitar, and you also hear your footsteps. You may also hear some music from the concert hall," she explained.

"The sound varies quite a bit depending on how many people are in the space, the birds obviously take flight if people get too close, and when they land on the cymbals you hear sound too.

"Celeste intended it to appeal to different senses."

The Curve installation is Boursier-Mougenot's first solo show in the UK.

In his previous work, such as Videodrones (2001), the artist has experimented with ordinary objects to explore their acoustic potential.

Wild birds play electric guitar

He started working with birds 10 years ago, making installations with wire coat hangers, piano wire and metal balls to create sounds which he would amplify.

"He wants us to pay more attention to sound that surround us in everyday life," explained Yee.

"They could be a low rumbling sound coming from the underground that, as some form of music in combination with other things, could be considered musical."

"With the finches he started thinking about the relationship between sound and space. He wanted to create situations that would enable sound to happen but not in an enforced way, or a very composed way.

"An installation in an art gallery has a longer duration than a theatre piece."


While the finch soundscape seems random on the surface, Boursier-Mougenot takes care to tune the guitars and uses effects, such as reverb and echo. It is important to him that the random sounds are just right.

"What you hear could be an experimental rock band, or a band warming up," said Yee.

A video clip of the installation, posted on YouTube by the Barbican, has been watched more than 520,000 times. So why the fascination?

"I have a theory there is a whole genre on YouTube of people's pets playing instruments, and this falls loosely within that category," said Yee.

"In most cases it is a cat walking on a piano and it doesn't sound that great.

"But some interesting sound can come from the fact that it is not intended. Celeste talks about his one-year-old son who plays with his daughter's electrical guitar and makes some interesting noise from it.

"It could sound like experimental music. As humans we are naturally always trying to make sense of the world and if something sounds partly musical I think we put two-and-two together."

Boursier-Mougenot's aviary will be at the Barbican from Saturday until 23 May.

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