At Graves’ Corner, this Spring, we have a strikingly inventive young singer whose exuberance seems fueled by a mischievous yen to break the rules. We have heard quite a few innovative singers in our time, but never one like this—whose style is nothing at all like that of the established avant-garde whose method is to infiltrate a song, then transform it from within.
We heard a fine example of this classic experimental technique last year (although not as often as we would have liked). It was not a catbird of ours, but one who performed in The East Woods and, unfortunately, did not think it necessary to burst into song just because we were taking our walk then and there. Also, on one of those infrequent occasions when we did have the privilege of hearing him, the experience was marred by the yapping of a hyperactive terrier in little red leather socks. The East Woods catbird had a strong, straightforward voice which he could make ring out if he wanted it to, and sang with so much confidence that you weren’t aware at first how far he was straying from accepted tropes.
This year’s young devil-may-care rebel at Graves’ Corner is something else entirely: a prodigy of artistic license, he has made an important breakthrough which we expect will become a feature of cutting-edge performances in years to come.
He starts off with six, eight, maybe even ten repetitions—note for note—of the basic eight-note figure at the heart of all catbird song. It’s monotonous, but he doesn’t care; it’s as if he is saying, “I’m thinking. Don’t bother me.” Then suddenly he drops down into a series of muttering, contemplative riffs on fragments of classic tunes. Between one riff and the next he inserts an extended, suspenseful silence (is he still there?) that sometimes lasts longer than the music that preceded it. Each of these silences is relieved—just once or twice, no more—by the short raucous challenge which is the pro-forma intro to every catbird performance. No catbird, before our singer in Graves’ Corner, has included that primeval, toneless squawk as an element of his song.
The music at Glider Grove this year is the antithesis of the experimentation going on in Graves’ Corner. The performer at the Grove, obviously a mature bird, has a clear, open voice which he personalizes with an understated echo effect. It is an interesting presentation which engages the listener’s attention enough for subtle moderations in his variations—a quarter-tone shift in a tremolo, an elusive syncopation—to have significant aesthetic impact. The overall effect at Glider Grove this year is one of eloquent melancholy.
The singers of 2023 are head and shoulders above those of 2022, who were disappointing, to say the least. The one in Graves’ Corner always sounded like there were other places he’d rather be and better things for him to do. And at Glider Grove we were blessed with a songster who evidently had flunked Embellishment 101. In his hesitancy and confusion he sometimes gave up right in the middle of a song. But he’d start right over, and we gave him credit for that.
For a while we thought we had a third singer, at Gazebo Point, but we soon realized it was our hapless friend from Glider Grove. He would follow us out there, perch on a dead cherry limb in the swamp and try once more to get it right.