On playing Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’ – a view from the violin – June 2021

Posted on June 28th, 2021 by

On playing Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’ – a view from the violin

With Edward Cowie at Wilton’s Music Hall picture by Malene Sheppard Skaerved

A constant companion while working Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’ was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. Most of my personal practice takes place at night, and as winter turned to spring this year, the grey light and singing of early dawn has often been signal to stop work and sleep. This is the opposite of the poet, who wrote:

‘Me thought thus; that hy was May,

And in the dawenynge I lay

(Me mette thus) in my be all naked

And loked forth, for I was waked

With smale foules a great hep

That had affrayed me out of my slep

Thorgh noyse and swetnesse of her song.’[i]


It has been my privilege to perform and record Edward Cowie’s music since 2013. In that short time, his vision has become  key to my outlook on music and nature. Our collaboration stretches from quartets, solo works, a violin concerto, and most recently this extraordinary cycle for piano and violin, Bird Portraits.

This is not the first cycle of bird pieces of Cowie’s that has filled my imaginative world. The very first recording of his music that I made, for NMC, was Birdsong Bagatelles/String Quartet No 5[ii]. It’s a testament to the depth of his response to the natural world, that, despite the fact that both these works are 24-movement sets, and have birds in common, there’s no similarity between the pieces, conceptually or sonically.

The composer and I are both outdoors people, which means that my response, not only to the avian creatures in the cycle, is as personal as his was in writing it. I know that my collaborating pianist, Roderick Chadwick, has different  associations with the birds that we play together. So, here are some reflections from the chinrest and  practice-desk.

One aspect of studying  this music might seem prosaic: the making of lists. Bird Portraits is what Umberto Eco would all an ‘infinity of lists’. In the book of Genesis, the animals in the garden are named. Classification is, etymologically, the grouping  by ‘classis’, group or  fleet ( I love the idea of fleets of birds). And medieval scholars brought order and meaning to the natural world through the making of bestiaries ( in this case, aviaries). Here’s a 12th century example:

‘UNUM: Now all BIRDS are called Birds, but there are a lot of them – for, just as there differ from one another in species, so do they in diversity of nature.’[iii]

Even shorn of subject matter, the number and order of Cowie’s ‘aviary’ is alluring. There are 24 movements: in the previous collection, Birdsong Bagatelles, this number corresponded to major and minor keys, reflecting the books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  This new cycle is not by key; instead Cowie reflects on the capricious tendency of the beginning of the 19th century, to either keep, or abandon, the cycle of fifths, whilst preserving the power of 24 movements. Nicolo Paganini’s 24 Capricci eschews it, whereas Pierre Rode’s contemporaneous Vingt-Quatre Caprices adheres to the key-cycle,  religiously.

The Flight of Swallows. Munich July 2010

Not ordering by key (which is not to say that there are NO keys to be observed), prompts a complex set of internal armatures, or staffage. Before I lay this out, it’s worth reminding myself of the allure of ‘24’. This is, of course, is the product of 2 squared (4), and a ‘perfect number’, 6. 6 is the first perfect number- a positive integer equal to the sum of its positive divisors, excluding the number itself.  The next three perfect numbers are 28, 496 and 8128.

So, Edward divides his  24 into 4 books of 6. We have Water, Field, Wood/Garden, and Sea birds. These four groups can be grouped into two ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ alliances, arranged across the cycle thus: ‘Wet-Dry-Dry-Wet’. The ‘waters’, it can be seen surround, ‘land’, like the encircling sea of the ancient and medieval worlds, or Tolkien’s, ‘Ekkaia’.

But there’s another division of two, less visible/audible, but very present  for the players and composer: the bar numbers. These do not, as might be expected, begin afresh with each bird, but run through the movements and the cycles – except, that at the end of Book Two (Field Birds), they stop, at bar 547, and then reset to 1 for the opening of Book Three (Wood and Garden Birds). The implication of these overlapping groupings is that the cycle is actually circling, never ending or landing.

But this points to more dramatic, meaning-laden symbolism: the end of the whole set, the Great Northern Diver, is profound in every way. I have never seen a Great Northern Diver in Europe, but all my Midwestern friends and family are filled with nostalgia at the idea and song of the ‘Loon’, as the call it (it’s a ‘Ring necked Loon’ in Cork and Scotland). For them, it’s summer by the lake, at the Cabin, or kayaking the Boundary Waters. My closest encounter was the Diver I saw on the Reservoir of Central Park.


The Diver is prefigured, for this violinist, by the astonishing ‘per ardua ad astra’ of the Skylark, which, of course, particularly for a British musician, is freighted, fraught. This Skylark, ‘bravely singing’,  ends Book 2, at the bar-number-stop, 547, mentioned above. Cowie is one of the very few composers to face the reality, the arduous ascent, the ever-distancing-diminuendo-ing fury of  the Skylark: anyone who has walked along Grim’s Ditch, at the northern tip of the Chiltern Hills,  on a late spring morning, will have been assailed by the cacophonic spleen of multiple, territorial, Skylarks. Cowie sets the ascent in a doomed passacaglia.

Skylarks on my desk, by Edward Cowien and Steen Steensen Blicher 21 1 19

These darknesses offer me clue into the ‘lightness’ of the endings of the first and third books, where the bar numbers do not break.  Such ‘légèreté’ is far from lacking in meaning or import, but offers the corollary, even a safety valve, for pressures which build up and around lark and  loon. The Coot and the Wood Warbler are perfect in this role – feathered jesters in the flock.

For all of us, our association with birds and animals is personal, most particularly when they are the creatures that say ‘home’. Here are a few of my avian familiars, from the cycle.:

One night, about 3 am,  as I was practising Bird Portraits, the Wren that roosts in the Blackthorne bush under our window here in Wapping, began to sing so extravagantly, that it drowned out the violin under my ear. This particular ‘Wrannock’ or ‘Tintie (as it is sometimes known in this part of England) is the great singer I try to evoke, playing Cowie’s wren.

I had one very close and alarming encounter with a Tawny Owl in the Oak and Beech of Epping Forest, the public woodland that borders my native East London. Pushing through the undergrowth (Bracken, Wild Garlic, and Bramble) of Thames Marsh at the northern end of the Forest, I almost trod on an unsuspecting ‘hoolet’. It burst from under my feet in fury and feathers.

pushing through a brake of ferns not far from the lost Fairmead Lodge, Tawny owl bursts from beneath my feet (echoes of other walkers around here-John Clare, de Stael, Viotti all around) 2012

For me the Curlew will always be the creek on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, where I spent my summers as a child. Day’s end, was  marked by the melancholy droop of that wader’s evening song, as the shadows of waterside oak trees lengthened on the sand and mud. But the Osprey is far from this land, but also reminds me of summer,  in the Midwest, swimming in the St Croix River (the western limit of  Wisconsin) as Ospreys sail overhead. There’s always the slight anxiety, that they might not be able to distinguish a Walleye from my head in the water…

Late afternoon by the St Croix River. 22 8 18.

Arctic Terns, bring to mind morning on board ship off the coast of Alaska, looking East, at the 15,000 ft pink pyramid of Mount Fairweather shouldering the dawn, while Arctic Terns loop around the ship, steaming north en route to Sitka and the Aleutians. And, from a ship’s deck seen from above, Puffins, in flight, are just ridiculous, the essence of panic, wings whirring bizarrely fast as they scud over the swell.  Cowie’s music is genuinely funny. A couple of takes in this recording were lost, because we ended up laughing at the frantic flapping of the ‘Londoner’ (as these birds are known, in Cornwall).

Gulf of Alaska 21 8 16

I have seen more kingfishers at home here in East London than in the countryside. My  first ‘halcyon’ encounter was in Limehouse, when I was a penniless young musician, subsisting on couscous and yoghurt. This was before the ‘topless towers’ of Canary Wharf had risen: I had taken a book and a flask of tea to read on the river wall of Limehouse Reach. Nobody was about, but I  became of a splash of colour eight inches to my right. I looked down, and a brilliant Kingfisher looked up, as surprised as I was, to find Homo Sapiens on its fishing perch over the Thames flood tide.

A Kingfisher flashes through the Wapping Canals 28 12 17

In medieval Europe, it was the birds who were the first to be represented with what we might recognise as scientific verisimilitude. In the second quarter of the 14th century,  ‘Jehann Lenoir, enlumineur de pincel’ on the west side of rue Erembourg de Brie, Paris, illuminated a Book of Hours, for Jeanne, Queen (regnant) of Navarre. The margins and borders of this astonishing book, are filled with  bas-de-page vignettes. Some of these reflect, or jest, about the central religious message of the central scenes, with ‘sujets humoristiques’. Some have a darker undertow, dragons and monsters. But most of the marginalia are birds, painted, unlike the human subjects and mythical beasts, with almost photographic vividness: woodpeckers, owls, swallows, goldfinches counterpoint the religious drama with glimmering iridescence.[iv]

We can’t imagine life without the birds. They certainly can imagine their lives without us. And that, perhaps, is their power; a power which Edward Cowie taps … naturally.

[i] P.20, The Book of the Duchess, Geoffrey Chaucer, Hesperus Press, London , 2007

[ii] NMC D222

[iii] P.103, ‘The Book of Beasts’, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the 12th Century, Trans/Ed. T.H.White, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1954

[iv] Pp. 400-401, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, Christopher de Hamel, Penguin, London 2018