Michael Pestel



For the past 18 years I have built architectural sound installations related to bird song and bird extinction. I have performed in those installations on flutes and various invented hybrid instruments and sound devices such as the birdmachine, pianotable, and birdrawingtable (please see glossary in the Fellowship Project Plan for a complete description). This work has been inspired and informed by my performances with living birds in aviaries, forests, parks, shrines, and bird preserves in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia.

It all started, however, at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh in 1992. In my first performance there, I recited the red list of more than one hundred extinct bird species and the approximate date of extinction one by one. I followed each pronouncement with a short, often multiphonic bird-like gesture on the flute. What was significant about that — beyond the uncanny dialogical responses I was getting from various birds — was the deliberate position I took as a stand-in for voices eradicated by my own species. This position is, in fact, the basic underpinning for my fellowship proposal.

Since that performance at the National Aviary, I have returned dozens of times to perform live with the birds (reviews), both as a soloist and with a diverse range of musicians and sound artists, including composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton. In 2006, the Aviary produced a CD commemorating 14 years of my performances there. In recent years, I have also performed bi-annually in the aviaries at the Central Park and Bronx Zoos, most notably in 2006, when I participated in the World of Birds Exhibit at the Bronx Zoo with David Rothenberg in the BBC film version of his book Why Birds Sing. The latter chronicles both my performances in Pittsburgh’s National Aviary and my adventures with Rothenberg playing with lyrebirds in the rain forest near Brisbane, and again in the eucalyptus groves outside of Melbourne.

Paralleling the live performances with birds, I have also created and performed in aviary-and-landscape-related installations in galleries, museums, and outdoor sites. This is reflected in works such as Ornithology Series (Carnegie Mellon University 1994), Migrations (Haamstede, Netherlands 1995), SCHREIben (Oldenburg Museum of National History, Germany 1997), Music Lessons (University of Pennsylvania 1999), Writing Lessons (Pittsburgh Biennial 1996); Writing Lessons 2 (Wesleyan University 2005), Lyrebird Octet (Carnegie Mellon University 2005) and AVIARY (Central Connecticut State University 2009). In each case, the installation was designed to facilitate the sound performance.

In Writing Lessons 2, eight small slateboards mounted with audio speakers extend like prosthetic arms from the node points where branches have been sawed-off from a giant oak tree. The speakers project the sound of numerous birds once prevalent in the area before we humans pushed them out. These sounds are mixed with the sound of 25 students writing the Latin names of those bird species on slateboards. Thus, writing these names in the context of an educational structure, dramatizes the disconnect between classifying and experiencing the thing named. Yet, the irony here is that the very sound of writing in chalk, a sound similar to the chatter of birds, draws us back into the realm of direct experience, i.e., of the bird itself.    

Along similar themes, Dutch eco-artist, Jeroen van Westen and I have collaborated for over a decade on a series of exhibitions. Ornithology/Shadows, (1996) traveled to four sites in The Netherlands: DeWeerribben Nature Preserve, Museum of Natural History in Leeuwarden, Avifauna Aviary near Amsterdam, and Apollohuis Sound Art Gallery in Eindhoven. At the Pavillions Museum in Almere (2001) and also at Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery (2002), we created a virtual, interactive soundscape called Birdscape that featured the sounds of twelve endangered Dutch birds reacting to the movements of gallery visitors in real time.

Another decade-long collaboration — Stray Birds — is with former Sankai Juku butoh dancer, Taketeru Kudo. This collaboration emerged from performances with Kudo at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London (2000) and Maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris (2000), as well as from an Asian Cultural Council Grant to research birds in Japan (2001). Stray Birds focuses on the interaction between bird sound and bird movement and has been performed at the Mattress Factory, Chatham College, and Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, 2001), Die Pratze Theater and the French Embassy (Tokyo (2006), and Prout Hill Outdoor Theater, Middletown, CT (2007). Stray Birds is planned again for Tokyo in 2011 at Super Delux in Roppongi.

One performance work that stands out, or rather floats away from, from the rest is Riverpiano (Allegheny River, Pittsburgh 2005). In the performance, I am playing prepared grand piano and bird whistles on a 20’ raft floating down the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh. The act of thus floating was inspired by a prophetic dream the composer Heitor Villa Lobos might have had a few weeks before he died in 1959. In the dream that I imagine, he is playing his Steinway aquaplaning up the Rio Negro in Brazil searching for the birdsongs of his youth. He plays music unlike any that he has ever heard and is transported into the realm of the birds. Suddenly, in the intensity of the music, the piano bursts into flame. In his mind’s eye, he is pulled upward into the stratosphere as his piano gradually swells to the size and proportion of Brazil now engulfed in smoke and flames.

In the decade (1982-1992) before discovering my passion for birds and birdsound, I primarily built large-scale, site-specific architectural structures out of wood. Sighting Wheel I (Artpark 1985), Sighting Wheel II (Sylt, North Sea 1986), and Hadrian Spin-Out (University of Pittsburgh Gallery 1988 and University of West Virginia Gallery 1989) focused on the process of sighting and callibrating the horizon, as well as, in the case of the latter, a whirling-dervish–like structure for music. Sighting Wheel II was constructed on the dunetop ruins of a WWII anti-aircraft bunker on the North Sea island of Sylt. It functioned as a kind of zoetrope-in-reverse that placed the viewer on a rotating seat at the center of its 360 degrees of horizontal image production. The purpose of the bunker was thus deflated through the act of observing the surrounding land-and-sea-scape without either a camera or a gun.

Other works from this period include a structural cantilever system spanning three rooftops at Crossroads School in Santa Monica (Sine Wave, 1986), and a site-specific pedestrian bridge proposal for Pittsburgh (Piers Project, 1991). The latter won a collaborative AIA Design Award. In addition, there were architectural structures for music. Table of Changes (University of Pittsburgh Gallery 1988 and University of West Virginia Gallery 1989  was a large-scale structural chess table based on the I Ching. Agronome (Carnegie Mellon University Gallery 1990) suspended a prepared upright piano on an axle between two eight foot structural wooden wheels. These were turned by a driver/pianist seated on a tractor perch, pedaling the vehicle at a snail’s pace.

Ohio Gauntlet (Three Rivers Arts Festival, Pittsburgh, 1990) was a 725’ walkway and structural wooden tunnel straddling a wall along the Monogahela River at its confluence with the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers. Every twelfth floor board had a number and name of an animal routed into it. This accounting came from Pittsburgh fur trapper George Allen’s 1759  ledger of transactions at this very site along the river. Traders typically exchanged booze for furs with native Americans, getting them drunk and tipping the scales. In this sense, Ohio Gauntlet  was a 725’ long account book of British colonialism.

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With my increasing focus on bird sound and bird extinction as the center of gravity for my artistic projects, a more seamless world of thought and experiential practice has opened up. Catalog of Extinct Birds – a Binomial Requiem both extends the minimalist and contextual strategies of earlier work, and points me in a new direction of structured performance. This direction emerges not only from my thematic appreciation of birds, but also from a general insight best communicated through aesthetic experience. Our words — the very words that help us convert live experience into tame objects — can also serve as a profound and sensual vehicle for reconnecting us with the lost and the sublime.

Michael Pestel is the recipient of the following grants and awards:

2011              Northside Community Arts Grant for Aviary BEBOP and KIDBOP, Pittsburgh
2008/9          Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism: Individual Artist Grant
2007 (Oct)    Ton Matton Grant (Rotterdam, NL) Project: Waiting for Birds
2002/03       Chatham College Research Grant         
2001/02       Asian Cultural Council Grant for Project in Japan (All the Birds in Japan)
2000/01       Pennsylvania Council on the Arts New Genres Grant: Individual Artist Grant
2000 (Fall)    CMU Faculty Grant: Birdhouse, composition for 9 flutes (Nat. Aviary, Pittsburgh)
1999/2000   Sabbatical (Chatham College)
1999 (May)   Chatham College Research Grant: travel and Stray Birds project in Japan
1996/97       Mondriaan Foundation Project Grant: Ornithology/Shadows w/Jeroen van Westen
1994 (Fall)    Carnegie Mellon University Project Grant: Campus Sculpture Design w/students
1993/94       Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship Grant
1992 (July)    United Nations Fund for U.S. Artists in Foreign Festivals (Oldenberg, Germany)
1991              American Institute of Architects Nat’l Design Collaborative Award for Piers Project
1990              Distinquished Presidential Teacher’s Award (Pres.George Bush presiding)
1989/90       Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship Grant
1988/89          National Endowment of the Arts Visual Artists Fellowship Grant