Dave Allen: The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux

August 28—October 26, 2003
Arcadia University Art Gallery


"The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux" (2002) is an installation by Scottish artist Dave Allen (b. 1963, currently living in Berlin) that explores the sources of musical inspiration. The work, which was first presented at the Haller für Kunst, Lüneburg, Germany, is comprised of an aviary, filled with found tree branches and living plants, that will house four starlings, a species renown for its capacity to mimic the sounds of other birds as well as mechanical instruments, including pianos. Adjacent to the aviary is a sound system continuously playing Olivier Messiaen’s experimental piano composition Catalogue d’Oiseaux(1956-58), which employs the musical translation of hundreds of different birdsongs. Over the course of the two-month exhibition period, the four birds learn and reiterate passages of Messiaen’s piece. A highly interdisciplinary work, Allen’s project brings together ornithology, experimental music, and contemporary art to reflect on the human drive to understand, systematize, control, and enjoy natural phenomena.

Dave Allen, The Mirrored Catalogue d'Oiseaux, 2002, an installation at the Halle für Kunst, Lüneburg, Germany.

Jan Verwoert, art critic for Frieze magazine, has referred to Allen’s project as "an experiment about representation in music." Centered around Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, the project actually has its origins in the composer’s structural analysis of field recordings of bird song, which he systematically transcribed into melodic lines for the piano. A recording of the finished work (a performance lasting approximately two hours) is repeatedly played back four times daily for the birds in the gallery. Over time, the four birds absorb and repeat Messiaen’s piece for visitors to the gallery, who, if they visit after the birds have learned the work, are treated to the live sounds of the birds mirroring the music in real time as it is broadcast simultaneously by the loudspeakers.