Behind the Birdsong Project: Alex Somers

Alex Somers. Foto: Bella Howard

Before it won a GRAMMY for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package, For The Birds: The Birdsong Project was a seed of an idea from co-creators Randall Poster and Rebecca Reagan. It was their initial pitch that drew in the more than 200 musical artists, visual artists, and actors who participated in the project—including musician Alex Somers. The unprecedented scale of the endeavor immediately hooked Somers: “The Birdsong Project was so massive that people from so many different music communities had at least one friend who was a part of it.” He knew he had to be one of those participants and felt confident putting his work into the hands of Randall Poster, a renowned creative mind who Somers describes as always thinking “outside the box.” 

But Somers’s history with birdsong goes much further back; he has been using field recordings in his music since he was a teenager. From a young age, Somers was interested in creating musical sounds using non-musical instruments such as pots and pans. He describes how he and his brother would drum on their kitchenware or walk around recording any auditory input they found worthwhile, which they would then play around with on an electronic sampler. “Opening your ears up to alternate sound sources is something that I really enjoy.” 

This led to one of his first introductions to Audubon, through a set of field recordings that have become famous in the sampling world. “I think the National Audubon Society has been doing important work for a long time.”

When approached to participate in The Birdsong Project, this personal history played a key role in his excitement about the assignment. “When Randall told me about the project, he said it was very wide open, you can do anything you want, can be inspired by it.” Somers was immediately drawn to the idea of a piece anchored in field recordings. More specifically, he became interested in finding the oldest field recording of birdsong. 

This is where the title for Somers’s piece stems from—“May 18, 1929 – Lost.” It references the date of this original field recording and conveys the sense that this moment has both been lost to time while also being preserved by technology. “It was cool—it was quite short. But it sounded amazing. Because as you can imagine, the recording technology at that time was very primitive. In my other work, I’m really interested in primitive recording technology and using it and how it sounds. I just get thrilled by that and love that kind of stuff.”

From a technical aspect, Somers describes that he created a stereo field recording and began processing the recording through convolution reverb until a little overtone came out of it. He would duplicate this and apply the same effect again, repeatedly, until he built “a little ambient environment.” As he continued experimenting with this process, he began to hear a chord progression which he wrote underneath the birdsong. 

“It was kind of like playing with that moment, like going 100 years back in time and playing with that environment.” Somers felt inspired to imagine what that moment must have been like and hopes this wistfulness comes through in the piece. 

Beyond their acoustic talents, birds speak to Somers on a deeper level. “At the risk of just sounding cliché, it’s just so incredible that they fly…It’s just such a metaphor for freedom, moving in any direction at any moment.” He appreciates how ubiquitous and accessible they are for all people: “They’re beautiful. They’re interesting. They’re everywhere.” 

After spending his earlier years in Baltimore and Boston, in 2005 Somers moved to Iceland where he lived for 12 years and collaborated with Icelandic artists including Jónsi of renowned band Sigur Rós. “The landscape is very brutal and harsh and unforgiving. There’s very little wildlife other than birds,” he says, noting how ravens there are very much revered and a part of the folklore.

After Iceland, Somers moved to Los Angeles where he now resides and which he describes as being the opposite landscape and environment as Reykjavík. Despite it being a very metropolitan city, Somers found an LA home that has allowed him to connect more deeply to nature than ever. 

“There’s just so much bird life, I love it,” he says. “As soon as you’re awake, you’re just in birdsong.” Many mornings he’ll hear a new bird’s song and make a recording, saving it for future musical experimentation. “I just enjoy the soundscape of it. Sometimes I’ll put on field recordings of birds in my house, so you can’t tell what’s happening inside or outside.”

As for the legacy and future of The Birdsong Project, Somers hopes “it encourages people to maybe make small donations every to groups like Audubon that are doing good things for the planet, and maybe encourage people to make small changes in their life to just be more conscious of the planet and its wildlife.” The power of art to drive conservation isn’t to be underestimated, he says. “Sometimes even thinking something sparks change.”