Earth's Great Symphony

Award-winning saxophonist Paul Winter turns a fascination with bird migration and the natural world into music about flyways.

For two decades Grammy Award–winning saxophonist Paul Winter has been fascinated by birds’ yearly migrations. Working with colleagues, Winter researched the phenomenon and translated it into music. Flyways, a melodic tale of birds moving from Europe and the Middle East over the Rift Valley into wintering grounds in southeast Africa, comes to New York on March 16 and 17 (the Flyways album will be available in fall). He’ll follow that with a sequel about North American flyways—a collaboration with the National Audubon Society and BirdLife International—slated for album release in 2013.

What inspired you to feature wildlife in your work?

My involvement with the music of the natural world began around ’68, when I heard the songs of the humpback whales. The recordings of the whales really opened the door to what I think of now as the greater symphony of the earth.

You’ve said you’re not a birder. Why compose music about bird migration?

In Israel, in the early ’90s, this man came up to us after a concert. He was a researcher and asked if we’d be interested in seeing a video of his work flying with migrating birds. I was intrigued.

The next year he arranged for us to come back and fly in a motorized glider from Galilee, in the north of Israel, with the migrating storks. We would go up in the glider—piloted by a former Air Force pilot—turn off the motor and soar with the storks. Just like the first time I [heard the] whales, this was a life-changing experience. From that came a vision to do a musical chronicle of the birds’ journey.

How do you translate bird migration into music?

One aspect is to find in some of the bird songs a theme that we can play on our instruments and develop in a musical way. So there’s that relationship between what we play and the bird song. [For birds that aren’t vocal], you can aspire to evoke the emotion—that slow-motion, graceful, spiral-ballet of the birds when they’re soaring.

Is Flyways about education, pure musical enjoyment, or something else altogether?

It’s about many things. Awakening awareness is one of the first things on our minds. Celebrating the miracle of this migration, which is extraordinary. Making people more aware of that and how astounding it is that these birds can converge—thousands of members of the species, like storks or honey buzzards—on the same day and head south together.

Can you describe your relationship with Audubon?

Audubon sponsored our concert at Carnegie Hall in September ’78, when we were on tour with a wolf, at the time of our Common Ground album. We had the wolf on stage and asked the audience to acknowledge the wolf’s millions of years of musical heritage by howling to him. He put up his muzzle and howled back. It was most likely the first time a wolf had sung in Carnegie Hall. Audubon was kind of there in the beginning of this work celebrating nature with music. [Editor’s note: Winter was also the subject of a profile by field editor Frank Graham in the July-August 1978 Audubon, just after Winter released Common Ground.]

What is nature’s takeaway lesson?

We Homo sapiens are the youngest of all the nine million species of life on earth. It’s not a symbolic statement; it’s literally true. All of those that are surviving now have found some way to live in harmony with their world or they wouldn’t have survived. We haven’t yet learned to do that. So the jury is out on our survival.

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