Wilson's Ivory Bill (2002)

for piano, tape, baritone
By Lee Hyla

Wilson’s Ivory-bill is a piece for baritone voice, piano, and a field recording of an ivory-billed woodpecker. The recording used was made in 1935 in Louisiana by a team of scientists from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The ivory-bill, the largest North American woodpecker at 20” in length, is presumed to be extinct- the last fully confirmed sighting in the U.S. was in the early forties, although unconfirmed sightings continue to be reported every twenty years or so (as recently as April 1, 1999). There was a confirmed sighting in Cuba in 1986. Deforesting, hunting, and its own particularly stubborn inability to adapt are considered the main reasons for its demise. The text of Wilson’s Ivory-bill is taken from Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology which was published in several volumes between 1804 and 1814. Wilson was a transplanted Scotsman who traveled in the eastern United States painting and chronicling birds and their habitat several years before Audubon’s better known work in this field. Numerous birds, in fact, are named after Wilson, including Wilson’s Warbler and Wilson’s Storm Petrel. The text describes Wilson shooting but only wounding the ivory- bill, taking it to his hotel room in order to paint it for inclusion in his catalogue, and the dire consequences which resulted. It also conveys a sense of Wilson’s evolving and intense relationship to the bird. The music also attempts to engage the performers in evolving relationships, at times quite separate and at times unified. The first ensemble appearance of the woodpecker occurs about halfway through the piece with a duo for piano and ivory-bill which lasts about a minute. This is followed by a series of duos and trios as the action heats up, and these in turn are followed by a return to the voice-piano duo. The piece concludes with a coda for solo piano.

Wilson’s Ivory-bill was commissioned by the FleetBoston Celebrity Series, and is dedicated to the baritone Mark McSweeney and the pianist Judith Gordon. —Lee Hyla

Other works by Lee Hyla:
“Once when father (George Ives) was asked: 'How can you stand it to hear old John Bell (who was the best stonemason in town) bellow off-key the way he does at camp-meetings?' his answer was: 'Old John is a supreme musician. Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a heroic ride to Heaven on pretty little sounds!'”
--Charles Ives