Had a most beguiling walk through a near-deserted City of London yesterday. On a fine Bank Holiday Monday, there were only a handful of tourists. At times it was like wandering through our own fiefdom, or at least a giant hall of mirrors.
Tower 42, and I can't remember the other buildings... in EC2N.
That’s Tower 42 and, er, some other buildings in EC2N.

We were heading towards the Barbican Centre. In the bright sunshine, the water features and early-1980s buildings caught some hint of what future might have been intended when it was built…

…although in wind and rain, and even just a bit of cloud, it looks pretty bleak… but we agreed you’d probably still live there if money were no object.

Inside the arts centre bit, we queued for about an hour to see an installation thought up by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. Basically, four and twenty zebra finches (ish) are flittering about a walk-through aviary, the which is furnished with amplified bass and six-string guitars, and cymbals with contact mics affixed. The birds fly about, work, nest and play, with a soundscape occurring ‘naturally’ as a consequence of where they land.

Apparently this is a very popular YouTube clip, and it’s been featured on CuteOverload, but I wasn’t aware of this til after… we just saw it in the listings mag and thought we’d have to get along.

And how worth the wait was it? Well, well worth it! The suspense was mounting as the queue edged forward. Numbers allowed in the room at any one time are limited to 25 so as to not freak the birds out, and there was a pretty healthy queue all afternoon, just in case you’re in Landn taahn and thinking of going. The entrance is a chain curtain with a flickering strobe, the entrance passage was darkened and echoing with high trills. We figured this must be to give the birds the illusion of another flock, or a bunch of bats or something, to stop them all just flying off from their enforced ambient session band internment.

Despite the prominent signage forbidding photography, once inside the aviary virtually everyone had their devices out and clicking within 10 seconds. It was really amazing. The birds were fearless, carrying on as if there was nothing at all unusual about the situation. Nests had been constructed in the bridges of the basses (they didn’t seem to like the six-strings in the same way)…
The finches snapped above were sitting on the strings grooming each other. Well, the male ones (coloured) were actually doing all the grooming.

The “soundscapes” were great. It was very relaxing, both in the sense of being so close to these little bundles of life whizzing about, and with the delicate noises coming from the instruments brushed by wing or foot. There was no constant twang-thrum-tishhhh, more kind of abstracted little snippets of sound, perhaps as befits somethings so small and precise. Baths (and feeding) took place on the cymbals, which gave great little washes of sound, the finches never seeming to arrive on their own:

Periodically the finches would all decide to fly about from one spot to another, resulting in neat little pseudo-chords from the random plucking, or leaving one finch to hop about on the strings in what one might fancy was a thoughtful solo. Occasional duets…

Jazz odyssey:

‘…this is Derek Smalls… he wrote this…’

Perhaps the best moment of all was when we were standing next to one of the guitars and a pair of birds just flitted straight on to Julee’s coat, which was folded over her arm.

I had to try and capture it for posterity, and got about three snaps quickly by pretending to read text messages very close to my face. This is the least blurred – sorry for the unflattering angle, Ju! The birdies must have been there for about a couple of minutes, for what purpose we had no idea, but they were clearly fascinated. It was mutual; a very beautiful moment, and I felt throughly Franciscan. The two ladies watching this from the other side of the guitar were greatly enchanted also, their cooing a counterpoint.

After that we gradually made our way out, enjoying animated discussions of exactly how many finches and instruments we would need. There was still a huge queue. Everybody’s heard about the birds…

How the holiday weekend flew by!