THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 7.3

20 Nov


THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: November 19, 2009


Installment 7.3 :: Screen Tests

Searching for clues in this BLACK/BIRD hunt, I was led on a national — and international — goose chase. Below are major discoveries.



Maybe a bird’s mystery is what captures the imagination. Iconic as both a creature capable of bloody dismemberment and an innocuous thing flitting about pewter baths, a bird is sometimes eye candy, watched and admired by binoculared enthusiasts, while other times our eyes are its candy. An ex-NPR music writer references this in her blog post “Pleasant melody or scary scene?” [see BRAZIL].


Birds are apparently so common a musical image, a Vermont Public Radio DJ created a 2-day special program in honor of them, featuring tunes like “When the Swallow Came Back to Capistrano.” The only other person I know in Vermont is also a DJ, the host of Middlebury College’s Breathing Room, and a friend from across the sea.


Is the aural resonance of “bird” especially pleasing? As animal words go, it’s certainly better than “mammal” or “amphibian.” Or is it? I would defer to Roy Blount Jr. on this one, but he didn’t include an etymology of “bird” in Alphabet Juice.


Bluegrass isn’t always political, but for Kathy Mattea, Appalachian music can’t be separated from Appalachian history. On Coal, the singer/activist Mattea collected both rare and widely known coal-mining songs. The song “Red-winged Black Bird” is ultimately the culmination of our two topics (birds and coal), but the issue of musical imagery sorrowfully fades into a too-tangible omen of what already came to be [see 7.1].



One great thing about the current state of music is my ability hear an artist (i.e. The Fifteenth) via a music magazine (i.e. Paste), write to him (i.e. “I need context for the song…”) and actually get a response (i.e. “Timothy, The lyrics are as follows: ‘A robin lay dead…’”) Thanks, Daniel. Wish you the best. P.S. I didn’t forget to check out your drawings [see 7.2. The Fifteenth].



Discussed in 7.2 is the fact that a bird’s appearance in music seems to connote The South. Perhaps this is due to the mockingbird, which, thanks to Harper Lee, induces a southern setting and went platinum as an iconic American image. Jack Temple Kirby, who passed away a few months ago, seems to endorse this in his compendium of the region’s personality, Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South.


The documentary, Black Gold, a showing of which I covered for my college newspaper, discusses not coal or petroleum, but the Ethiopian coffee industry. A few days ago, I was talking to a Chicago-based roaster and found out he’s met Tadesse Meskela, the “star” of Black Gold. While the film is used to promote Fair Trade, Meskela told my friend he’s “looking for direct [trade].”


The other day my friend Kati asked for reading recommendations. I didn’t know what to say. I have a hard time giving suggestions. Besides, this is the girl who told me about Nicole Krauss. How can you top that? I only had one title: Actual Air [see ILLINOIS].



In a few days, I fly out to San Jose, the California city that last year gave birth to the controversial, African-American web browser Blackbird. To the north, in San Francisco, a notoriously heady literary journal published a diagram titled “A Tree of Literary Birds,” suggesting the animal’s as iconic in literature as it is in music.



We started a writer’s group. We first assigned ourselves to “write in the style of an author you admire.” I chose David Berman, which took me to Borders’ poetry section, where I came across Wallace Stevens: I do not know which to prefer / the beauty of inflections / or the beauty of innuendoes / the blackbird whistling / or just after [see COLORADO].



Perhaps we’re as fascinated by flight as we ever were. Then again, reading about French aviator/author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, I’d have to argue the opposite. Compared to his giddy obsession, we’re awash with apathy, or worse, loathing. Airports are draining, security measures irritating, the whole process one that is endured for the destination, not the feeling of flying.


Jarbas Agnelli didn’t write a song about birds. Some birds wrote a song for him. Having seen a photograph of crows on telephone wires in a newspaper, Agnelli noticed that the lines seemed to form a musical staff, the crows the notes upon it. He cut out the picture, wrote out what the birds represented, and recorded it. [see NEW YORK].


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