Terry Tempest Williams, an author and environmental activist, on bird song, Keith Jarrett and slowing down.

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

March 31, 2021

For a series of conversations about music with nonmusicians, I am swapping songs: exchanging pieces with my interlocutors to spark ideas about how their areas of expertise might relate to organized sound.

Terry Tempest Williams is an author and environmental activist whose work celebrates the red-rock deserts of Utah, where she calls home. Her most recent book, “Erosion: Essays of Undoing,”describes the personal and political repercussions of the depredation of public lands.

For our chat, I chose the “Abyss of the Birds” section from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” She picked “First (Solo Voice)” from Keith Jarrett’s “Invocations.” These are edited excerpts from the interview.

In your book “When Women Were Birds,” you describe childhood memories of your grandmother creating candlelit listening parties, where she would play records for you and your brother. They included classical music, but also field recordings of bird song.

That’s why I picked the clarinet solo from Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” first performed in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1941; it has stretches of desolate, sustained long notes alongside transcriptions of bird song.

I hear it as breath. I knew the story before I knew the music, and I was struck by how, in the presence of war, you could have two minds: one watching out for the enemy and one listening for the call of a blackbird or a mockingbird. And when I first heard it, I was just devastated by the beauty.

That first note appears to come out of nowhere and then builds through the power of one breath. Especially now, in the time of coronavirus, as a country we can’t breathe. We can’t breathe because of the virus. We can’t breathe because of politics, because of the Black and brown bodies that are being killed on the streets. And here, there is that one opening breath, and at the beginning, it feels like melancholy, it feels like a lament. But then as it progresses, there is that building of the silence to voice that becomes a lighter voice, the voice of birds, a fluttering and flourishing.

The clarinet sets vibrations in motion so subtly that by the time we notice them as sound, they’ve already wormed their way into us.

It also felt like light. I had heard that the piece was created at dawn, so this morning, I took my music outside and sat in the desert. As light spread, against that building of voice, it felt like the music mirrored the dawn itself. And I was absolutely stunned by the birds that were drawn in. The robins were the first ones. At moments, I couldn’t tell: Was that a fluttering from Messiaen or a fluttering from the robins? Then starlings came in, and it was almost like they were trying to copy the music, and then the desert mourning doves came in. And then the larks took over.

Sitting in this grove of junipers, I thought about Messiaen and his musicians creating this music in a time of such confinement — and that is the power of community.

Messiaen was a Catholic who believed in eternity as something both comforting and terrifying. As someone who fights for the preservation of wilderness, to what extent do you also have to think of time outside of how it is measured by humans?

I was a child in 1962, when my grandmother read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” We were in her garden putting seeds in bird feeders. And she said, “Terry, can you imagine a world without bird song?” It was a terrifying thought. Birds allow us to be present in the moment, but they also link me to a time before the human record and to what will be as we live our own apocalypse in terms of climate collapse. So they’re an arrow pointing in both directions.

Messiaen said, “It is in a spirit of no confidence in myself, or I mean in the human race, that I have taken bird songs as a model.” And he goes on to talk about the “sovereign freedom” of birds.

That is a beautiful paradox I hear in his music. Birds are the ultimate symbol of freedom. They are also the symbol of presence. They hold their past, and we pray that they will carry the earth into the future. Here he was a devout Catholic, and yet he sought his spiritual source not from God but from God’s creation.

The classic instrument to represent a bird would be the flute, but here it’s brought down a few octaves. It’s mediated, or translated.

He slows their song down so we can really hear. And birds feel like they are the mediators between us and heaven. I also think that since birds travel within the realm of air, to choose a clarinet, a single reed instrument that requires breath, is such a beautiful manifestation.

I was really touched by the piece you chose. While the Messiaen exists in this pure darkness with no echo coming back, Keith Jarrett’s saxophone solo plays with the acoustics of the German abbey where it was recorded, a man-made space designed for transcendence.

The two pieces feel interlinked. They’re both single-reed, solo voices. One is highly composed, the other born of improvisation. And both of them felt like invocations. With Keith Jarrett’s solo, it was the echo that moved me most. This energetic vibration that I feel especially attuned to now as we are a year into a pandemic that we first thought was a pause and we now know is a place. The echoes we feel in our isolation, our own solo voices.

Jarrett invites us to ask how well can we live with uncertainty. He offers us a path of improvisation, and the echo turns it into a call and response.

At the heart of improvisation is listening. Jarrett is listening to the echoes, to the spaces in between his notes. You can almost hear him wondering: What happens if I push this note through the resonance trail of the last one, like concentric smoke rings? Can I smudge the difference between the note I play in this moment and the residue that’s still lingering from the previous one?

It’s in the listening that you open up creative space. I was astonished by a passage about two minutes and 50 seconds in, where the music builds to this fullness. For a while, I lost all track of time.

That’s where he stays on one note and bends the pitch. It develops these microtonal inflections that no longer belong to Western music. He allows the note to wilt and revive. He seems to be exploring the spaces in between notes.

If someone were to say, “Tell me where you live, what do you experience,” I would point to this piece. It is this spaciousness. It is the echo of wall against wall in the narrow confines of these red-rock canyons.

Both of these pieces are filled with memory. How do we access that? For me the bridge is silence and stillness.

As harrowing and as grief-filled as this pandemic has been, it has brought us to this place of slowing down and listening. And that has been part of the blessing. If we are going to survive, that is what is required.


  1. Robert S. Berger
    4 years ago
    A Messiaen premiere in a German prisoner of war camp: The modern French composer Olivier Messiaen played the piano part in one of the strangest premiere performances of the 20th century on January 15, 1941. As the composer put it: “My Quartet for the End of Time was conceived and written during my captivity as a prisoner of war and received its world premiere at Stalag 8a in Görlitz, Silesia.” One of the four performers was cellist Etienne Pasquier, who offered this recollection: “We were captured at Verdun. Our entire company was initially held in a large field near Nancy. Among our comrades was a clarinetist who had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen started to write a piece for him while we were still in this field as he was the only person there with an instrument. And so Messiaen wrote a solo piece that was later to become the third movement of the Quartet. The clarinetist practiced in the open field and I acted as his music stand. The piece seemed to him to be too difficult from a technical point of view and he complained about it to Messiaen. “You’ll manage,’ was Messiaen’s only reply.” Pasquier reports that the performance was a great success, and led to the release of Messiaen and his three colleagues, as the Germans assumed-wrongly, it turns out-that the four musicians must have all been non-combatants

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