Reimagining the Birds With Doug Wieselman

I love birdsong more than most, but Doug Wieselman’s new album, WA-Zoh, twists those lovely sounds into a fascinating and mysterious sound world. Through a range of post-processing and combined with various reeded instruments, Wieselman creates an album full of approachable yet alien sounds. WA-Zoh will alter listeners’ perception of familiar environments, leaving us hypnotized and curious about the possibilities yet to unfold. It’s an absolute delight.

WA-Zoh is out now on figureight

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.

I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

I was always drawn to music as far as I can remember. I was obsessed with records. As a little kid, one of my parents would sit me down on the floor with a stack of 78s, and I’d be happy. I even made cardboard records to put on the turntable of a mix master.

I also experienced music live – like in our living room, either my father playing with a string quartet of his friends, he was an amateur ’cello player – or people playing guitar and mandolins and maybe a banjo. My parents were sort of “folkies.” So, the live thing stuck with me.

Growing up, did you always want to be a musician?

I think so. I was a little scared of the idea – as I started out as a history major in college, but soon realized I was doing myself a disservice by not majoring in music – so I switched to that after a quarter. 

What eventually drew you to reeded instruments specifically? Did you start with saxophone or clarinet?

I started with the clarinet at age 9. In my school, they handed out a mimeographed piece of paper with a list of instruments and asked us to choose one. I think I chose clarinet because we had a record of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with the great Leopold Wlach (who’s sound I still love), which I loved. My young Junior High School teacher got me to play the saxophone at 13 – as she wanted to put together a “stage band.”

So this new record, WA-Zoh, is extraordinary and something I connected with on many levels. Before getting into the record specifically, I wanted to know where your interest in natural sounds and using them as part of compositions began. I read that you studied with James Tenney and that he was a significant influence with this, but I’d love to know about how you came to study with him and in what ways he opened your ears to, I guess, new ways of listening?

James Tenney taught for only 2 years at UC Santa Cruz, where I was going to school. I took a composition course with him, which really opened my head.  

One of the exercises we did over the course of the class was a set of instructions:

  •  Pick a location and just listen
  •  Write down what you are hearing in any way that you’d like
  •  Make a notation system out of what you have written down.
  •  Make a piece using that notation system
  •  Perform that piece

It was so simple and so profound. Also, he said – if you ever get stuck when you are writing a piece, go back to what it was that got you to start writing the piece in the first place. Also, very simple and profound.  

Where did the ideas for WA-Zoh’s concept first begin? You’ve been recording birdsong for a while, right? Was there always an intention in the back of your mind to use then for something like this?

Yes, I always wanted to do something with birdsong. I became more serious after recording the birds in Pere Lachaise in Paris. They were so beautiful and unusual. The first recordings included on the record actually came from Pt. Reyes in Northern California two years before that. I wasn’t sure about how to build something with the recordings. I started off with the idea of “sampling” them, but I realized that that wasn’t right. Eventually, I figured out the slowing down thing, with which I’d already played around. I heard some slowed-down birds some years back, which blew my mind.

Also, I knew I wanted to use Ableton Live for processing. I’d been using that for years but didn’t really know what I was doing. My friend, guitarist Dave Harrington, came over once and gave me a great tutorial that helped me get going.

What sonic qualities draw you to birdsong, and do you find so interesting and inspiring?

I guess I’ve been attracted to the crazy melodies I’d been hearing. Also,

as a kid growing up in Southern California, we had beautiful mourning doves I’d hear on foggy days – and wild mockingbirds.

I have heard a lot of music with birdsong recordings through the years (and, really, can never hear enough!), but WA-Zoh is so unlike any of them. It’s remarkable in the way it takes these familiar, natural sounds and creates new and different worlds from them. It really opened my ears to a new world of possibilities with music like this. I’m curious, though, how did making this record push you and change how you hear and think about sounds like birdsong? 

It didn’t really change my perception, only deepened my sense and, I guess, respect for it. In slowing the birds down, I could identify more specifically what was happening.  

How did you decide or figure out which species or type of birdsong would work for particular pieces? Did you start with the bird sounds and compose and build out arrangements from there, or was it the other way around in figuring out what specific recordings worked in particular arrangements?

No regard for species – just place and where I happened to have had a recorder. Also, if I was in a place for a while and heard the birds, and it was spring, I’d make a point of going out when it was quiet and make numerous recordings. This was most evident in Luxembourg, where I worked for a few weeks. I then would listen to various recordings and make notes as to the ones where I thought they had the most interesting and clear (recording-wise) songs. I’d then pick phrases from the recordings and start slowing them down. Then I’d transcribe the melodies and try and make sense of how they would relate to each other. Then I’d start playing around with more processing in Ableton. Next, I’d put them in Logic and start constructing a piece. In that process, I’d start to get a sense of what might sound good with those songs and what instruments as well. All the material that I played on instruments was drawn from the transcribed melodies. Also, for each piece – all the phrases are slowed down at the same rate – so the relationship of the various phrases, particularly if there are multiple birds, remains true. 

Photo by Lucie Jansch

What were some of the biggest challenges with WA-Zoh?

Getting started. Once I figured out how to work on it, it started to flow. Also, the pandemic gave me the gift of time – as I wasn’t working for other people, either as an arranger or touring musician.

What surprised you the most about making this record?

Just the fact of making a coherent piece out of the material. 

This is a bit tangential, but I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in recent years and how human activity and climate change affect bird habitats. For me, it makes capturing and sharing these sounds (especially in new, inventive ways) so much more vital because some of these sounds may not exist in the future. How do you think music and sound work can be an essential medium in thinking about and creating awareness for ideas like this?

I don’t know how this is specifically related to climate change, but my work, in general, is about trying to get people aware of the profound beauty and gifts of the natural world. By trying to point to either what I hear in the water or with the birds, I hope to change people’s perception of the world, with the hope that they will treat the gifts of this amazing planet with more respect and maybe even awe. It’s more the abuse of the environment -which, of course, as led to climate change – that I’d like to help change. 

What enjoyment or inspiration do you get from recording birdsong or sounds from the natural world more generally? 

I get a lot of enjoyment from the natural sounds in the world. It is a great source of pleasure and connection.

Do you have any plans to perform these pieces in the near future?

The engineer who helped do the final mixes on this album, Phil Weinrobe, suggested getting in touch with a multi-channel person. The idea would be to take stems from the multi-track – spread them over multi-channels (multi speakers), and have me perform my parts live along with those tracks. This may take years to really make happen, but at least I have the idea. I have yet to find that multi-channel person, but I have some leads. 

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.