Michael Pestel (right) directs a workshop that uses bird sounds and movement to create art. (Photo/Jeanette Lee)

At the center of a small circle of uncharacteristically silent children, a statuette of a wide-eyed owl spins slowly atop a wooden turntable.

As the owl turns to face one young boy, he raises a set of bells and shakes them vigorously. When the owl begins to turn away, he stops, and the girl beside him clacks on the keys of a typewriter. Each child in the circle takes their turn to create a unique sound at the cue of this rotating owl.

“Andrew, what did you hear?” asks musician and visual artist Michael Pestel.

“A kind of pattern,” Andrew says tentatively.

“Is that sound music too?”

“Yeah.” 

Led by Pestel, this sound exercise is part of a program called BEBOP (Big Experimental Bird Orchestra of Pittsburgh) and KIDBOP (Kids Incredibly Daring Bird Orchestra of Pittsburgh), a series of free bird-sound and movement workshops funded by the Charm Bracelet Project, Mattress Factory, National Aviary and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

The BEBOP workshops were designed for adults, while KIDBOP is open to children between seven and 15 years old.

The workshops will culminate in five multi-disciplinary performances at the Mattress Factory or National Aviary.

Pestel, who calls himself the “Johnny Cash of aviaries,” has performed live with birds in aviaries around the world and built sound installations related to birdsong and bird extinction.

He is joined by musician Ben Opie and Butoh dancer Taketeru Kudo to not only “guide participants toward discovering their own strengths as individual artists,” but also help them become “a unified ensemble attuned to the possibility of interspecies communication through sound, music, movement and image.”

“We’re here to communicate with the neighborhood of birds that are here all the time but we’re not always aware of it,” said Pestel.

Pestel said he expects to attract more professional musicians at the adult BEBOP workshops. He will talk about his personal experiences listening to birds, and teach participants to “enter into the dialogue without overpowering” the birds.

When asked why he was so captivated by the sounds of birds, Pestel said that birdsong was an “omnipresent sound in our lives” that is especially special because it is “so musical.”

He doesn’t keep birds as pets, however, because he has a “conflicting relationship with birds in cages.” He prefers to go to the birds instead, whether at aviaries or the simple outdoors.

Pestel’s interest in birds began in 1992 during his first performance at the National Aviary. He recited a list of extinct birds and followed each announcement with a brief tune on the flute, a tribute to the sounds that were lost when the species died out.

As he played, Pestel noticed that the birds in the aviary were responding to his short tunes, and was struck with a “sense of shared sound space.”

“I had such great experiences in this sound-scape that I began to bring other people into it,” said Pestel.

BEBOP and KIDBOP are part of an effort to accomplish just that.

Though some instruments are provided, workshop participants are invited to bring their own musical instruments, invent their own, or use their voices and bodies to create sound and movement.

The schedule for the performances can be found at www.mattressfactory.org and www.aviary.org.

Jeanette Lee is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University studying Professional Writing and Investigative Journalism.