Title: What do the Birds Think?
Year Completed: 2002
Duration: 22 mins
Instrumentation: flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, cello
Premiere: March 1, 2003, Scotiabank Dance Centre, Vancouver; Helikon Ensemble.

Purchase/Rent: Canadian Music Centre

What do the Birds Think? was awarded a special mention for the Kubik Prize. It has been performed by the Helikon Ensemble, the Group for Contemporary Music in New York City, the Xanthos Ensemble from Boston, and at Shattering the Silence 2011, with the Nothin’ But Gnarly Ensemble.

The seed of inspiration for this composition comes from the poem by Al Purdy entitled, "What do the Birds Think?" The composition does not quote the poem in any absolute form but rather embraces an abstract concept of nostalgia, remembrance, migration, birdcalls and isolated place. The overall form of the composition is like an arch. Originally there was to be 7 movements; the 1st and 7th, the 2nd and 6th, and the 3rd and 5th having some relationship to one another. This would then leave a lone 4th movement. What eventually happened was that the 7th movement was dropped leaving the arch incomplete. The 1st movement was then doubled in length and the ending of the 6th movement leaves a lone cello hanging in space waiting for the elusive 7th movement. All 6 movements are also connected by a series of proportions 3/4, 1/2, 3/2, 4/5, 4/3 (if there had been a 7th movement, 2/1). The 1st movement 'remembrance' works through a series of pitches that are triggered by the piano and percussion and sustained (remembered) by the other 4 instruments. This movement can stand alone as a complete composition. The 2nd and 6th movements have much in common since the phrase structures were based entirely on a pre-compositional 'filtering' of the poem, letter by letter, which gave the units of time for rests and sound. I took the numbers 7, (for the 7 instruments - counting piano as 2) 5 for the number of basic divisional units of the poem and 11 for the number of units within the total 5. This resulted in a series of 55 sounding phrases and 55 units of rest for each of the 7 instruments in each of the two movements. I then erased some of the phrase units shifting the time in-between to get closer or farther apart depending on the overall structural format I was searching for. All other material was then generated after the structural component was laid down. This was further filtered but the outcome of movements 2 and 6 is achieved; seemingly random phrase units that play off one another but are teleological in nature and, in particular, lead us into the 3rd and non-existing 7th movement with a certain amount of energy. The 3rd and 5th movements both use a reworking of the filtered poem from movements 2 for the flute, clarinet, and violin or bass flute, violin and cello in movement 5. This reworking plays its self out in the 3rd movement as a high pitch, very active layer that begins just before the entrance of the cello solo and ends after movement 4 has begun off stage. This same material is then transposed down in pitch, in retrograde motion and the lines of rhythm are blurred for all of movement 5 where the piano takes on the solo roll that the cello had in Movement 3. This time the ensemble is muted, continuing as if in the distance and still off stage. In keeping with the isolated nature of the central pivotal movement 4, the bass clarinet and percussionist perform off stage and out of site from the audience. The bass clarinet plays material that is generated from the other 5 movements as the percussionist accompanies on a scaled down array of instruments extracted from the main set.


"Among four newer pieces, only Derek Charke’s “What Do the Birds Think?” could be said to extend the modernist tradition. The work’s animated outer movements call for a catalog of unorthodox expressive techniques. In between, an onstage trio (alto flute with muted violin and cello) is juxtaposed with an offstage duo (bass clarinet and percussion). While physical separation was impossible here, the layered sounds still proved fascinating." – Steve Smith, The New York Times

"Structure is important to Derek Charke... Although his description of What Do the Birds Think? is almost impossibly complex, the results would be engaging no matter how they were created." – Bruce Hodges, Seen and Heard International Concert Review


1 flute - doubles piccolo and bass flutes
1 Bb clarinet - doubles Eb soprano and offstage Bb bass clarinet
1 violin
1 cello
1 piano
1 or 2 percussion

derek charke what do the birds think

Derek Charke In Sonorous Falling Tones Cover