- Kevin Schwitters
Micky Torpedo and Sinnissippi Audubon join forces to create music for the birds!
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Birdsongs, Volume 1 - Sounds of the Mississippi Flyway is a collection of original compositions, inspired by specific birdcalls of species that travel within the Mississippi Flyway. It's a collaborative effort, meant to honor the species and educate the listener. Let's find out how this project came together.
Click image to purchase album!
Guest writer, Kevin Schwitters, sits down with Micky Torpedo and Sinnissippi Audubon Society President, Jennifer Kuroda, to learn about the creation of this album and more about the Sinnissippi Audubon mission.
Kevin Schwitters: What a cool project. Tell me about the first step each of you made in making this?
Jennifer Kuroda: I had listened those four Seasons Cycle albums that he (Micky) did. I came to him and said every time I listen to that (makes a general gesture), I think there should be a bird right there. So I originally proposed the idea of him adding the bird songs to his music, but he came up with the whole album concept.
Micky Torpedo: I forgot about that. I remember you proposing that idea and I remember thinking for a second, “how could I do that in an interesting way?” Then I immediately thought, “forget that, let’s do an entire album!”
KS: That’s interesting. So your music, Micky, inspired Jennifer to incorporate her own interests of birds into your music?
Micky Torpedo, image taken by Dana Rosenquist
KS: That gave him the idea and he ran with it. That’s cool. I really like the concept of transposing the bird songs themselves into actual music. It seems to me like it would be a little difficult and different from the normal songwriting process. What I was really curious about after listening to it, was the process similar for each bird or was it radically different?
MT: It was fairly different for each species but also somewhat similar. When I’m working on song ideas, I’ve learned to not overthink things. I’m always trying different paths in. Like if I have a guitar next to me in a different tuning, I might grab it and let the fingers go. And I might think, that’s cool, or not, but it’s a quick exploration without much thought. I took that approach with much of the Birdsong compositions, just with more varied instrumentation. With the specific species, I listened to the samples that Jennifer secured from Cornell (University Lab of Ornithology). What, we had 11 or 13?
JK: Yeah, I think so.
MT: Either way, I asked for more than I thought we would need because not every idea will work. I expected a couple won’t make the cut. So I started going through and listening to them (species samples), focusing on the different musical elements; rhythm, tonal center, pitch, timbre. Some (species) actually have a melody and a key center but some... like Bobolink, that was crazy (everyone laughs). I remember thinking this’ll probably be the first one cut, but it turned out to be one of my favorites, and I totally stumbled into that. But even Bobolink had a tonal center, it’s just very chaotic.
But you know, I’ll sit down and try an idea. Maybe spend 10 or 20 minutes on some random morning after dropping my kids at school. If the idea doesn’t work but I feel there’s potential, I might revisit later in the day, or the next morning. But I continually circle back, sometimes with a different instrument, or with a different approach in mind. After a handful of times doing that, usually the path forward presents itself, I guess. And when there’s no path forward, that usually becomes obvious fairly quickly.
KS: Yes, the Bobolink. It’s interesting you brought that up as being difficult because I felt that it starts off so sparsely. Like you eventually play a lot of notes, of course, but it starts off so patient and calm. It doesn’t seem like one that I’d hear and think it would’ve been a struggle.
MT: I tried to balance, like, what sounds interesting. What is true to the species call, but is it listenable? I could slam a bunch of notes on a piano but that’s not appealing necessarily. So I think, how can I make this enjoyable when there’s so much chaos in the birdcall? Obviously I found a way to make it work that I was happy with, but if I were to create a literal translation of the Bobolink call, that’s uh… (everyone laughs). As an artist, you have some wiggle room there with interpretation, thankfully.
"I tried to balance, like, what sounds interesting. What is true to the species call, but is it listenable? I could slam a bunch of notes on a piano but that’s not appealing, necessarily. So I think, how can I make this enjoyable when there’s so much chaos in the birdcall?"
KS: As songwriters we’re always thinking about setup and pay off. You have this clean slate in front of you. But I like that you started with something specific and you followed them (species samples) a lot more closely than I expected. Sometimes the birdcall would start and then there’d be a couple different movements within it and you’d be patient to bring up something from the birdcall, but not until much later in the song. You’d have these parts and stretch them out, but hear a longer representation of it, just stretched out in a longer song. So during your process, was that difficult to hear? Did you think you were doing more work than people would notice, or was it your goal to stay as true as possible to the birdcall?
MT: Other than making it sound appealing to a listener, I tried not to over think it. I go with my gut on whether an idea is working or not. But really it’s about taking those musical elements and finding an interesting way to weave them together.
Say I have a nice (birdcall) melody to work with, that melody in and of itself is great and I can expand that out. But with a lot of these samples, that’s not the case. I kind of had go back and think a little deeper on the directions I can go. When I’d get stuck, I’d think of the compositions and theory classes from NIU (Northern Illinois University) days, and revisit some of the compositional ideas I studied there. I used to sit and analyze different musical passages and how they (the composer) take a simple melody and invert the idea, or slowly move through each note of that melody as a tonal center for a different section. It’s almost like you’re stacking multi-dimensional layers of expanded and contracted versions of the same musical idea. Then you have these interesting waves that either compliment each other, or don’t. And sometimes either is what you’re trying to achieve.
"... take a simple melody and invert the idea, or slowly move through each note of that melody as a tonal center for a section. It’s almost like you’re stacking multi-dimensional layers of expanded and contracted versions of the same musical idea. Then you have these interesting waves that either compliment each other, or don’t. And sometimes either is what you’re trying to achieve."
KS: Yeah, sure.
MT: A really nice aspect of this project was that I was never worried that Jen (Jennifer Kuroda) would be like, “what’s this garbage?” (everyone laughs) If something wasn’t working, I was sure she’d kind of, um, gently speak up on it, but I felt absolute creative freedom with this and I appreciated that, for sure.
JK: Well, I don’t know that you’d had much choice with the bird songs that I gave you because I went through the Cornell (Lab of Ornithology) Library and picked them all out and said "here you go!”
MT: But I appreciated that.
MT: I find it much easier to create when I have a smaller box to live in. With too many options, I find it overwhelming to try and figure out where to start.
JK: But if you had heard the Bobolink first, you might’ve said no thanks! (everyone laughs)
Jennifer Kuroda, image taken by Cristobal Manzano
KS: Jennifer, you mentioned that you heard the need for birds in Micky’s music, or thought that would compliment it. Are you always hearing music in nature? Is that part of why this project came about? Are you hearing the musicality of not just birds, but other elements of nature while hiking, walking around, or bird watching?
JK: I think so. As a birder, I think, first you learn to identify by sight. Then as you get better, though I’m not the best birder by sounds, I know plenty of birders who can go out there and identify the birds by sound before they see it. I’m not that great at all species, especially Warblers, but I think it’s very interesting to go out in nature and hear all the sounds out there.
That was another hard thing in searching the Cornell Library to find the right bird songs (species samples). You know, nature recordings are complex because there’s just so much other background noise happening, and to get a clear recording was difficult. So it took some time to go through the library and find usable recordings. But some of those field recordings are from the 1950s and you can hear the guys talking. It was really cool to listen.
KS: Oh, wow.
JK: One of them speaking was one of the founding professors at Cornell. You can hear him talking, and I wondered if at the time they were making these recordings, would they’ve thought in 2022 there’d be an album using the recordings he was making?
MT: And I thought while listening, it’s wild, the 1950s recording technology. Someone probably had to carry around some heavy recording gear and bring a power source out in the field. And it’s cool they had the idea to go out there and capture these samples. Very forward thinking.
KS: Micky, did this process change how you hear nature now? Are you more open to the idea that there’s music out there? Or what we might not traditionally think of as music?
MT: Yes, definitely. I’m guilty of moving way too fast, I know many of us are. But having this project helped me reflect on that a bit. I’ve always enjoyed kayaking, bike riding, and occasionally running when I’m in the right mindset. Even today, I went for a run by the YMCA. There were a large group of small birds, not sure the species. But they were right in my path and I stopped to not disrupt them and we hung a while. It was a nice moment that we shared. If anything, it (making this album) helped me appreciate them, and the beautiful day we were sharing, and you know, life, living. So many moments get missed when we push through life.
KS: I enjoy spending time in nature and music is a big thing for me. I think, any chance to connect those two, or find some area where they overlap is really great. I was thinking a lot about the birds on here and the title, Sounds of the Mississippi Flyway. Jennifer, can you tell me more about the flyway. What should we know about the bird species in this area and the birds that are represented on this disc?
JK: Well, some birds are native and will be here year round. And the flyway is when you have these certain birds that pass though in the spring and fall. They are moving to northern areas, it could be all the way to Canada, and migrate all the way down to South America. And we’re their flyway. There are four flyways and the Mississippi area is certainly busy. You know, they are all busy, but we have a really good flyway! So it’s really cool that we have these birds that come through.
"Some birds are native and will be here year round. And the flyway is when you have these certain birds that pass though in the spring and fall. They are moving to northern areas, it could be all the way to Canada, and migrate all the way down to South America. "
But it’s important to know, with what’s going on in nature right now, the climate is shifting and what that might look like for Illinois. The summers are becoming warmer and later, and that changes how the birds breed and how they use our area. So making sure we strive to make it welcoming for them, to give them places to return to, is really important.
"The summers are becoming warmer and later, and that changes how the birds breed and how they use our area. So making sure we strive to make it welcoming for them, to give them places to return to, is really important."
KS: Are there enough birds in the area, or in the flyway, to leave anything on the table for a second album? (everyone laughs)
JK: There are millions of birds that fly over our flyway, so absolutely!
KS: No pressure, Micky. (everyone laughs)
JK: I’d be open to lots of albums.
KS: I see it says volume one, so you already teased the idea?
MT: Yeah, it’s an open-ended deal. I was being optimistic. If I call it volume one, odds are better a second release will happen. (everyone laughs)
KS: That’s great. My favorite track, or the track I keep thinking about in my head is the American Bittern. And it’s in my head a lot. I always try to think about why that is but I have some ideas. Is there any particular track that stands out to you on the album? And do you think that’s because of the birds it’s associated with? Which song is a stand out for each of you?
JK: Gosh, that’s definitely one of mine. I don’t know if you’re familiar with these (American Bittern), but they are secretive, water waders. I picture being on a dock in a rocking chair. Hearing that whole scene, I don’t know. I do love that song. I also like the Piping Plover. That is a good one too, and that is a very endangered species in our state. It’s a very somber song when you think about it. It’s hard to pick because every time I listen to the songs, I find another one that is my favorite.
KS: I like how you describe the birds, just plotting in the water. That Bittern sound is so rhythmic, and when I first heard that, I was wondering how you (Micky) were going to come up with something. But what you came with, that finger pluck on the guitar is just really perfect. It sort of sets up this subtle thing and when the violin comes in, it’s really beautiful. It must take a lot of imagination to translate the bird, but there’s this really unique beauty in the original bird song too, so something how that initial bird sound is translated as a rhythmic acoustic guitar part takes so much imagination. I really appreciate that as a musician and it makes me more curious about the bird as well.
JK: Yeah, it’s a really cool little water wader bird. That song just makes you want to slow down and enjoy that sound. Yeah, it’s a good song!
MT: Thank you. That was one of the ideas that quickly came together on the first listen. You know, I dropped my kids off at school one morning and went to my studio, sat down, grabbed a guitar, listened to the bird sample and it just came out. I recognized that (mimics bird call) from kayaking. I immediately thought, I’ve heard this so many times. I don’t know how the bird makes the sound but it’s amazing. It makes me think of lazy summer days on the river, like, just slowing down. So the lazy, behind the beat percussiveness of the finger strum guitar pattern puts the listener into that space.
KS: I think that’s why I appreciate it. I understand it a little more now hearing you say that. What I’m hearing from the guitar that matches the bird sound is the incidental percussive part of nature. Not the tone, or the notes you’re playing on the guitar, but the percussive hit on the strings. Which is really cool.
MT: Thank you. That was definitely the center point of the song. The violin parts are great and chord sequence works well, they serve the imagery, but the guitar sets the mood. I want the listener to feel like they are sitting in that space and might glance over their shoulder at any moment to find the bird standing nearby. But that’s a great example of the elements I’m pulling. There’s no tonal center or melody in the (mimics bird call and laughs), the rhythm is the hook!
KS: Absolutely. You mentioned the violin. I know you’re a multi-instrumentalist, but there are a few other musicians who play on the album. What inspired you to include someone else? Was it something in the bird that you thought required it? Were you just filling in space that you thought needed to be filled in?
MT: A little of both. Yes, I play a lot of instruments, but there are a lot of instruments that I don’t play. Also, making instrumental music interesting using only the instruments that I play is a tall task. But I think, even with the initial couple messages we had (looks at Jennifer) originally proposing this idea, and I might have mentioned this then, but I immediately wanted earthy instrumentation for this project. Acoustic, wood, you know. Not like an electric guitar through a powered guitar amplifier. Instruments you would’ve had a hundred years ago. Violin, piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar. I had that in the back of my mind as I started writing and recording the tracks. And as the project progressed, I felt some of these songs required more than what I could provide, so I called in Heather Camacho, who plays violin on the project. Jackie Kuroda also makes an appearance on a guitar track. Then there are two songs that I had Karl Ropp play upright bass. Baltimore Oriole and the Bittern, and that upright bass really adds to that hanging by the river, lazy summer day feel that I wanted in American Bittern.
KS: Well, that violin too. It gives a sort of bluegrass touch.
MT: Sure, absolutely. She’s uh, I don’t want to speak for her (Heather Camacho) since she’s not here, but I believe she grew up studying violin at the Music Academy in Rockford, so she has that classical background, but she also has a good amount of country licks in her playing that she can access when she needs them. She’s a very versatile player, but that tune (American Bittern), I asked her to bring the double stops and whatever else she felt made sense. Lay it on thick, essentially. But there were also some songs that I was looking for something very specific and made a firm “no country licks” request (laughs). Actually, Baltimore (Oriole) was one of those.
And speaking of Music Academy, I share quite a few of my music students with them and I had recently attended a Music Academy concert to watch them perform. The closing song was a Bollywood influenced piece was called “Bollywood Strings” and it was really lovely. There were these long, dramatic slides up the violin (mimics sound) and it was um, it was something. Now, I don’t necessarily think of Bollywood when I think of a Baltimore Oriole (laughs), but after a few attempts from Heather improvising over the recorded track, I asked her to mimic a dramatic, Bollywood type of slide. Once she locked in, it worked great. The final version doesn’t sound like that (Bollywood), but it pushed the song in a very different direction.
Now, I never wrote charts for her (Heather), or the other performers. How that process worked was, I gave her the key and the backing track to perform with, and I mostly let her improvise. She did a handful of takes for each track, maybe 4 or 5. If something she tried was working, I’d let her run with it. If not, I’d make suggestions or requests between takes. But all in all, she was in and out within a few hours. Then all these variations, I go through them after, and um, I edit and move them around in a way that gets me what I’m looking for. Kind of like creating a musical collage. So the final versions are very disconnected from her original takes. But she (Heather) is such a versatile player and is always up for trying anything, and I really appreciated that. Karl and her both are so easy going, easy to work with, and I appreciate them trusting me with rearranging their parts. They both really brought a lot of character to this project.
KS: In addition to the music, there are some ambitious things with regard to the album artwork. It comes with informative trading cards featuring the birds and paintings of the birds on the inside art. What made you want to go a little further, more than what is typically done these days in this digital era, to make a really nice package?
MT: Well, whenever I release anything… We have a lot fighting for our attention these days and I find the idea of just releasing music to be somewhat boring (laughs). So not even specific to this project, but any project, I believe the visual component of the release is as important as the music itself.
I know I’m showing my age, but as a kid, when I’d sit and listen to records, I’d be looking at the album inserts and cover. It was a complete experience. I know most people don’t do that anymore but that’s still how I think of a proper release. Even in the early writing stages, I’m often thinking how I might visually represent these ideas. And are these visual ideas ones that I can accomplish on my own? Or is there a specific artist, or a particular art piece that already exists that would best represent this music? It’s different with every project.
With this album, from the beginning, I envisioned a sky image for the cover. You know, that’s their (birds) space, their landscape. But of course, I don’t want just a picture of the sky. I need there to be some kind of abstraction, something interesting which I believe helps spark the imagination of the listener. So the final cover image is an actual picture, but I took some liberty in making it a little cartoonish, and brought out some specific colors that I though represented the songs and the project as a whole. And the album text is handwritten by a phenomenal artist named Jenny Mathews. All together, I think it's a very playful cover.
Also specific to this project, from the beginning, it was important to me that this be educational. I was really hoping Jackie (Jennifer’s daughter) would be here for the interview, but I’ll let you (motions to Jennifer) talk about Jackie’s addition.
JK: I think I originally offered her up. I said “Jackie can draw the birds!” (everyone laughs) And of course, I also love the educational component to it. The music’s beautiful, but to get people to recognize the importance of birds, to include those cards, featuring specific information about these (species). You know, maybe there’s a spark bird on there for someone. Maybe they fall in love with the song and then fall in love with the bird, then they want to go out birding.
MT: Maybe it’s their gateway bird. (everyone laughs)
KS: So just tell me when and where, I gotta see this American Bittern (everyone laughs). I’m a new fan, it worked on me. I’m activated (laughs)... And these drawings are so beautiful and they are really very unique. Not any one of them looks anything like the others. There’s so much personality in them. Whose idea was it to have the frames around them?
MT: That was mine.
KS: That’s so cool.
MT: When you (motions to Jennifer) mentioned Jackie creating the bird images, I really had no clue what I was going to get. I mean, Jackie has been a guitar student of mine for many years. She has gifted me various drawings of squirrels and other wildlife, which were all beautiful. But I wasn’t sure if these would be simple drawings, cartoonish drawings, or whatever. And I already had the entire cover laid out and ready to go by then, but I left an area dedicated to her (Jackie) art for whenever it was completed.
For the birds themselves, I was originally leaning more towards a cartoonish frame, or banners with the species names written within the banner, and then planned to use the images for both the album art and the bird cards. But what she (Jackie) came back with had such great detail, it was quite breathtaking. I’m still in awe when I look at them. It was unfortunate that I had to shrink the images so small for them to fit inside the cover, but I decided they needed more formal frames, and scrapped the cartoon idea. They needed something more majestic. Almost like framed pictures of the founding fathers hanging on a wall in a library, or a more intimate setting like a 200 year old reading room in someone’s home.
KS: Very classic looking. It almost feels like I’m looking at images from an old field guide.
MT: Absolutely. Which made me even more pleased to be creating the bird cards. The beauty of her images are not celebrated enough within the cover itself, they deserve more eyes on them. And then, the bird cards just adding more visuals to the listening experience. Really great. People can listen and enjoy the visuals of the birds, then flip the card to learn about the species. And all that species info was written by and provided by Jennifer (Kuroda). My hope is people might take 15 minutes out of their day, listen and read about the species, maybe search google to find out more. Again, the gateway.
JK: There’s a bonus card in there too.
KS: Well, my cards… I think my kids have my cards somewhere (everyone laughs), so it worked on them too.
MT: Why don’t you talk about the bonus card (motions to Jennifer).
JK: It’s a Peregrine Falcon. Which is, for Rockford (Illinois), it’s our official city bird.
MT: But how did that happen?
Jackie Kuroda, image taken by Jennifer Kuroda
JK: That was Jackie too! The image she created was Louise, which is the female Peregrine Falcon that nests downtown (Rockford, IL). It’s phenomenal. That card, that image is beautiful. I mean, they all are but especially that one. And it’s cool because that bird has served as a spark bird in our community. In part, because of the webcam that sits up there.
But making music from their sound would be (laughs)…
MT: Yeah, we didn’t really entertain that idea but I’m sure that would be a challenge. I remember when we were discussing the bird card lineup, thinking it’s so cool that it (the Peregrine Falcon) has become a thing locally. I thought it’d be nice to include that. It’s almost like a hidden track, like on Beck Mutations album (laughs). It’s the hidden bird at the end of the lineup. It’s the visual version of the hidden track! You’re just like, wait a second? What’s this, why is this card here? And there’s no explanation, and that’s cool (everyone laughs). But yeah, it’s truly a beautiful and majestic bird. And when I think about a bird that’s out there kickin’ ass in nature (everyone laughs), the Peregrine is right up there. It’s a very strong and intimidating creature!
KS: The Rockford connection to the Peregrine Falcon sent me down that research rabbit hole. I even saw some t-shirts that someone was making.
JK: Yes, that’s Silky Screens.
MT: That's Ben Johnson. I think they did another run of those recently.
KS: I should probably get that.
JK: He said it was a really popular shirt. I’m glad that worked out for him.
KS: Jennifer, is there anything coming up for the Sinnissippi Audubon?
JK: There’s a lot going on. You may have heard about Bell Bowl Prairie. There’s a lot of advocacy work around that. Then there’s our 50th anniversary coming up, so we’ll be doing a celebration later in October and the speaker will be focusing on Bell Bowl Prairie.
It’s funny because I dug through the local history room to find out more about Sinnissippi Audubon, as well as reached out to some of the original founding members, and it’s really interesting to see their work. I don’t know if anyone has ever made a timeline of some of the things our nonprofit, environmental groups have accomplished, but it’s really incredible. I did not know this, but Sinnissippi (Audubon) was responsible for getting the city of Rockford started in recycling.
KS: Wow, really?
JK: And apparently the city of Rockford (Illinois) downtown area used to dump their plowed snow directly into the Rock River. So that would include mufflers, people’s trash, debris. Sinnissippi Audubon really helped to stop the city from doing that. So, in digging into the history, they really did some cool stuff back in the day. Not that we haven’t done cool stuff too, but…
KS: I didn’t realize that. Wow, 50 years.
JK: And for 50 years, they’ve been part of the advocacy for the preservation of Bell Bowl Prairie, that battle has been continuous. So, the history is interesting and also the many local folks that were involved in early conservation. Currently we have the prairie projects, we run the (Peregrine Falcon) webcam, and one of my favorite things besides working on this album, I love the arts community, so we’ve done many of the bird murals in town too.
KS: And Micky, any Micky Torpedo music events coming up?
MT: Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see (everyone laughs). I’ve got some new music I’ve been working on and recording. I recently performed a set to see how this new sound might go over, and that went well. But I’m not feeling motivated to book much at the moment. Though, I’m creating new music faster than I can get it out, but I’m not even sure what to do with it at this point in my life. I can’t really tour, and of course, the sales part of the job is the least exciting to me. My attention span with that stuff is… (laughs), non-existent.
But yeah, this Birdsongs release being Volume 1, I’d love to see a Volume 2 and 3, maybe more., even if only an annual thing. And there might even be Birdsong performances happening sometime in the future. I have some work to do on that. But that said, we, Sinnissippi and I, need more attention and support for this first release before we can continue. Putting this album together was a lot of work for all of us involved, and we really put our hearts into it. Sure, I hope people enjoy it from an entertainment standpoint, but both of us need more eyes and ears on it to help us fulfill both our fundraising goals and our educational mission for this project. But interviews like this will go a long way in helping us with that, so thank you.
KS: Well, I think it’s a really great project. It has made me think about music and birds in nature in a different way. I really appreciate that and I would love it if you did more! Where can people listen to this?... And sales go to benefit Sinnissippi Audubon?
MT: Yes! The album can be heard on all major streaming platforms, but purchase of the physical CD goes to benefit Sinnissippi, and will help ensure that we can make more volumes in the future. And of course, each CD comes with the bird cards and a sticker. People can buy physical copies through my online store.
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Kevin Schwitters is a guest writer for Black Squirrel Underground and Underground Squirrel Studio.
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