World premiere by Royal Conservatoire composer Dr Emily Doolittle to be performed by leading Canadian orchestra

World premiere by Royal Conservatoire composer Dr Emily Doolittle to be performed by leading Canadian orchestra

Published: 17/01/2019

Seals howling on the banks of the Scottish seashore, the dawn chorus in all its uplifting glory and the ethereal and mysterious songs of humpback whales. The next time you hear the animal kingdom in full voice ”¦ listen closer. You can be sure Dr Emily Doolittle will.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland composer and research fellow has a longstanding interest in zoomusicology the study of the relationship between human music and animal songs. And this inspiration will be further explored in a new commission from one of Canada’s leading orchestras.

Dr Doolittle will unveil a world premiere at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s (VSO) third annual New Music Festival on January 19, in what will be the orchestra’s 100th anniversary season.

Reedbird is a direct transcription of the song of the bobolink, slowed and expanded so that human listeners can appreciate its complexity and tonal richness. The piece will be conducted by Otto Tausk, the VSO’s music director, in a programme that celebrates local, national and international talent. A pre-concert talk will explore the ideas behind the music with musicians, philosophers and an ornithologist.

“Bobolink song sounds incredible when you hear it live (or on a full speed recording) ”” shiny, bubbly, almost metallic,” says Dr Doolittle, who was born in Nova Scotia and now lives in Glasgow.

“But to me, it’s even more incredible when you slow it down so you can really hear the intricate interactions between the notes.

“The VSO is one of the top orchestras in Canada so being commissioned for the New Music Festival is very exciting, it’s what you hope and dream of as a composer.”

For Dr Doolittle, who joined the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2017 as the institution’s first Athenaeum Research Fellow, analysing the sounds of seals or songbirds is all in a day’s work. The role, which also involves supervising Postgraduate students, allows her to explore two great passions composing music and her deep-rooted love of nature.

“As a composer, research has always been a huge part of what I do and I’m really interested in bird and other animal songs and their relationship to human music.”

Her curiosity for animal songs was piqued in 1997 when she lived in Amsterdam and heard a blackbird in full voice outside her bedroom window: “Until then, I had never really thought of music and animal songs as potentially related to each other. The blackbird had an amazing song and I was intrigued by how parts of it sounded like human music, so I wrote a piece called Night Blackbird Song.”

In her PhD in Music Composition at Princeton University in 2007, Dr Doolittle explored the philosophical question of whether some animal songs could be considered music. She investigated how humans across cultures and time periods used animal songs in their music before going on to collaborate with scientists to analyse bird and other animal songs from both a musical and a scientific perspective. This took her to Germany where she spent five months as the composer-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, researching the song of the musician wren.

“Even though there’s a human tendency to think that everything we do is cultural and learned, and everything that animals do is by instinct, as I’ve discovered more about animals, there are actually lots of things that they do that are learned. Songbirds are vocal learners and need to learn from surrounding members of their species. Whales, bats and seals are also vocal learners.”

For more information on Dr Emily Doolittle, visit her website.

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