fb-pixel Skip to main content

Duck That will give audiences the bird

On Thursday, Duck That — the experimental free-improvisation combination of Steve Norton, Josh Jefferson, and Angela Sawyer (that also runs Cambridge’s invaluable Weirdo Records) — will perform at Outpost 186. Mixing standard instruments with found objects and other gadgets — including trademark waterfowl-imitating hunting calls, hence their name — Duck That exemplifies an ironclad rule: If something makes sound, some musician will find an expressive use for it.

The use of avian noisemakers puts the trio in distinguished musical company. Once an occasional novelty (the cuckoo-calls in the “Toy Symphony” variously attributed to Joseph Haydn or Leopold Mozart) or a literalist evocation (the bird whistles in Johann Strauss II’s polka “Im Krapfenwald’l”), duck calls and bird whistles came into their musical own with the 20th-century avant-garde. Bird whistles and a crow call echo George III’s avian obsessions in Peter Maxwell Davies’s 1969 “Eight Songs for a Mad King”; György Ligeti’s opera “Le Grand Macabre” (premiered in 1978) includes a duck call and a cuckoo. The loudest climax of Hans Werner Henze’s 1973 orchestra-piano-tape piece “Tristan” includes four bird whistles singing over a thoroughly distorted recording of Birgit Nilsson singing the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s own version. On a more compact scale, saxophonist John Zorn made prominent use of duck calls early in his inimitably experimental career (as recorded on his 1980s albums “The Classic Guide to Strategy,” vols. 1 and 2).


The anyone-can-whistle nature of such instruments even inspired François-Bernard Mâche, in his 1969 orchestral piece “Répliques,” to equip the audience with all manner of bird calls, cued in by the conductor at particular points in the score. Mâche also wrote volleys of orchestral percussion to quell any out-of-hand audience bird calls. “In the case of persistent disorder,” he instructed, “the leader can freely link many sequences of counter-attack until one of the adversaries capitulates.”

Duck That, along with San Francisco-based avant-garde jazz trio Grex, performs Aug. 29 at 8 p.m. at Outpost 186, 186½ Hampshire St., Cambridge. www.outpost186.com


Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.