Wendy Reid and ensemble
Wendy Reid and ensemble at Live Oak Park in Berkeley | Credit: Tom Djll

The scores created by composer and violinist Wendy Reid are like scrolls read from the bottom up. Tiny Paul Klee-like arrows represent snippets drawn from listening to Lulu, the African grey parrot Reid lives with and credits as a collaborator and co-composer.

But Reid’s connection to the natural world doesn’t end there. In live, outdoor performances of her work, the environment adds layers of organic sounds to what the musicians and the audience are experiencing. A final element, seasonality, makes any piece written by Reid infinitely and immediately changeable.

So when Reid and her ensemble bring Ambient Bird to Live Oak Park in Berkeley on Sept. 22 to celebrate the fall equinox, anything might happen, even though much will have been rigorously rehearsed. Lulu, for example, might not utter a sound for most of the work’s 45 minutes. That’s perfectly fine with Reid, who in the past has said that Lulu is listening even when silent and that the parrot’s presence is part of the score.

Wendy Reid with parrot
Reid with her parrot, Lulu

The concert will be presented as part of the Mosswood Sound Series, a weekly music and experimental sound series hosted by sfSound, whose events are most often held at Mosswood Chapel in Oakland. This performance in Berkeley takes place just north of the Live Oak Theatre and Recreation Center in the park. There is no formal seating. The audience is invited to stand, wander throughout the park, or sit on the grass, at distant picnic tables, or on their own chairs and blankets. At 6:15 p.m. (preceding the performance), the musicians will introduce themselves and their instruments.

Reid is known for her Tree Pieces, an ongoing set of musical processes based on nature that have ranged from electroacoustic chamber compositions to larger works for chamber orchestra and open ensembles in site-specific environments. She has taught composition at Mills College and violin in the preparatory music department at Holy Names University and produced the new-music series New Music With Birds, Frogs, and Other Creatures, sponsored by the Oakland Museum of California and San Francisco Art Institute. The Tree Pieces have been performed and broadcast by the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Kronos Quartet, Other Minds, and others.

“Oak Park’s acoustics are incredible,” Reid says in a phone interview. “There’s a creek, which adds the sound of water, and trees that amplify the wind. When I first did a little concert there with a few people and then last year did a full concert, the environment was incredible.”

Adding improvisational vitality, each member of the ensemble performs in conjunction with the park’s ambient sounds. Even though several musicians play traditional instruments, they use those instruments to make sounds more like birdcalls or leaves rustled by the wind. Reid admits that some of the techniques Ambient Bird calls for — harmonics and playing behind the bridge, for example — aren’t unusual in new music, but the scratches, scrapes, and guttural sounds made by her violin are at moments more like parts of nature than a classical concerto.

“And the vocalist, Aurora Josephson, tries to engage Lulu by interacting and making similar screeching sounds. She makes the ‘aacch’ and ‘eeeeh’ that a bird uses to communicate and that might precede — but aren’t — beautiful little birdsong melodies.

Wendy Reid and collaborators
Reid and collaborators perform at the annual Garden of Memory event at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes

Reid works with musicians who share her aesthetic, and she selects some of them for the possibilities their instruments present, apparent from her description of how Ambient Bird will unfold. “The people watch from above the ensemble, and the percussionist wanders around among the audience and goes to the other side of the creek, so he’s moving. You hear him from all different aspects.” She also mentions wanting to expand the work by presenting it with two ensembles who begin a performance from separate locations and during the playing come together to create an effect that is like merging sound from two different speakers.

In this performance, Krys Bobrowski plays the glisglas, and Brenda Hutchinson releases squawks and echoes on a long tube that’s like a didgeridoo, but audience sounds are also part of the equation. “You can have kid sounds, dog sounds. It’s like a global community of all kinds of people and all kinds of ages. It’s a sonic landscape that brings everyone together,” says Reid.

Ambient Bird was recently performed, along with some of Reid’s other pieces, as part of Other Minds’ The Nature of Music series. Reid says what was most interesting about the performance was that among the musicians were five people who had previously performed the work five or six times.

“Every time you play this piece, it turns out so differently,” she says. “I remember listening back to the recording and thinking they were kind of heavy in one section. I tried to let that go and allow it to be like birds in a flock, who cluster or spread. And there were new people who came in and changed it. I like that I don’t have control. Although, yes, there are spots in the score where it’s critical there are silences, and I go over and over that in rehearsals.”

Reid hopes to make the complete work into an opera and move it from the Bay Area to New York City. Eventually, she’d liked to tour it as a live opera all over the world. “It’s ambitious, but that would make it truly a global piece. It defines the world as where we already are; it describes a shared experience we already have with each other and with nature.”

She suggests that the term “opera” is merely a convenient reference word for a piece that will include birds, organic sounds from the environment, traditional and invented instruments, vocalists, videos and other visuals, and texts ranging from Samuel Beckett to Paul Klee diary excerpts to bits from the Frog and Toad books. It will present a new acoustic world: an opera open to ambient sound and delivered by musicians like Reid, who relish the thrill of the unexpected.