Swan Calls Fit for a Symphony

"The Swans at Pungo Lake" is a new piece for orchestra commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony. It was written by composer Ken Frazelle, and it's meant to evoke the wildlife refuge in North Carolina where tens of thousands of tundra swans and snow geese spend each winter.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This weekend the North Carolina Symphony is premiering a new work inspired by migratory birds, in this case tundra swans. Alison Jones ventured to eastern North Carolina to see and hear the birds and then talk to her friend, the composer Ken Frazelle, about how they became muses for his new piece.

ALISON JONES: I had heard that Pungo Lake in winter can be an amazing sight. Some 80,000 tundra swans winter in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Pungo. That makes this desolate stretch of eastern North Carolina the largest gathering spot on the East Coast for these artic birds. Snow geese love it there too. So one chilly Saturday in February, 2005, I found myself standing by the water's edge with my tape recorder, looking out at a mass of large white birds lit golden by the sinking sun and listening to their raucous racket.

(Soundbite of tundra swans)

JONES: It was a beautiful day, complete into itself, it seemed. But later my friend Ken Frazelle, a composer who teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts, said he'd like to take a listen to my bird recordings, and thus began a kind of transformation of my casual field recordings from ugly ducklings into music.

(Soundbite of "The Swans of Pungo Lake")

JONES: Pungo Lake was on Frazelle's mind because of an assignment, to create a short orchestral piece about North Carolina. The North Carolina Symphony turns 75 this year, its second full season under new conductor Grant Llewellyn. And in honor of its birthday, the orchestra commissioned a series of short pieces by North Carolina composers. The commission started Frazelle thinking about the first time he saw Pungo Lake in Winter.

Mr. KEN FRAZELLE (Composer): We got to this very desolate area right before sunset, and in the sky, as the sunset approached, was just electrified in this sort of hot orange pink, one of those brilliant kind of clear things that can happen in the winter, and the birds started circling, more gathered, these unbelievable kind of double helix spirally formations. I mean it's impossible to picture 60 to 80,000 birds in my mind, but they really were there and this is really one of the most electric things I've ever experienced.

(Soundbite of tundra swans)

Mr. FRAZELLE: Now, I wasn't thinking at the time, oh, how will you put this in music someday? Because like all great experiences, there's almost a surreal or a super-real quality that happens where it's so magnificent that you're in it and you're just sort of overtaken by this beauty.

(Soundbite of "The Swans of Pungo Lake")

JONES: If Frazelle wasn't thinking about music that day, he certainly wasn't thinking about the political drama playing out around the lake. He later learned that the Navy plans to build a landing field very near the wildlife refuge. Environmentalists say the plans will put birds and planes on a collision course, and they're fighting the Navy in court.

Mr. FRAZELLE: I didn't know about that until I got back home. I had no clue. So I think that gave the experience an even more fragile, delicate quality.

(Soundbite of "The Swans of Pungo Lake")

Mr. FRAZELLE: The piece starts and actually fades out at the end with a sense of a very, very vast, desolate open field.

(Soundbite of "The Swans of Pungo Lake")

Mr. FRAZELLE: It becomes faster and faster, more and more motion, more and more outrageous, really, more kinds of swirling, spiraling, flying kinds of motions.

(Soundbite of "The Swans of Pungo Lake")

Mr. FRAZELLE: I also was very intrigued by the sound and the feel of the flapping of all these thousands of wings.

(Soundbite of "The Swans of Pungo Lake")

Mr. FRAZELLE: These birds gathered and gathered and gathered. And then they were all gone within really a few seconds, right at sunset.

JONES: Now that the weather is turning, the wild swans are leaving Alaska and flying back to eastern North Carolina. Ken Frazelle will likely visit again, but he doesn't expect to repeat that winter day when he saw the birds for the first time.

Mr. FRAZELLE: You're left with an almost did-that-really-happen feeling. Did I really witness that? Is this possible?

JONES: For National Public Radio I'm Alison Jones.

(Soundbite of "The Swans of Pungo Lake")

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