Thrush Song: A Stunning Harmonic Tribute to Rachel Carson’s Courage by Composer Paola Prestini and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City
By Maria Popova
In 2019, the New York Philharmonic commissioned composer and force of nature Paola Prestini — co-founder of National Sawdust, that visionary locus of possibility for world-building through music — to compose an original piece for their multi-season Project 19 initiative, celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Inspired by the stories of the remarkable unsung women in Figuring, she reached out to me to write the words. I chose a moment that occurs some 485 pages into the book — a moment small and private, but enormous in its symbolic significance and cultural reverberations.
In January 1962, after a decade of incubation and four years of methodical research, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) turned in the manuscript for what would become Silent Spring — the epoch-making catalyst of the modern environmental movement, making ecology a household word and invitinig the human imagination to consider how intricately, vulnerably interleaved nature’s ecosystems are. Carson, by then savaged by cancer, knew that speaking such inconvenient truth to power would come at grave personal cost. It did: She was soon assaulted by government and industry, her scientific credibility attacked on the basis of her biology, with the crude weapon of gender. But she moored herself to what she had articulated to the love of her life, Dorothy Freeman, at the outset of her courageous endeavor:
Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.
When Carson turned in the manuscript that cold January night, she tucked her newly adopted son Roger into bed, kissed him good night, took her beloved black cat Jeffie into the study, shut the door behind her, and put on her favorite Beethoven violin concerto. “Suddenly,” she recounted the evening to Dorothy the next day, “the tension of four years was broken and I let the tears come.” She told Dorothy:
Last summer… I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it — now it had its own life.
Carson never lived to see its life in the world, but her work inspired the creation of Earth Day and the led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Paola transfigured this moment into a gorgeous piece for soprano and orchestra, titled “Thrush Song.” After it premiered with the New York Philharmonic, I invited her to adapt it for a chorus of young people as part of the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating 50 years of Earth Day. (Days after David Byrne read a poem at the 2019 edition of The Universe in Verse, I had been awed by the National Sawdust performance of his countercultural hymn of resistance and resilience, accompanied by a coruscating chorus of young people; I was also haunted by Carson’s moving message to the next generations — to the Greta Thunbergs she never lived to meet.)
Paola reimagined “Thrush Song” as a wondrous harmonic serenade to Carson’s courage, working with a constellation of young women from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, rehearsing and performing remotely in a world stilled and stunned by a global pandemic — a poignant meta-testament to Carson’s legacy: the revelation of how intimately connected we are to one another and to the rest of nature through the intricate, complex, delicate web of biological and ecological relationships weaving the tapestry of being.
The result, which many in the live Universe in Verse audience welcomed as the crowning glory of the nearly four-hour show, is now available for all the world to cherish, with a deep bow of admiration and gratitude to Paola and the remarkable women of the Young People’s Chorus, and special thanks to Debbie Millman for the lovingly hand-lettered lyrics.
Complement with a Carson’s birdsong notation set to music by singer-songwriter Dawn Landes and Neil Gaiman’s poetic tribute to Carson’s courage, written for the 2018 Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show’s four-year archive: a stunning animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s poem about our cosmic inter-belonging, James Baldwin’s ecological-humanistic wisdom set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, and Neil Gaiman’s subversive feminist celebration of science and the human search for truth, in a tactile animated short film.
Published May 27, 2020