Michael Pestel is a cross between Dr. Doolittle and the Pied Piper.
The artist and musician uses music to communicate with birds.
"I happen to be biased in my belief that birds taken as a whole represent the most extraordinary sound on the planet. Birds are the most talented musicians," Pestel said.
Through his experimental work, he has interacted with birds like the flamingo and the coral-billed New Guinea ground cuckoo.
Pestel is one of several artists featured in "Zoo Logic," an exhibit opening Saturday and running through Aug. 14 at the Lake George Art Project's Courthouse Gallery. The musician's contribution to the show is a DVD presentation of his work with live birds. During an opening reception, which will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the gallery, Pestel will give a performance using his "Birdmachine," a musical device he created for the project.
Working with traditional musical instruments, his own voice and the Birdmachine (a one-man-band-like contraption), Pestel has developed his ornithological series at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and the Central Park and Bronx zoos in New York.
Although the musician, who now lives in Connecticut, does elicit responses from his feathered friends when he performs, his intention is not to mimic. Drawing from a roster of extinct species, he tries to imagine what sounds each of the birds might have made. Using his musical tools, he gives the long-gone creatures a voice.
"I kind of pretend I represent the sounds that we can't hear anymore," he said. "By doing that, I sort of remind myself that I'm not there to mimic the sounds I hear around me. I'm there to carry on the conversation with living birds. I'm as interested in the forgotten voices as the living voices."
After years of experiments, Pestel has developed a better understanding of bird behavior. He even managed to become a part of the flock at the National Aviary through regular visits.
"I got to know those birds very well. It would just take me walking in the sliding door for them to start going crazy," he said.
One bird in particular seemed interested in the project, according to the musician.
"There was a specific bird named Monster who was a coral-billed New Guinea ground cuckoo - he looked sort of like a miniature tyrannosaurus rex with feathers - who took a real interest in me," he said.
Pestel even enticed other musicians to get in on the act through performances at aviaries. The experimental music intrigued both the birds and the humans in attendance.
The work has inspired Pestel to bring his sound experiments into more traditional musical forums, which he said have been met with mixed reactions.
"When you play in an aviary context, everybody gets it. They understand that I am there improvising with the birds. The sounds I make are pretty abstract, and I'm really pushing the flute to its limits. But in that context, people instantly get it," he said.
In a concert hall, the same nature-inspired sounds often have been met with frowns and confusion.
"Many will leave before the concert is over or will just be shaking their heads. Although most people like bird sounds, they're not thinking of this as music. Whereas, to the modern musician, this has everything to do with music," he said.
The artist hopes the project will inspire people to think about the sounds of nature from a musical perspective.
"When you walk into a forest, the sounds around you are pretty abstract - birds, wind, rivers and streams rushing by - but they have this overwhelming context," he said.
In Pestel's view, both he and the birds he performs with are making music.
"I've found this to be a great way to get people to listen to sounds in ways they might not have before and really appreciate them and not struggle with them," he said.