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Beethov-hen’s first symphony: New Zealand orchestra puts on poultry show for chickens

On a grey Friday morning at a Hawke’s Bay farm, members of New Zealand’s symphony orchestra dressed in their black finery and stood in the dewy grass to premiere their latest composition in front of a large, well-plumed crowd.

The music contained many hallmarks of traditional baroque music, but as it began, the instruments started to screech with sounds more commonly heard in coops than in the hallowed stalls of an auditorium.

However, no feathers were ruffled by this departure from tradition – as the audience that gathered to listen to the concert last week was in fact a couple of thousand chickens.

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The bespoke piece of music – Chook Symphony No 1 – was created specifically for the birds out of an unlikely partnership between the orchestra and an organic free range chicken farm which wanted a piece of chicken-friendly music to enrich its flocks’ lives.

“We’ve been playing classical music for the chickens for some years now, because it is well researched that [it] can calm the chickens down,” says Ben Bostock, one of the two brothers who own the Bostock Brothers farm.

A live orchestral performance at the Bostock Brothers’ farm in Hawke’s Bay New Zealand.A live orchestral performance at the Bostock Brothers’ farm in Hawke’s Bay New Zealand. Photograph: Bostock Brothers

Research has shown animals can respond positively to classical music, and chickens are particularly responsive to baroque, according to some studies.

The composer, Hamish Oliver, who used the baroque tradition as a starting point and drew inspiration from composers such as Corelli, Bach and Schnittke, wanted the piece to be playful by including sounds from a chicken’s world. “The trumpet imitates the chicken … the oboe and bassoon are the cluckiest of the wind instruments, especially if you take the reeds off.”

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The early stages of composition were spent testing out which instruments and sounds the chickens responded to best.

“They didn’t like any big banging,” Bostock said, adding that when the birds respond positively to the music, they tend to range further among the trees. Bostock now hopes chicken farmers around the world will use the piece of music to calm their own birds.

For Oliver, having input from the farmers about how the chickens were responding to particular sounds and instruments was a highlight of the project.

“This was really nice having someone from outside the art world – especially the farming community – genuinely wanting to engage.”

Members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the first performance of the Chook Symphony’.Members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the first performance of the Chook Symphony’. Photograph: Bostock Brothers

The symphony has “looked exhaustively” for any other examples of orchestra’s making music specifically for chickens, and believes this is be a world-first, says Peter Biggs, the orchestra’s chief executive.

“Bluntly, when a symphony orchestra springs to mind, it can seem distant and remote and very serious. We’re not like that … we wanted to make sure that we are an organisation that can have some fun,” Biggs said, adding that it was important to the symphony to collaborate with businesses that it felt were innovative and ethical.

“We are all about wellbeing – if its wellbeing for people, that’s great, if its wellbeing for all species of the planet, that’s great too.”

Seeing the orchestra set up in the grass to play for its live chicken audience was “a significant moment” for Bostock, while Biggs found it “very uplifting”. “As soon as the musicians started to play, the chooks gathered together.”

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And it’s what Oliver had counted on. “I hoped this music would be a bridge between baroque being from a very removed and formal world, with chickens being right at the feet of the performers … and I was glad to see that happen.”