Music and photography come together in ‘Avian Improv’


“Avian Improv” is an hourlong creative collaboration between bird photographer Lanny McDowell and piano innovator David Stanwood. The musical slideshow is meant to create a reflective mood, and is entirely free of dialogue. It will be presented at the West Tisbury library on Monday, Nov. 5, at 7 pm. The event is free and open to the public, and children are welcome. The artists will be available following the performance for informal discussion.

“Avian Improv” debuted last June at the Chilmark library. Since then, the duo have decided to take their project on the road. McDowell, who’s both a photographer and noted birder, partnered with his longtime friend and musician Stanwood. The show combines a slideshow of McDowell’s avian photography with Stanwood’s improvised musical reflections.

Designed to provide a thoughtful, meditative experience, the sequence relies entirely on bird imagery and music to tell a story — a story told with no spoken word or onscreen text. The slides appear in 10-second intervals, and provide a pageant of winged characters that motivate the piano’s atmospheric soundscape.

McDowell is an abstract painter, a writer, and a regular bird photographer for the Vineyard Gazette’s “Bird News.” He also carefully administers two Facebook groups, Martha’s Vineyard Bird Alert, followed by more than 1,800 members, as well as the timely, detailed, and deliberately sparse Vineyard Rare Bird Alert. One might call him a master birder, or perhaps even a fanatical fan of all things feathered. He conceptualizes birding as a sort of mystical connection to nature, inspiring awe and respect.

“Birding puts one in a meditative space where everything else falls away — placing you in the here and now,” McDowell said.

McDowell grew up with much older siblings. His interest in birds started at a young age, having spent many hours outside, alone, exploring the natural world. He said he’s still exploring. “Even when traveling with a group of nonbirders, I still wake up an hour and a half early to get outside for my daily fix,” McDowell said.

Stanwood has been playing piano since age 7, and said his improvisations came along after he and his wife Eleanor had children. “I didn’t really start improvising until we had kids,” he said. “I’d improvise, and they’d fall asleep.”

Those kids have long since flown the coop. Stanwood continued, “By now, I feel my improvisations are truly my own music, my own style. This music gives me a great sense of accomplishment.”

Along with performing, Stanwood is an internationally renowned piano technician and inventor. He said, “I love, love, love, the duel aspects of my career. A vocation in the true sense of the word.”

For Stanwood, making image-inspired music started at Pathways Arts, a community arts center in Chilmark. Scott Crawford of Pathways said, “Stanwood started playing along with an array of our happenings, from videos to spoken word to dance. Even during the lunar eclipse. He’s become one of our regulars, always inventive, always open to the ideas of other artists.”

“Stanwood has played for my art gallery openings for year,” McDowell said. “The collaborative progression of blending bird slides with his music was completely organic. This sort of thing is in his blood, bigtime.”

Both McDowell and Stanwood talk about the desire to transport the audience into a meditative state. By bridging nature and the arts, the hope is that the indoor event will transport people into a state similar to one outdoors. They want to share their love of nature and music. For those who regularly partake of the outdoor world, the goal is to open new ways of seeing and listening. For those who may be more sedentary, the desire is to entice them into the wild, either by birding or simply getting out and about.

“The birder community is filled with enthusiasm, curiosity, interchangeable teaching, learning, and even friendly competition,” McDowell said. “People see and hear things in different ways — through color, line, shape, motion, rhythm, and the sum total can all lead to a peaceful, meditative state. If you allow these things in, one can’t help but experience deep, interior thought. Hopefully ‘Avian Improv’ will provide some of this energy, inspire people in various ways, especially to reflect inside and out.”

Avian Improv is on Monday, Nov. 5, at 7 pm at the West Tisbury library. For more information, visit, or call 508-693-3366.