Environment, art, and birds: Mara Bun ’84 discusses performance works

Kiara Royer

Co-founders of the Bowerbird Collective Anthony Albrecht (left) and Simone Slattery (right) perform under a highway. (Photo courtesy of Mara Bun.)

When Mara Bun ’84 arrived at the College as a first-year, she had little idea of the collaborative possibilities her degree would allow. She has worked with former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev on environmental activism, acted as the attaché to the Brazilian women’s soccer team for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and chaired the board of the Bowerbird Collective, helping produce soundscape performances that connect audiences to the natural world.

One of Bowerbird’s most famous projects is an album released in December 2021 entitled “Songs of Disappearance,” which includes calls of 53 threatened Australian bird species, according to the Bowerbird Collective website. “Who would have thought that you can just go out into forests and record super endangered birds and create an album of that — just birdsong?” Bun said. “We got to number two in the charts [in Australia] here. We beat Taylor Swift.”

Bun grew up in California but fell in love with Williamstown’s natural environment when she toured the campus while she was in high school. “The Williams experience was just rich with beauty and amazing people and such thought-provoking ideas — the craziness of political correctness on the one hand and a factory for Wall Street on the other,” Bun said. She was a political economy major who rowed crew, played soccer, and cooked Log Lunch during her time at the College.

Despite being more interested in environmental activism and sustainable development, Bun began working for Morgan Stanley after she graduated. “I felt like getting experience and being trained to understand what capitalism actually is and how it works would only bode well,” she said. After working in San Francisco for two years, Bun took a leave of absence to enroll at Harvard Business School. However, she soon left school to volunteer with a World Bank project that focused on sustainable earthquake rebuilding practices, which got her hooked on working in the nonprofit sector.

Bun spent the next few decades devoting time to organizations such as Greenpeace, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Green Cross Australia — which was founded by Gorbachev. At Green Cross Australia, Bun helped rebuild disaster-affected communities in Australia using resilient, sustainable methods. Most recently, she became the honorary president and chair of the board of the Australian Conservation Foundation, but she decided against returning for a second term as president to seek a new challenge.

“I thought, you know, ‘I’m going to make space for something that’s just going to be my joy, and I’m not quite sure what that is,’” Bun said. “Then one morning I got this message on LinkedIn, and it was like three sentences long. It said, ‘Hello, my name is Anthony, and I am an accomplished cello player who is passionate about nature … would you join our board?’”

Anthony from LinkedIn turned out to be Juilliard School graduate Anthony Albrecht, who had teamed up with violinist Simone Slattery to form a company devoted to combining music with nature: the Bowerbird Collective. “[The Collective] creates experiences that bring magnificent music and multimedia performance into a personal journey that everyone who experiences [it] goes on, and that journey inward naturally takes you outward back into nature,” Bun said.

After learning about the other members of the board, which include CEO of Sydney Opera House Norman Gillespie, Bun was immediately interested. “When I realized who they were, and just how marvelous and creative they were, I said, ‘mate, count me in,’” she said. Joining the team in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bun watched the Bowerbird Collective grow from a small-scale operation to producing over 180 shows across the globe. 

The Collective continued to create music that sought to make its audiences feel proximate to nature — even during the isolating times of the pandemic. Bun described a collaboration with author Tim Low, author of Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World. Driving across Australia’s Northern Territory, which was COVID-free, Albrecht and Slattery used Low’s book to produce a musical celebration of Australian birds, which they performed for Aboriginal communities for eight months in 2020.

Why birdsong? “It’s a great question,” she said. “[Albrecht and Slattery] are lovers of shorebirds — if they could, they’d just be out in wetlands taking photos.” Bun explained that at the same time, the team’s passion for the natural world more broadly has helped curate projects that don’t necessarily relate to songbirds but rather emphasize a general love for nature.

As board chair, Bun works to support the Bowerbird Collective through sponsorship, funding, and marketing. “We’re building this nest of complexity and beauty and humans and nature together,” she said, adding that she leans upon her three decades of experience in leadership, finance, and research to support the Collective. “All of those networks are now coming [together] in one way or another, whether it’s around helping the conservation movement to amplify the message of the bowerbirds or sharing on social media the performance to help broaden their reach.”

Bun hinted that future projects will go beyond birdsong while still relating to the beauty of the natural environment. “[The Collective] creates a human experience and connection through beauty and song and performance that catalyzes a kind of awareness and connection and love,” Bun said. “That’s what we need, at this stage, is just love for the natural world.”