Birds of a Feather

The Rainbow Lorikeet & The New Zealand Storm Petrel

Australian label Flaming Pines’ series ‘Birds of a Feather’ consists of works responding to individual bird species, each around twenty minutes long and released in pairs. Artists from around the world have brought a range of different approaches to bear on the concept. The latest contributions come from 12k regular Seaworthy, whose collaboration with Taylor Deupree on the album ‘Wood, Winter, Hollow’ was one of the standout releases of last year, and Radio Cegeste, a radio artist and writer best known to me for her works responding to the devastation of the city of Christchurch in the earthquake of 2010. Both artists have chosen birds with complex relationships to humans, resulting in pieces that go well beyond pithy homage.

The Rainbow Lorikeet is a bird common to the Sydney area, where it is loathed by many residents due to its loud shrieking call and its tendency to pass the time in large groups. This loathing was shared by Seaworthy himself when he began work on a piece of music responding to the avian world’s “screaming gangs of teenagers”. Yet when making the field recordings that would later be woven together with guitar, glockenspiel, and synthesised sounds, he found himself listening to the lorikeets in a different way: one less focused on the birds in isolation, and more on their presence and movement within an environment that had its own distinct spatiality and also included other sounds, such as that of the ocean. This sense of immersion within an environment is conveyed musically through the use of multiple layered parts with contrasting rhythms and tonalities, ranging from the arrhythmic and atonal right through to regularly metred, fully tonal melodies; this mimicking of the chance orchestration of complex outdoor environments creates a world for the recorded lorikeets to occupy, a sky for them to fly through.

Much of Radio Cegeste’s recent work has focused on bird species at the other end of the rareness/ubiquity spectrum from the omnipresent Rainbow Lorikeet. Taking advantage of cultural associations related to radio as time machine, memory device, and communicator with the dead, she has used the medium to perform the spectral calls of extinct birds such as the Huia and the Laughing Owl. The New Zealand Storm Petrel was until very recently believed to be similarly consigned to the fossil record; since the re-discovery of the species in 2003 several of their number have been tracked using radio transmitters, though no recording of their call has yet been made. The piece that bears their name thus uses radio static and interference as a surrogate for absence, marking both the birds’ unheard calls and their disappearance from human observation for over a hundred and fifty years. Haphazard, sliding accordion and strings evoke the freewheeling flight of petrels on ocean winds and the game of hide-and-seek we play with them.

Given the long association of bird calls with music (and vice-versa), a series of musical works on an avian theme seems entirely obvious — so obvious, in fact, that it needed to be done, if only to provoke new ways of thinking about and listening to birds. With the ‘Birds of a Feather’ series, Flaming Pines is achieving precisely that. Seaworthy and Radio Cegeste both prove that listening is learning to listen differently, whether to the transformed shrieks of a neighbourhood nuisance or the speculative silences of the unheard. I can’t help but wonder, however, what birds hear when they listen to us?

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