Im fully back in City Mode now, used to my shrunken hearing domain, adjusted to whines of disk drives, can’t even think about telling the weather by listening to birds. But I’m trying to integrate all that sensual spendor and intuitive thinking from Australia, from Riverina, from the birds and the rivers, and the red baked earth, the pepper trees, the hubcaps, the red gums. . .
This “Song of Survival” was born at the old Birego Schoolhouse one morning when I kicked a piece of bent rebar and it was melodic. I hung it on the wall of the steel shed as a resonator, and played it like a gamelan and a song started coming out.
“when you hear the buzzing in your ear
you may think the end is near
but if you do and you wait too long
you’ll never get the chance to sing your song
wagga wagga, wagga wagga. . . . . . . “
Meanwhile back in New York the Occupy Wall Street youth were blazing a new trail of possibility through the mental landscape of our land, daring to live a different potential, reinvent it all, give it a try, “sing your song!”
These two streams merged in my mind and the chorus reached towards the streets.
“This is the song of survival
sing it out loud and clear
this is the sound of people
rising up singing
this is the feeling of the future”
While I was there I built a whole orchestra of unusual instruments and played them with Vic, I interviewed lots of people who care about the land, got inspired by Garth and Graham and Steve. This song is a collage of all those activities. A crazy quilt of experience laid down on the red soil of Riverina calling out to live your dreams, occupy yourself!
I’m so back that I can’t beleive it. I went for a walk along the beautiful Croton Landing Trail with all the Half Moon Bay of the Hudson River spread out before me at high tide a couple days ago and even though it was visually beautiful it made me feel sick. There was such GREY NOISE from highway 9-A , with its whirling radial tires and no protection from this onslaught for human sensitivities. I could not imagine someone had the audacity to build a park here. Don’t the planners and designers know about the human senses? That our senses are in a blurr of disconnect with the ears struck by hurtling metal at sixty shouting “DANGER!” and the eyes all serene Hudson valley transcendental “god in nature”. I had to make some sort of short circuit in my brain to enjoy the scenery without hearing it’s horrifying soundscape and I just couldn’t do it. It made me feel sick to try to cut off my sense of hearing to enjoy the sights. Nausea. Is that the existential condition we find our selves in, the nausea of sacrifice that we have to make to appear civilized. Civilized enough to enjoy the sights while cutting off the sounds, bifurcated humans…….
But now I’m on the train to the city to rehearse with Wooster group where yesterday I played the “tree of life” on stage, Yggdrasil, the small perfect desert tree I found last year on the banks of the Yampa River in Colorado. I’m playing total gift of nature, intuitively releasing it’s own wonderful sounds trapped in its branches, plucked like Mingus’ deep bass tones. I’m playing and singing the song I learned from the wind on the Yampa that last day with Mho Salim. It’s a deep song. A brave song. I’m bringing the nature spirits intact into the city. Then Liz asks me to listen one ear to the audio of an Indian cheif named Yellow Hand giving a speech about the coming of the white people in his high voice. I take in that sound with one ear while I play the tree of life with both hands and listen to the room with one ear. I can do it, I’m a modern person who needs the support of technology to even survive.
But on the train to New York City now I’m so immersed in my iPad and my self-generated narcissistic-electronic-mental-environment that I forget to look up and see the Hudson River slide past on the rails. I dont really recognize that I’m even on a train. I’m in my head supported by the iPad – that is where I live now, in a fabricated mental construct with a soundtrack of horrible screeching metal sounds, a cloud of grey white noise sitting in the fan above my head, a constant blur, a shakedown of rumbling box, a mild annoyance that space does not disappear around me but that a lurch in the level of the tracks reminds me that I even have a body. I’m annoyed at the intrusions of space and living in my head. I look up. 125th street slides away. Soon I will be in the tunnel with no distractions. A modern person once again.
Not two weeks ago I woke to hear the bird song before dawn and knew whether it would rain. I felt a steady connection to the world around me. I knew where I was. Now after the nausea of sense separation I’m once again a modern man. Self contained. Self deluded. Self important. Top of the food chain. Master of my tiny universe. But where am I?
The days have been getting very full and I’m despairing of getting the chance to go with Vic to record the Murrumbidgee River singing her song. The area around the Koala preserve has been taken back to “pre-contact” conditions except for the car tracks, and the cars, and my recording gear, and the fences. I appreciate the attempt to get the feeling for how it used to be, the majestic swim of the gum forest and the river. It is powerful. It is very very different from the miles of fenced paddocks right across the river. It is brave country.
So we go early in the morning, before other tasks claim our talents, and there is the press of time in the air as our public outcome approaches on the 19th of November. We are caught between the present moment and anticipation of the future when we must present what has been made to a public audience. We wind our way deeper into the gums, past families and clans of red gums, with patriarch and matriarch trees arching up high above their descendents into the morning light.
A turn takes us close to the rivers edge where a huge gum has fallen in last year’s flood, the flood that ended the eleven years of draught and wiped out so many farming families, and left its stain high up the trunks as if the water were still there darkening the light under a huge lake now vanished. The fallen gum makes a platform out over the river’s flow, the perfect stage for dipping a one stringed harp into the flow to let the river’s water bow a song. The water carries the string downstream and the tension of the string in the frame of the wood draws it back upstream. This vibrating action makes the song.
A few minutes of selecting a piece of red gum root, stripping the bark, fixing a harpsichord string and tuning it up a bit, then we are recording. First I get it going, then hand over to Vic who edges out to where the red gum branches make their plunge into the currents causing a turbulence of drags and spins. Looking at the flow it seems steady and placid, but dipping the harp into the water reveals the tiny and endless fractal changes of nature.
Back now to bandwidth and noise in New York, but now entering a reflective mode where I can edit some of the things I doccumented while in Riverina, Australia. The morning of heading for the airport, I woke before dawn to hear the birds one last time and while doing just that, sitting under the fine gum tree in the morning breeze, I had the flash that it would be good to give folks a tour of the orchestra.
For the last three weeks I’ve been building this orchestra of found sound instruments, sometimes with a great amount of help from Vic, and also from Garth Strong and Mark, who came to build the shed and ended up welding the Plowshare Cello. It has been a process of discovery, invention, luck, inspiration, goodwill and attention applied to the wonderful task of listening to the world around me and making instruments of all its vibrations. Here is the tour. Its a quick handheld video, held by my right hand while my left made audio recordings and played the instruments.
They have just called my flight, but after weeks of thin bandwidth I can’t give up the chance to use the airport’s free super fast WIFI. What a sucker for convenience. Already the careful study of space by listening has been overwhelmed by the constant hums of the consumer culture. The traffic on King St. in the Hotel last night gave me nightmares. the buzzes and hums of non-space of the terminal make me long for the songs of birds and other things that are connected to nature. Its like getting the brains sucked out of my head into a world where the sounds are only related to commercial transactions and creature comforts. But it’s the world I need to rejoin to get back to my family.
Alas, this whole soundscape of ours needs a rethink. It could be a beautiful thing, this world of transactions and power and acceleration. Maybe one day when we are forced to find our efficiencies it will be just that.
I’ve been building instruments for days and the test group comes in a bus from a one room schoolhouse. Vic has prepared this lot by working with them in his inimitable way and they know about installation art, making music from found sounds. They are in the outback but they are way ahead. I ask them the difference between hearing and listening and they say “Listening is when you want to hear”. That is the shortest description I’ve ever heard and I sign it as well.
We listen individually to the wonderful disc blades from the tractor that till the earth. They have been set up as a choir of gongs. After a careful and slow listen we wail on them all at once and then stop letting them ring. We sing the notes. It is wonderful. Listen and watch.
Sorry for disappearing for a week while things were getting ever more interesting. It’s hard to mix the amount of new input I can take in while simultaneously outputting to the blog. It’s a confusion of now and then, present and past that many of us have felt while witnessing and reporting on our activities simultaneously, I’m sure.
So I’m going to just jump in on this last day and then go back and fill in the past events when I get to better bandwidth. I really want to document some of the great events of the last week: the forming of Vic’s clarinet out of the red gum bark from the grandfather tree along the banks of the great Murrumbidgee river; building an orchestra of found sounds in the schoolyard; the arrival of the Boree Creek school kids to play on the instruments; Vic and my visit to hear the singing of the Murrumbidgee river; the coming together of the whole orchestra of instruments with the community who came to play them on Saturday night! I’ll soon take you backwards to special days in time, but for now, here is my last listen to the schoolyard for your ears.
Last Day, day 20, 6:30 am.
Sitting under the gum tree again listening on this, my last morning here. No wind, absolutely still. The “kinda-blue-bird” is not singing today but the other birds are not singing of rain. I’ve learned that the “kinda-blue-bird” is actually called the Butcher bird, which does not make me particularly happy. The teen-age birds are called babblers, though there are some other babbling flocking giddy birds with longer beaks called Apostle birds. The babblers are endangered and a bit rare but here they are all over the place. Same with the “select” parrots. This is so still I can hear the sheep and their young lambs. I’ve now tasted this delicacy of salt bush lamb up at the Strong’s farm and it is delicious. Lamb from their farm. Food from this very place. Also had bread freshly ground wheat from Graham’s farm and had the most delicious toast ever eaten by man, this man at least. It is as different from normal bread as your own garden tomatoes are from from a gassed hydroponic tomato from nowhere at all.
Sense of place certainly does come from listening, but eating and smelling, and seeing, and feeling as well. I’ve bathed in the waters of th Murrumbidgee, listened to its song in a one string harp while dangling my feet in the flow, been warned by the birds of an approaching lightning storm, ignored the warning and written a song on an aluminum ladder up a gum tree while the storm struck. I know the sounds of the birds and their names for the most part. I can tell the weather by listening to the morning song. I can understand most of the Australian vowels by now. I have a strong sense of place generated by listening first and looking later. I’ve formed bonds with not only the soundscape but the storytellers, the singes, the sound man, the schoolchildren, the people who are concerned with the fate of humans and the land, the local radio broadcasters, the old men in their workshop, the women and men who are trying to breath life of the arts into the land and it’s people.
It’s quiet enough to hear the wings of birds this morning. Quiet enough to know that my little pre-amp would hiss all over this delicate scene, so I won’t record. The crows do their caustic laugh, that they do here. Vic and his family are still sleeping quietly in the schoolhouse after a long haul supporting this project. Baby Holly hasn’t started up her morning aria. Its peaceful with the job done for now, the residency in their home and studio now complete.
I’m leaving behind a place now that has been changed by the project of listening intently. Listening, finding, building, remembering, and really inhabiting a place with my imagination, imagination led by my ears. There are harps in trees, zithers in hollow logs , rusted metal xylophones hanging from the shed, church-bell discs under the teaching tree, rebar space-bells hanging from the cypress pine. There is a a red gum harp in the shed with local resonator gourds (empty water bottles). There is a sound map in Vic’s studio of people, places, performances recorded over the region in the last three weeks.
You find a dot on the map, press the related piano key, and hear and see the memory of sounds past. These are all things to listen to and stretch your imagination with and enter into the center of your own world - being present in your own home- space.
find a location on the map, press the keyboard to play memories
There are some of these instruments that I’m sad to leave behind but that is natural, and one that I will bring with me, or have sent, that rusted steel cello, the plowshare cello. Which has enticed me with it’s strange form and odd resonances and micro curves. And the one that I will miss hearing ithe night, but from the start that was a special gift for Vic, the Murrumbidgee red bark clarinet. Ahh, now there is a goodbye song from the kinda blue bird, the last I will hear, pure and true above the chatter of the rest of the band, now I reach for my recorder one last time.
Very windy this morning when I wake. I lie in bed listening to the sugar gums toss and turn. For a moment fear rain. Then I hear the “kinda-blue-bird’s” normal sunny day song and I relax. I’m trusting in this sense of place, this sense of sound. Yesterday when we left at dawn amidst big clouds I knew that I did not have to bring a rain jacket. The birds were not signing their rain song. I’m getting a sense of this “sonic landscape” and finding in it a place that makes sense.
It’s a matter of attention. I’ve been putting my attention into listening, reaching out into the landscape with my ears. This is very easy to do at the Old Birrego School and its wide open spaces. I’m here on a residency and this is my topic so what is stopping me?
Normally there would be things in the way. In my kitchen at home the drone of NPR would mask the sound of the outside world, and the refrigerator, yest that heavily laden drone forms a standing wave that fills all the nooks and cranny’s of my listening space with a detuned standing wave. Steady waves do two things. They erase the more subtle quiet sounds by taking over that quiet range of hearing and covering up soft sounds. The second is the drone effect. In the hunter gatherer soundscape we evolved in there are no fixed steady sounds that just drone on and on. The stream, the wind, the waterfall, the rain, the sounds of animals insects and humans all fluctuate over time in response to the time of day, the time of year and all the infinite twists and turns of the weather. The marvelous abilities of human hearing developed to help us perceive our place in this fluctuating world. And there is nothing like the drone of a refrigerator to short circuit these delicate perceptions. Nothing like an air conditioner to shut them out completely and replace them with an unchanging mechanical drone. An artificial stasis.
Here there is none of that so the whole world of listening has been opening to me like a flower. The process feels rich, tasty, like a good meal. The practice of sitting under this gum tree (which some locals call the wind harp) gives me a reference point and let’s me compare the days, the shifts of weather and wind, the changes of pattern in these acoustical perceptions about of the world.
But wait. There is another thing that interferes with the attention needed for listening out into the world. The iPad. This little computer, sweetly designed, no key clatter, steals my attention away from listening completely and brings my circle of hearing down to a small point. In fact it vanishes down the vortex of online possibility. I’m drawn in and then my imagination leaves my body sitting in this chair and my mind is somewhere else. I’m not really here. I’m in hyper-space. But I can shift back out into the world around, and hear the wind tip over a bucket near the kitchen, hear the plastic bottle blow across the yard, hear the sway of gum tree branches high overhead, the approach of a distant grain truck.
But if you are sitting on a huge combine harvesting grain in a forty foot “header” swath sealed in an air-conditioned cab watching a DVD while a satellite drives your rig, then where is your attention going? Then what can you hear? Garth told us yesterday about the need to listen to your machine, know its vibrations to avoid danger, breakdowns, down time, financial loss and even fire. Steve told the story of a low wage laborer taking his hands off the wheel of the giant machine and zoning out in the cab while the satellite robot harvested grain. The next thing he knew he was staring at the sky after the half million dollar rig hit an uncharted tree. The solution (and it’s a good one for the bankers) is to replace our naturally given sense of hearing with a hundred thousand dollars worth of sensors.
Or we could just open the window a crack and listen.
We drove to Steve’s in Boree Springs just before dawn. He serves us good coffee in his beautiful and utterly unique sustainable house, a house that he has been evolving and adapting to climate change and the economy over the last thirty years. While the rest of us loose our air conditioning and run out of power Steve will be selling electricity to the grid from his solar panels, sitting in his Persian influenced cooling garden. We head out past lines of trucks weighing their newly harvested grain at the elevators. Steve knows how to drive a harvestor, he knows a lot of practical things and has his own opinions on the state of the world, informed by eclectic reading and a keen sense of which way the wind blows. He’s his own man.
He takes us to The Rock, and its really the first real rock outcropping I’ve seen on these vast plains with their huge grid of fertile fields and farms. The Rock is off this grid, and rises up through the ecosystems like a mini continental divide separating the vast plains that drain the snowy mountains on the east from the more arid farmlands stretching out on the west all the way to “the bite”, that huge missing mouthfull of land on the south coast. When we get to the saddle after climbing steeply Steve suddenly stops. He hears something. He hears the sound of being “here”, of being “home”. The sound comes with memories attached. Let him tell it.
The wind in the She Oak is the sound of "here" for Steve.
Julie Briggs meets us at the pool. It’s her place, her sound, her memory. She grew up swimming here when the turtles touched your toes, when there were leeches and fish in the brown river water and the whole town turned out to beat the heat. Back in the day before big screens and air conditioning and the internet everyone came. Cars were parked a half-mile away. She left Narrandera for a while when she came back home to raise children she brought them here to swim. This is where the summers led her and her family and friends, where the kids had their birthdays, where neighbors met by accident. Now the kids are grown. She comes to swim, to relax, to remember. The pool is modern and clear and blue but the sounds are the same. She uses the memory of this place to relax, to remember. This is her sound.
Woke up at 3am struggling for bandwidth. Since we went to the tower and saw a couple men hammering at the transmission the internet has been shaky. I get used to things – convenience, reliability – and forget how much of a miracle good bandwidth is. But during the day till midnight there is just a trickle left over after the schoolkids, housewives and buisness people drink up what little there is in those inter-pipes. Nothing left for email much less blogging with images, sound and video! Its like the irrigation canal, when its dry there’s nothing left.
Of course I’m not gonna die of thirst if I can’t easily update a blog, AM I? AM I?
That is the question that wakes me at 3 am. How can I go forward with new recordings and experiences when the old ones haven’t made it through the pipes yet. Im going backwards and forwards in history at the same time, I’m getting crosseyed. . . whipsawed by my own experience, my own memory, my own digital future. And there’s not enough in the pipes to get a drink, so to speak, when it takes an hour to load a small compressed photo. Poor me! Poor me? Poor me!
I flee the net and go outside to listen to the wind, to look at the moon. Such stupid questions melt into a complete and fulfilling NOW. Huge moon hanging over the schoolhouse, kinda-blue-bird singing a moon-song I’ve not yet heard.
Oh My God! Shouldn’t I be recording that for the blog? Now! Then! Future! Past! The crickets and the moon are late for their blogging session! How can I record them to show them to this theoretical YOU, somewhere out in hyperspace. . . somewhere in the future?
Vic, Sarah and their daughter baby Holly are very lucky for neighbors. The land is harsh. There are dangers – obvious dangers such as brush fires burning hot and fast in tall wheat fields, and hidden ones as well: poison snakes in the grass, snags in the water hole, bindis in your socks. The Strong family has land which surrounds the school grounds. They have known the land very well for many generations. Garth and Jan Strong talk to Vic and me about their connection to the land and it’s sounds. For instance the direction and nature of approaching weather can be heard from the position of trees around the main buildings. The wind in a certain tree alerted Jan to a coming Nor’easter which lashed the buildings with heavy rains. Garth knows wind from the southwest when it flaps a bit of tin on a shed. The chickens have a special alarm cluck when they see an eagle overhead, the pigeons in the yard have different alarm cries for danger from the sky and ground, the powerful harvestor machine makes all kinds of sounds and vibrations that alert the driver in advance to mechanical problems that might cause breakdown or fire. A good ear can save on down-time and expense. The sheep, normally quiet, bleat when the lambs come. They don’t consider these things special, they are ingrained, just part of living on the farm.
Garth knows our interests and fires up the big Mack truck, lets loose with the air horn which echoes through all the great metal machines lurking in the huge shed. I ask for the loudest sound on the farm and he takes us to the shed housing the fire engine. Before I have a chance to adjust my dials there is a bone-shaking, teeth-jarring siren meant to be heard for miles around. Vic clamps his hands over his ears. I run for distance. Garth comes out of the shed shaken and rubbing his ears. I wonder when the volunteers will arrive in a cloud of dust, but it never happens.
Vic and I try the possibilities of kick drum sounds from 6 foot tall tires echoing into the bellies of vast grain trucks. Jan and Garth join in, getting in the spirit. There is an encyclopedia of great percussion samples here for the machine side of man’s nature, all of them larger than life off the farm. Garth takes us out back to see a stack of steel discs that are used to till the soil. We lift one, hastily rig it on a fencepost and insert the fencepost onto a type of special forklift stand. It fits just right and allows us to test out the discs for their sonic ranther than mechanical properties. They ring like the churchbells of Luxemburg! We are all ears now, trying different combinations, finding part of a scale, listening to combinations, putting more discs on a second post, turning two inward so the ringing can be heard in stereo up close. Vic finds that the listener can make their own mix of frequencies by choreographing his head in the space of the frequencies and scan through the sounds. Garth goes off to find a special part of a front wheel drive car to add to the orchestra as the high note.
When we are done it is magnificent, both sonically and visually. The disc blades, the stand, the core-ten rusted steel look, the massive scale, the whole thing is a beautiful musical sculpture. It is a real artistic collaboration between Garth, Vic and me. Were happy. We shake hands in congratulation. Vic and I take the disc blades in his car, and Garth arrives later with the heavy stand. It will be the center piece of our evening gathering when the “public outcome” is presented on Novermber 19th.
Vic and I meet Greg Pritchard in Narrandera at the Cafe, which is hopping. He tells us about how quiet it is in the Salt Lake where he is making a performance. The audience will come out 5 hours in busses from the city. Half the show, he says will be this big journey from city to the most empty quiet environment that makes your ears ring in the vacuum. I mention that after a long bus journey it really takes 20 hours for your ears to unclench from the noise of travel. He will be ahead of his audience in the long curve of adapting. He takes us out to Galore, a very high bluff above the grid of the farmed land stretching out in all directions below. It is like a fractal wedge of untilled land rising above the agribiz. There is a square lookout tower of steel and tensioned rod on a concrete base capping the landmass, ranger-style. When we walk up our feet set the thing to resonating and of course Vic and I take note. We feel it in our feet, hear the ringing of the whole structure going into vibration. It is tensioned like a huge guitar. We play a duet, rhythmic, four square like the tower itself. Its cool. But later Vic really captures the spirit of the whole landscape with a solo.
Later we talk about how hard it is for people to really imagine sounds. How our thinking and memories, just like the culture as a whole, are dominated by images and visual thinking. We’ve been asking people to share their sonic spaces and memories, but Greg has brought us to a lookout. A view point. The vast visual space is indeed a huge shift and a meditation on space. And there is that great sound object, the tower!
Vic and I are going collecting for memories of sounds in this West Riverina region and we go to the Men’s Shed. This is one of the many good ideas we don’t have in the US, and has spread across Australia as a haven for retired men to put their skills to good use and find a place in their community.
The Narrandera Men's Shed
This one in Narrandera has 30 members and is self organized. It was a very different sound environment, tin walls, lots of machines, lots of projects going in mechanics, metal, wood and an awning being stretched on the lawn for a local school.
Tony's sound memory is of lack of birds in tazmania
Tony tells us a story about the disturbing lack of bird song in Tazmania while he works at recreating a hundred year old wooden toy for his grandchildren.
One of his friends is helping by carving the rider while Tony makes the horse. He came to Australia at 16 on a ship from Copenhagen where he grew up. He met a girl and didn’t get back on the ship. Spent time in the northwest on horseback with the sheep. He’s heard a lot of interesting sounds but that was long ago. He tells us about the sound of the women’s voices on the Aboriginal lands he visited. The men’s shed seems to be full of sounds and stories. ”What are you, sound collector ?” he asks. “If you want to find things like that YOU go lookin for it. That’s the best part”
I wake up and I know something has changed. I hear birds singing different songs. There is a pattern shift. I remember this from before. My brain scans memory looking for a match, a pattern – yes – it sounds like the birds before a rain shower. The birds are singing about rain in the near future. The big gum trees? They are humming and bucking and swaying,gradually louder in a building arc, like big ocean waves getting ready to crest. Yes! It sounds like rain. How do I know? The gang of black birds with long beaks is very nervous and gaggling, not like their normal Rugby scrum gaggle, but more chaotic and disjointed.
On sunny fine hot days the kinda-blue-bird plays a descending major second then repeat that. “HEY! nonny”. But now its a whole different song for this weather, a series of descending thirds. “O you BETter GO inSIDE” The whole place has a feel like people running for the life boats. They all are saying “get ready, get ready!? All this I am informed of by my ears, without looking up.
the ears warn, the eyes confirm- gonna rain
I walk out and look up. Eyes confirm. Big clouds. Big drop of rain falls on my back. So now I’ve heard it, seen it and felt it. Yesterday out by the waterhole playing a duet with the kinda-blue-bird a similar scenario was enacted – the birds changed their songs, I heard it happen. But I was in headphones listening to contact microphone on the log while drumming. I got so caught up in the patterns I was playing that I missed the message and that I had to run for cover. I was warned and I ignored it.
To be warned and to ignore, that is a very interesting conundrum. That could be a way to think about how we use our ears nowadays. We hear the building storm of noise we create in mad pursuit of what. . . . but we ignore it! Will we get caught in the Big Rain? We hear the coming storm and ignore it. Seeing is believing. Listening is for the birds!
Now the birds have changed their song again. The kinda-blue-bird has gone back to its major seconds. Has the storm passed? Perhaps the birds are not actually like professional weather men. They have nothing to sell. When the pressure passes, they change their song. No big deal. What do you want from a bird?
Sound is a direct readout of all the vibrations around you, of all the energy being expended at that moment.
I hear the jet above me burning fuel, I hear the air pressure system – wind - push a leaf and the tree bend it back with a rustle, I hear the wing of the bird beating air, I hear the intnal combustion engines on the road two miles away and the inflated tires singing on the asphalt as they spin under weight. I hear the air vibrating in the birds throat,beak and body. I hear the vibration of the tall grasses being pushed back and forth against each other in the wind. I hear the beating wings of the fly as it passes near my ear, I hear the fluctuating sunds of a jet passing above the shadows and lenses of the clouds, I hear the density of the moisture particles held by the clouds. I hear the creek of the chair as I lean against its back.
All of this is immediate and direct, the transmission of waves given off by the expenditure of energy. Some of these vibrations are in wavelengths that can be received by human sense organs and if attention is applied some of them can be decoded. But as I’ve fund here in Australia, it is hard to decode something the first time you hear it or feel it. I did not know language of the birds songs for rain the first time I heard them. I only sensed CHANGE in pattern. But after hearing this new song comes the rain. Then the next time if I apply myself and remember, when I hear a change in the birdsong I will know that means rain. Learning a language of sounds. Learning a place.
I come inside to get a new cup of tea. A new pattern o vibrations is redistered by my brain. It is the sound of little percussive hits in the frequency range of 600-1000 cycles per second in an irregular rhythm faster than a tabla drummers fingers. This sound echoes in the studio”s bright acoustic. Comes a big Rain. It was the rain song after all!
A couple of days ago I really fell in love with a bird song. I have been surrounded by the songs of birds in Croton where I live but I only think of it in a general way. I use the birdsong to wake in the morning, to know when spring has arrived. But I have not fallen in love with any particular birdsong. Never got out the book, never memorized calls.
But this is different, this is love at first listening. This one bird sings an octave below anything else and seems to have its own special effects. It plays along and lonely simple melodies that really trigger my modes. A two note figure “Hey nonny……Hey! nonny…” just dropping down one note on the white keys. Then a suprise motif straight out of Wagner. Slow and stately – it lets the other birds do the heavy lifting of creating a general hubub. Reminds me of Miles Davis in the late fifties and early sixties, so sans actual identification cause I’ve never seen this bird, I call it the “kinda blue-bird”. Here I am puzzling over its sound two mornings ago.
And then today I had a real cross species experience. The “kinda blue-bird” and I had an extended jam. You can even hear the bird pick up rhythmic motifs from my log drumming. I edited out some measures because the full 8 min jam is too long for the web but I didnt change any timing or slide anything around. This is how it was for the “kinda blue-bird” and me. By the way, the “kinda blue-bird” carries its instrument whereever it flies. I do the same with my recording gear so I’m ready. But for an instrument I had to make do with playing on the stump of a downed tree that had some very resonating slots. So this is a cross-species duet between the bird and a human playing on a found slot drum.
I’m not shy. Its windy and many many flies attacking the microphones in my ears, so the scarf is my binaural windscreen, and gives me peace from the flies!
Last night I was awakened with urgency from my dream by the three women in the dream, Liz Lacompte, Kate Valk and Maryanne Amacher, who died tragically, recently. Kate and Liz were shaking me awake actually from within the dream, and urging me to participate in a blog in honor of Maryanne, her work, her legacy, her sad demise. Awoke to a huge thunderstorm, lightning flashing green in my window. OZ. Waking up at 3 AM in OZ. Stumbing to and fro from sleep pursued by muses. Here is the tape.
After a long day I was visited by another muse, Holly, age almost one, on her daddy’s hip. Now Holly will be the first baby blogger. She’ll have a blog before she can talk. She’s brilliant and determined and often disappointed by her inability to do the things she sees people doing around her. Talking, Walking, Blogging, Directing Festivals. I had just put the first string on my sugar gum harp, added the water bottle resonating gourds, and tuned it up when Vic came up with Holly. Holly, I could see, could use some cheering up. So I made her this song, the first song played on the sugar gum harp. Holly’s Song. Her mom took the picture.
Bruce with the Sugar Gum Harp, playing Holly's Song
Day four. So what can you hear without the hums of modern life? Birds, insects, weather, neighbors passing on the road – the great web of living – when its not drowned out by other things.
So far I’ve stayed at schoolhouse compound with Vic, his wife, Sarah, and baby Holly since arriving from the snow storms of New York. Plopped down - somewhere? Slowly piecing together NOT a “picture” of where I am, but a sonic map. It is much slower going to connect all the things I’ve heard, get used to the birds, to know from listening which way is east, know the wind from the pepper tree. I want to restore the balance of my senses by really listening to where I am.
I decide to take my first day out of the compound, head north, hit that roughly paved road driving on the left side. Destination Murrumbidgee River. Need water after all this dry open space – need to find the flow.
The Murrumbidgee. This is the great cultural passage way of the Aboriginal peoples who have lived on their lands for 60,000 years. Language and trade flowed up and down while the Celts were fighting the Romans. I nose my way along the back side of town past ramshackle shacks seeking the hollows, edging past the sacrificial giant “water leisure feature” that attracts the grey nomads and suburban children.
There’s a back way that takes me down into an area that is now protected and being restored the Wiradjuree to a state close to that of before first contact. As I go deeper into the gum forest it becomes magical. Green filtered light and huge ancestral gum trees, the ancient grandmother and grandfather trees to their tribes. There is a black line where the floods came last year, and it is way way up on the trunks. The floods must have carried off all the debris, because it is pristine. Elfin. Magic. Nature spirits so strong, and showing in the forms of the various tribes of trees as they reach up to the light.
The atmosphere is totally different in here. On this ultra-hot day it is cool and filtered with breezes sweeping through the gum trees.
It is open sounding for a forest, spacious and generous, no slap back echos, not as soft and diffuse as a pine forest, not as tight and closed as the oak and maple forests I know from home. This acoustic by itself is pleasing and enjoyable. The breezes are high overhead, sweeping throu that special filtered leaf sound peculiar to gum trees. But down here on the forest floor it is open and vibrant sounding. Not like a cottonwood forest where the leaves rattle and ratle up and down the tree. This functions sonically like a fountain does in a city. It masks everything around it and covers it up so you cannot hear past it. But in the forests along the Murrumbidgee you can hear all directions down low while simultaneously hearingthe high sweep of leaves brushing the sky. Its intoxicating.
I take the turn for First Beach, find a muddy swimming hole near the river. I’d like to try making a marimba of this fallen or drifted gum wood so I wander off a ways and find myself at the base of a massive progenitor tree, an ancient one with a huge hollow base. Theres a limb that must have fallen during the storm.
I sit in this atmosphere, soaking it in, some high shiny insect plays a solo in the canopy, not overwhelming like a movie, but just barely there, a shade of interest. A tune wells up in me, seeking a way out, a melody, a rhythm, a feeling, something about early childhood meeting old age. I keep this in my minds ear while I seek for an instrument, a simple one, to accompany this emergence.
There is some amazing bark from this tree, and it looks like nothing I’ve ever seen. Strong, formed by the complex impression of the tree, but it comes off in large pieces like sounding boards of curvy guitars.
I quickly wrap a harpsichord sring from my bag round it, bend it to gain tension, pluck and play. Here is the song, accompanied by youth splashing in the Murrambidgee in the background.
I move through this forest in a trance, the skyies are building for a storm now and the trees sway, and the birds seek shelter – the songs somehow alarmed and disturbed. I dont want to get Sarah’s car stuck in the mud so I head back to Narrandera and stop for fish and chips. I’m hungry but I’m not ready for the beating that this consumer soundscape gives me after an afternoon of such acoustic beauty.
I sit, eat my grease and salt, absolutely delicious. You can just hear “Good Morning Starshine” from Hair struggling to rise above the huge roar of the fat ventilator. Price of progress?
If you have not spent much time in the great agribiz plains of Australia where the skies open huge to the wind’s constant song, and the heat and flies drive you in before noon, then there are a few practical matters to discuss.
Bindis- if you just go walking through the grass as would be sensible to do in the plains of the midwestern states of america, for instance, you wil encounter something called bindis. They would be cute enough little spirals of wheat colored grass if it were not for the fact that they have FANGS. yes FANGS! They use their spiral shape and sort of one way barbs to work through even my stiffest heavy twill skillers work pants and then move on to flesh. You can take a two minute walk and find your argyle socks penetrated by a thick ruff of cute little wheat colored bindies, If it were a just a design look it be very expensive ankle warmers sold to the dancers at Juliard if not for the FANGS. yes FANGS. Because you will feel your ankles stung by bees but they dont go away, no, they burrow deeper till whatever you have in your mind to do soon isn’t in your mind at all anymore. Instead you spend quite a bit of time with your leatherman pulling bindis out of your socks.
Internet- First it is a miracle to have internet out here on these startling planes. Walk down any red dirt road hard as cement now the floods have dried up, and you will find hard bits of rusted iron left by farm wagons of the past, all thats left, not blown away by the wind, parched by the sun. Its not like the american desert. It poses as something far friendlier, say South Dakota. But the place itself soon imposes its own reality, and if you are not a bird or a tree life will be hard indeed. Especially if you have “civilized” needs like a morning trip for a New York Times to your local coffeehouse. The distances are great enough to melt such thoughts away. Where does the internet come from here? Its hard to say. Vic has some sort of antennae afixed to the roof of the old schoolhouse pointed at some type of distant repeater station. Sometimes the reception is brilliant, and sometimes theres none. Is it the wind?, Sunspots? The vagueries of data packet traffic being haggled over by the gods? This is not something I can fix, because in these harsh lands I find out that if you cant build it yourself, you are a , gasp, CONSUMER. Yes, a consumer of lattes, and a consumer of the internet.
“Today, as Bruce and I wondered off on a morning mission to find a waterhole and a grove of trees that Bruce had discovered on a previous day, we became distracted and we diverged form our path at the site of a large old rust metal box. On top of the box were a whole series of metal “fossils”, remains of past farming labour. Broken bits of early farm machinery. They were all arranged neatly on top of this large metal box as if they had been collected there long ago for a forgotten purpose that never eventuated.
They consisted of the blades from an old harvester all neatly lined up on a piece of wire so they sat like a spine of vertebrae. There were broken handles, rusty old hanging frames and other things (fossils). We played together on this box, made some recordings with these found prepared agricultural trinkets. And I thought that it seemed that someone had gathered these here for a purpose that was never fulfilled and we have came along and repurposed that intention.
The day before Bruce had arrived to commence his residency (which was 2 days after Victoria Hunt left from here), I had started clearing the land around the school house.
Whippersnippering, chainsawing, hauling, dragging and piling.
There were many reasons for this:
To prepare the space for having an audience here on November 19th.
To clear away potential homes for snakes.
To reclaim some of the land around us so we can start directing our activity towards the “outdoors”
To start inhabiting land so that when Holly (now 11 months old) is old enough to play outside, that she has some spaces that are safe.
There is a space at the school house where there is a small cluster of pepper trees (gnarled, interesting shapes, part dead, part alive), cypress pine, weeds, brush.
I started clearing this the day before Bruce arrived and have continued a little each day since. I had stopped on that first day because I had cleared into a part where I discovered a beautiful old hollowed out brach that hung down almost in an arch.
It was beautiful so I didn’t want to chainsaw it but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
As Bruce came to watch and help me chipping away at the overgrowth the following day, he started tapping, playing the old cypress tree. Listening for resonance, listening for tone, listening for potential. Repurposing my task.
So, for a few days we have slowly cleared away the area, delicately and not delicately, trimming branches in order that we create a large harp like instrument out of it.
I had started this task before Bruce arrived and we continued it together toward another intention. This is a great beginning to a collaboration.
We were preparing the land together.
We were preparing our performance space together.
We were discovering.
We weren’t jamming, We were observing and finding and doing.
And slowly a sonic installation will unfold.
So, todays jam and recording on the large rusty metal box with farm trinkets, was another repurposing of someones previous collecting. And as Bruce peered inside the metal box with his video camera to discover a metal box full of thick cob webs, I realised that this hour or so of slow, soft focussing on gentle subtle movements and exploring the landscape through it’s sonic nature had cleared the cob webs inside of me.
Vibrations are all around us all the time, pick up anything and play music and sound, communicate to the world around you. We can find our way in the world through our ears, as well as our eyes or our wallet.
The Old Birrega School has a brand new steel shed where I’m living during this residency. It was put up so recently that there are still lots of construction materials lying about on the red clay earth, in the weeds. Why not start right here, transforming some very local materials into instruments.
The first thing I picked up was a very long steel rebar of the sort to reinforce a cement wall. It was lying in the grass but on being struck it sang–– strange overtones radiating down the length, shimmering phase shift, metalic electronic buzz. In an early electronic music studio of the 50′s or 60′s it would take weeks to get a sound like this.
A bonzai bend in the nearby cypress pine offered a handy branch for suspension and two rebars soon arced the span slowly spinning in the breeze occasionally touching, sparking, arcing sounds. I recorded this with binaural mics in my ears listening hard listening close. Put up a point and shoot video focused on the earth. Done.
There is always an instrument or a sound near at hand waiting to be built. Just look for the gifts around you, they are plentiful. A few minutes later I stumbled on a lampshade size snarl of rebar in the grass which had lovely ringing melodic tones. Playing on this gamelan attached to the wall of the shed as a big reverb resonator, and melodies soon emerged, and nagged by a cloud of flies coming out in the heat and the ringing tones a song emerged as a gift. Here’s a verse.
“when you hear the buzzing in your ears,
you may think the end is near
but if you do and you wait too long,
you’ll never get a chance to sing your song,
I’ll post the song in a few days once the chorus feels sweet. Its all made with found object instruments.
I’m sitting under a kind of tree, what kind I don’t know. Perhaps that is why I can listen so deeply without tiring to its leaves and branches singing in the wind. Perhaps it is because there is no highway, no motors, to freeze the dimensions of the tree’s song into a flat repetitive plane of existance. Perhaps it is because there is no traffic to cover up the subtleties of it’s song that I can become such a willing audience.
Either way it’s song holds me in it’s sway with endless variations. The treetop sings, then the left then the right, swaying back and forth, and then the low branches with their closeup detail of leaves clattering, never the same, always shifting. The song comes from the weather, from large pressure changes in the sky passed down to local sworls, moving ever eastward over the huge flat plains. Its a song that is familiar but it never repeats. It grows and dimishes, sustains its intrigue. It has the seduction of an intimate story, the dramatic arc of a symphony, twists and turns of a good movie. What it does not do is freeze in place like the oming of a flouresent light, or the incessant repition of a diesel pump.
As our culture fills with looping machines that turn on and never turn off, as our nervous system adapts, so does our music. It is no longer built from the arcs of the wind, the surge of the storm, but the loops and fixed rhythms of machines. The sway of the drummer –– replaced by the drum machine. The imperfections of the string orchestra –– replaced by the digital keyboard. Even the fluctuations and emotions of the singer’s voice flattened into the synthetic auto-tuned robot.
We have lost the fear of the machine. It has turned to envy.
So here I am. Yes but where am I? Where is here? Let me look.
At first glance it looks like the homestead of my great grandfather in South Dakota where he came to start a new life after earning the money on a Missouri riverboat. But then two small kangaroos casually hop by.
What kind of impression can I form just by listening then?
Well it must be dawn because all the birds are singing. But these are not birds that I have heard before. There is the one with the lovely warble, sideways like soap bubbles, like some electronic a burble in a techno song. Another one jeers like a Fox News anchor.
The breeze again is blowing through the trees but these are not familiar leaves rattling and twisting in the wind, but slender ones that swish like horses tails, sighing in a slow stereo sweep like the wind in movies.
I hear here are very irregular passing of single cars –– like soloists down a worn road paved long ago. I can her this roughness in the surface, so it’s not a main road. It’s morning, are they on their way to work? If so there are not many of them. the acoustic is very dry here. The car passes with no echoes, no reverberating through forests or reflections bouncing off of houses. Not much cement, not many buildings.
Now a jet passes very high above, steady, coasting to land or straining to take off. It’s slow progress across the sky is un-deflected by clouds. So it must be wide open sunny skies.
The slow steady progress of the high altitude jet plays against the rolling sweep of the wind in these extrordinairlily tall trees. The wind in the trees is very restless – like the stir of orchestral strings first passing through the violins, now the violas, now the cellos. The steady ostinato of the jet droning across the sky drives them on.
It’s a bit of a playground for the birds here this morning . That fabulous bird splays its circular song again, one of many strange calls. Now another’s jet passes high overhead. We are under some flight path, I guess.
As a person who lives by a busy commuter road an hour from New York City on a good day, with trains and boats and planes running by, I think I’m somewhere very remote right now. I can hear this remoteness. There is no constant roar that tells me I’m close to commuters in large numbers trying to get to work. There is no rumble of train, no helicopter.
In the last days of travel my poor bombarded ears, stunned by travel, have withdrawn exhausted from a series of artificially controlled environments –– the tube of throbbing jets, the air conditioned remoteness of waiting lounges, the aggression of Musak infestations in transit bays, the pulsing of prop jet. Now they are waking up and welcoming in the fresh sounds of unfamiliar territories. They are cautiously crawling from the protective shells of their ear canals and venturing forth to gather information in this new environment. They are sending little wake up calls to the brain to shed those protective filters, to open the doors that shut down big time in the confusion and fatigue of travel and venture forth and explore the unfamiliar.
It’s a survival instinct I suppose if we want to blame it on Darwin, like so much else. I need my ears now to find out where I am, how I am to connect to the world around me. All these fresh new patterns to decode. So stunned from the overwhelming constancy and loudness of international jet travel, they are now venturing forth to engage, decode, spark the inquisitive hunter gatherer nature that still resides in this inhabitant of simultaneous worlds. Because at this moment I inhabit the hunter-gatherer world of an human animal decoding a new and fresh savanah environment I was just dropped down in the middle of last night after long travel half way end the world. I also inhabit the information age as I tap on my iPad and record my thoughts. I inhabit the industrial age as I listen to the cars and jets pass. I inhabit the agricultural age as I get hungry for breakfast and assume that there is perhaps some stored food nearby that I did not grow myself.
Travel Weary Senses- headed to Australia and stuck in Limbo: Day 00
Bruce Odland stranded in an International Non-Place.
My senses are very compressed by extreme disorientation, travel fatigue and jet lag. My eyes and ears are taking in almost nothing at all and what they do take in my brain cannot seem to process. I’ve been up for days it seems, but how many? I cant tell. I’ve crossed too many time zones. I’ve lost all rational track of time.
I left New York Monday but it was supposed to be Sunday, flew was it one or two zones to Dallas, waited how many hours? I took on a sixteen hour flight cross another how many zones? Midway one of these theortetical days was cancelled like a bookkeeping error. The international date line pushed me over the edge. Landed in Brisbane but that wasn’t on my ticket and they either do or dont have daylight savings time there. I dont find that out till the delayed plane arrives in Sydney and I loose that hour again and miss the flight to Wagga Wagga. Now I’m waiting for hours in a non-place limbo with jittery limbs and a blackout brain. When I look outside into daylight it is the wrong season. I’ve jump cut into the southern sun rays of springtime. But my last clear memory of a real place was a premature blizzard in New York that cut off power and snapped thousands of trees. My senses are a jumble of misfires.
Is it true that I can hear and see less well or is my brain misfiring? Is there any way to tell? Let me try to concentrate. . .
Listening to this waiting room is like hearing a monaural recording of a confusing space, or maybe like going to a big party with plugged ears. I just can’t sort out what I’m hearing.. . . . . an ancient dot matrix printer by the check in desk mixes with a desperate announcer voice from a tiny tinny television , the roar of jets and propellers through thick glass, the suitcase wheels on the ridges of the moving walkways, several wailing children somewhere in the distance down a glass corridor, high heels echoing on fake marble floor, dinging bells of announcements. . . . but it all turns into acoustical and perceptual “muddy muddy water” and carries almost no information at all through my tired ears to my tired brain.
But why should it make any sense? Really! Has anyone given it any thought at all? If there is a designer responsible for this madness please raise your hand! I’m listening to the sounds of a non-place and apparently no one at all seems to be responsible for the mix. It could be almost any airport in the world. I cannot really process the activity all around me. I’m sitting like a stone in the soup –– separated, alone, impermeable.
Some indeterminate time later I will get on a plane and it will bring me to the familiar face of Vic. And the familiar face of Vic will bring me to the old schoolhouse where I will get a chance to reset my internal clock to something like nature, and skies and smells. Till then I just have to tolerate a state of limbo with its random images and sounds. Behind me a silly informercial song about kangaroos and zoos does its desperate best to capture my attention. But no one knows why it is playing or cares.
Place and non-place. What are the characteristics of each?
That is what I hope to explore with this project. How do our senses –– particularly hearing –– help us form an impression of where we are. How is it that we recognize a place?
It seems that I have accidentally started this exploration process in the Limbo of Non-Place. From here I hope to pop up fresh and impressionable somewhere I have never been. Like Gulliver on a travel. Like Candide. Like a baby.