“The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man's changeful will.”
– Charles Babbage, the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, Chapter IX; 'On the permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we Inhabit', 1837
“This morn I was awak'd by the singing of the birds ashore, from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile. The numbers of them were certainly very great, who seem'd to strain their throats with emulation. Perhaps their voices were the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable, to which maybe the distance was no small addition. On inquiring of our people, I was told they had observed them ever since we have been here, and that they begin to sing about one or two in the morn, and continue till sunrise, after which they are silent all day, like our nightingales.”
– Joseph Banks, writing on board the Endeavour while anchored in Ship Cove, off the coast of New Zealand, 1770
"We are at the dawn when we can imagine a different type of radio, such as Murray Schafler describes in "Radical Radio." Schaefler criticises radio that "has become the clock of Western civilisation, taking over the function of social timekeeper from the church bell and the factory whistle," and imagines a new type of radio that could "ring with new rhythms, the bio-cycles of all human life and culture, the biorhythms of all nature." This does not imply that we should reject all radio that tries to convey messages - message radio. But I just want us to think about the different potential of radio, the experimental side of radio."
– Tetsuo Kogawa, 'Toward Polymorphous Radio', 1990
“What new devices do we have to invent in order to realize a completely new time area, in that we are moving outside of the well known 24 hour clock related to a time zone, related to a country, related to a calendar?”
– TIK radio website, 2011
Beatrice Harrison was a British cellist who became a popular radio sensation in the spring of 1924, when she initiated the first ever broadcast live to radio from an outdoor location. The BBC continued to broadcast performances, during which Nightingales would come to 'duet' with Harrison while she was playing her instrument in her garden, every spring for many years after this first transmission, casting both birds and cellist through the aether from their site-specific location, and giving listeners new representations of and engagement with the garden's sentimentalised or domesticated vision of nature through the distancing-intimacy of radio. Shellac discs of field recordings were released on the back of this success, some of unaccompanied birds recorded in the garden. They were, and remain, field recordings, real-time snippets of the particularity of the audible world. 'a Library for The Birds of Otepoti' re-considers the site-specificity of these broadcasts and recordings, asking, almost 100 years later, now that the live radio waves themselves, as well as the garden they transmitted, are only accessible historically, as a sound-library, what it means that such sounds can have a material afterlife in the present, and what we can make of the relationship of the technologised-archival to the notion of non-linguistic memory and oral history if we consider the statement that 'birds are nature's tape recorders'.
When Harrison was broadcasting live on the BBC airwaves, it must have seemed an uncanny - even magical - experience of presence, of making-present an elsewhere. Something akin to the lost moment of filmic presence that attended the crowd's incredulity at witnessing the Lumiere brothers' train, steaming into the station in the moment before representation and the moving image had flattened space to the two-dimensionality of the screen. How to make time between 'then' and 'now' audible? What is 'the present' in a world over-saturated with archival elements? Is the notion of a linear progression of time destabilised by the very mention of its ostensibly 'obsolete' containing technological frameworks? And what is the place of non-human animals in all this? The tick of an antique analogue clock recurs in the rapid cycling of a Gramophone's playback, until the archival recording of a bird slows down, losing its easy relationship to representation, folk-familiarity, its status as familiar touchstone of an English nostalgic past. The occasional burst of in-mic wind noise, which has not been edited out, foregrounds sonic tactility in this newer recording device (a Zoom H4n) as much as the Gramophone does when, slowing down, it displays the cyclic devolution of time embedded in 87 year old storage media, re-released momentarily into the air of a different garden, in a different era, a different part of the globe, and it awakens not without dilution in this air, like an introduced (displaced) species losing the context of its 'natural' biosphere, like a copy of a copy of a recording getting grainier, like an organic cell dividing and losing nucleic information as it replicates. Then the low buzz of a Bumblebee is suddenly in the mic, echoing the scratch and hiss of a radio going off-station, a foregrounding of a present moment in which bees are threatened globally, being negatively effected en-masse by what was once termed Colony Collapse disorder, now known to be the effects of neurotoxin pesticides which are working their way up the food chain to affect insect-eating birds as well, a repetition of Carson's "silent spring".
We arrive at disjunctive impressions of place, the idea of the natural environment as a colonialist ghost-story, a haunting, full of traces and silences. A palimpsest which makes no logical sense, which cannot be contained in an easy narrative of 'natural harmony'. No endemic birds come to hear me play (perhaps I am on the wrong instrument entirely), but an introduced garden bird, a Common Blackbird (Turdus merula), comes to listen to the Gramophone, seemingly attracted by a long-dead Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)'s song, perhaps because it recognises - something? - deep in its own species-memory - of this music, a mnemonic trace, an echo normally unheard in this landscape it finds itself living in, its genetic line transplanted to. Will it take this record into its own musical repertoire, and replay it in the songs it sings in this garden, will it teach the song to its children, re-forming a relationship to an older dialect of English Songbird aesthetics? Or am I merely projecting my own desire for communion onto this companion animal of long standing - as Beatrice did in her garden, in the 1920s? As in the Keatsian conflict between Romanticism and reality, the meditation on death and human limitation within the reverie at the immortality of Nature in 'Ode to a Nightingale' ("Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?"). Time cycles, layers up, becomes a palimpsest of audio compacting copies of itself, within the bounds of a day, which also happens to be the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Centre Bombings in New York. This day is then compressed into a 25minute audio piece, beginning with the bugle-call teritorialisation of the first lone dawn birdsong (an introduced European starling (Sternus vulgaris)), and ending with the dusk chorus of cars, going on as they do, and will, seemingly like Geological time, whatever might happen.
'a Library for The Birds of Otepoti' is an experimental documentary about a garden, one located in Dunedin, New Zealand, an acre of grounds that hangs precariously in the present as it hung precariously in the projections of the past, its existence stretched out between the ideologies of one time and another. Originally planted by a newly-rich immigrant family in 1903, it was then carefully tended for decades by a Professor of Botany, who planted rare specimens within it, and treated it as a repository and a nursery - his home 'library' of plants - a tree once listed as the rarest in the world, discovered on Three Kings Island by the Botanist and planted in his garden now has a small grove of specimens thriving here. The garden's sense of being a zone 'out of time', a haven from the world, its various uses now left to decay into the wider histories of a decaying small city at the bottom of the world, a place in transition, a country in thrall to the immediacy of global culture, a lack of stable historical narrative, the forces of utilitarian capitalist pragmatism. The garden is not a sanctuary from an unstable present, and sits uneasily alongside the live-museum notion of the Ecosantuary, as containing ecological space. The garden, like the Gramophone and the radio, is a set of obsolete assumptions which reveal the prior existence and continuance of ideologies. But it is also, like them, a zone full of untapped potentials, unrecorded histories and unspoken minutes. Lost to whatever ears might have glanced across them, these aural ghosts are now interviewed, and then packaged up and sent to another time zone, on the other side of the globe, the garden-radio's powering by the diurnal clock of solar energy now given over to an equally (post)utopian radio that is programmed via the vicissitudes of 'wind time', that seeks to undermine the quantitative tyrannies of Chronos in favour of the qualitative flowerings of Kairos.
This seems to be a good strategy, or at least an intriguing experiment. Less than two hours after finishing the piece, at 7am New Zealand time, I am hearing it played as part of the TIK ArtRadio project, streaming over the internet from Slovakia at 9pm Central European Time, its transfer to this earlier timezone leaping it backwards to be again within the boundary of its own day of creation, turning the narrative of time's unquestionable line into a mechanism fraught with imperfection. Having stayed up all night, my attention is perhaps somewhat in synch with the fact that my internet is slow and the transmission glitchy. I think of all the other radios scattered around the world that might be listening in to this 'real time' live stream, and all the forms of interference that might be getting in the way of the piece's small world, its garden, already fraught with break and stutter. There, the idealized English pastoral space, and the fantasy of inter-species communication, breaks again against airwaves filled with commercial radio detritus, signal and noise shifting and changing, the unreliable nature of the solar panel dropping out the radio signal, bird songs of common-or-garden-variety species translated into the mechanised early radio language of Morse Code, a background of the distant lowing songs of cars.
It is less than a month after what would have been John Cage's 99th birthday. The imminent celebration of the 'Cage century' begs many questions about the ways in which we have learned to listen. How could we possibly conceive, now, of aural havens, environments away from human or industrial noise? That fantasy is as obsolete as the garden itself, which looks down over the city, which, in the 108 intervening years, has accelerated and left it behind, which is also ever-present on the sonic peripheries in the document of its recording. When the present opens it is a blankness full of detail, fragments of sonic gestures that cycle through the mouths of birds, the distant echoes of the city filtering up from below. The garden is filled with the silences of its pasts and the sonic traces of its wider present, the cultural tribalism of sports events, ecological and historical erasure, national disaster, personal tragedy and public memorial. In this sense, I think of 'a Library for The Birds of Otepoti' as something of a noisy cousin to Jonty Semper's collected series of memorial silences, a 'minor literature' take on Memorialisation also indebted in their way to the ear that Cage opened to the noise of the 20th Century. Meanwhile, the playback goes on : the piece has seemingly reached a crescendo of strings, they are not sounding confident about the languages of the birds they speculate might be attracted to them, there is no ease of translation here, as was the assumption around Beatrice Harrison's cello and the Nightingale, instead they arrive as skittery, chirping post-colonial mimics, full of flutter and restlessness, ticking like a clock, droning like a car, twittering like a flock of sparrows, not knowing the songs or who, if any, might be left to listen, putting their all, not into a repertoire of traditional song forms, but their trailing off into responsive environmental improvisation. And then they are gone, and the lock-groove of a shellac record slows, leaving only the aural bones of the space itself, the environmental documentary as simple playback. Here are the sounds of the garden, of the house I am sitting in, and here I am, a full sun-cycle of 24 hours after beginning the piece, and as the piece's playback in Slovakia ends, I find myself listening to (the same?) birds mixing in to the recorded ghosts of themselves 24 hours earlier, as they start to replay the garden's soundtrack again without me, to call in this subsequent dawn.
All audio recorded and re-recorded between dawn and dusk, September 11, 2011, at my house : Threave, Dunedin, New Zealand, outside in the garden, apart from the recording of the alarm clock, a 1920s wind-up, in the study inside the house. Broadcast at 9pm Slovakian time, 11th September 2011, to finish the programme of TIK Art Radio, a project running from 6-11 Sept: "One week of radio broadcast scheduled by wind-time, created by radio makers and collectives [...] dealing with alternative time-concepts and ecology. [...] TIK Radiodays is part of TimeInventorsKabinet, a project dealing with with alternate time control systems, investigating time relations within biological and circumstantial ecologies, Within the framework of this project wind-time was established, that we take as a base for measuring a new time."
[a transmission for the ghosts of Beatrice Harrison and Prof. Geoff Baylis. with many thanks to Campbell Walker for his assistance with documentation].-----