31 Mar 2014

some reflections on the dead space of storage media, and its relation to a bird which evaded solidity in classification for 150 years

moving into an object-based output for radio cegeste's dissipative ephemeralities was initially only driven by finding productive frisson in collaboration with improvisational musicians who release most things they do on their own record labels (here's looking at you, Lee Noyes). I couldn't really say no, and i'm glad I didn't. Since then, and despite ongoing trepidations around solidifying fleeting aetheric mobiles into repeat-listening structures in storage media, I'm telling myself i'm using such formats strategically.

I'm rather fond of the almost unplayable format of the mini CD, which is obsolete in a more recent - and invisible - way than most of the sonic objects i've tended to be interested in, the early 20th century forms whose temporal distances speak 'materiality' to a digital age in more obviously 'antique' manner. This dainty wafer of digital inscription is however an entirely appropriate format for radio cegeste's first solo release to have been caught on; the New Zealand Storm Petrel EP, released on Kate Carr's label Flaming Pines late last year, is a fleeting, crackly thing, just less than 20 minutes long. I was specifically interested in Kate's Birds of a Feather series for this label, based on birds in music, for its potential to extend my radio work around the immediacy of radio-and-bird communicability (see Kokako Variations, and other recent transmission works) into the 'dead space' of storage media. (I've been using storage media in combination with transmission for a little while, but often though their appearance as chunks of stored time in live performance.) 

The New Zealand Storm Petrel was a perfect focus for this investigation, being notable for its flight from taxonomy, a re-appearance which is only Lazarus-like for the classificatory mechanisms of human language (presumably, the bird knew where it was, all along). A bird like a book returned to the library of babel after more than a human lifetime, to assuage the spectres of colonial guilt. To replace its ghost shelved in some dusty corner, with all the other stuffed specimens.

On the surface, the piece is pretty unabashedly Romantic: made in the middle of a Dunedin winter, one year after coming back from my residency on Kapiti Island bird sanctuary, where I wandered in search of the remains of shipwrecks and the remnants of a demolished lighthouse (both not on maps, but locations gathered through local knowledge). Source material included the immediate and the archival, the "transmissive" and the "iterative": unprocessed field recordings of the sea at Kapiti, maritime shortwave radio transmissions gathered in Kapiti fields one windy day, the run out grooves of various 78rpm records of birdsong, and a slowed down, nearly inaudible recording of 78rpm Victor disc of old standard Asleep in the Deep. Its lyrics are indecipherably buried within the piece, becoming (another) analogue to the bird's own long silence, and the archival object's melancholy remains at the borders of the playable/unplayable, the various drowned voices of history (Traditionally, Storm Petrels have served as warnings for coming storms, within sign systems constructed by maritime folklore):
Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings. Sailor, take care! Sailor, take care!
Danger is near thee. Beware! Beware! Beware! Beware!
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep, So beware! beware!
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep, So beware! beware!
A small flock of the 3" squares arrived in the mailbox recently, sent by Kate before she headed off on a residency. They are currently alighted on the table in my hallway with their chalkily tactile deep indigo covers, flat and vivid like the kind of obsolete toxic chrome dyes used in early 20th century clothing manufacture, depicting a small black and white bird hovering over its own oil-slicked shadow on a glassy midnight sea.  

Here's what some other people, sitting in different rooms to the one I am in now, have had to say about it. By the sounds of things, some of the elusivity of radiophonic liveness has indeed been preserved:

"At first, the 20-minute track creaks and rustles, implying absence.  Limpid strings slowly make an appearance, as if apologizing for their presence.  A wave of radio static rides in like the tide.  McIntyre writes that she “wanted to evoke the sounds of the earliest field recordings of birds, before the tape recorder was invented”.  The static field suggests magnetism and wax cylinders, the recording choices of a bygone era.  As melodies gradually emerge from the ether, one imagines the surprise of discovery, of finding something where nothing was believed to exist.  On multiple occasions, the strings subside completely, leaving a trail of electrical discharge.  This makes The New Zealand Storm Petrel sound nearly hauntological, an impression of an impression, a memory of a memory."

- Richard Allen, review in A Closer Listen

"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."

- Nathan Thomas, review at Fluid Radio