7 Jun 2016

fieldnotes: tracing the source of the signal only opens the noise of the field (talking to the lyrebird about copyright)


“A trace is the apparition of a distance, however close that which it evokes may be. Whereas the aura is the apparition of a nearness, however far away that which left it behind may be.”
- Walter Benjamin, fragment from The Arcades Project

tracing the source of the signal only opens the noise of the field (talking to the lyrebird about copyright) is a site-specific research project currently being conducted as fieldwork by radio cegeste in the location of Sherbrooke Forest, in the Dandenong Ranges, about an hour out of the city of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

The project traces a particular vein of pioneering Australian broadcast and field recording experiments beginning in June 1931, and conducted throughout the 1930s. In this period, the nascent development of audio transmission and storage technologies became momentarily fascinated with the recording abilities of a particular bird species.

In their paper, First Sound Recordings of the Lyrebird, Peter J. Fullagar and Ederic S. Slater compile a useful evaluative overview of this history. They describe the first recording (on the optical soundtrack of film) and the first (non-live) transmission: "The first sound recording in Australia of a wild bird was made 28 June 1931. On that day the song of the Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae was preserved on sound-film in Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne. Australian Sound Films Ltd. made this historic recording with the assistance of Ray Littlejohns who was at the time completing a film on lyrebirds. The recording was broadcast during the evening of 2 July 1931, from a radio station in Sydney. Until this time all attempts at recording the song of the Superb Lyrebird in the wild had been frustrated by lack of suitable equipment with all previous efforts being of unacceptable quality."

These field experiments went on, and a subsequent session produced the first Australian commercially available sound objects of a wild bird: "The recording used in the production of a gramophone record was made on 29 May 1932; repeating the field recording methods used in 1931. This record was issued in late 1932 or possibly not until 1933. Further recordings on sound-film were made in Sherbrooke Forest; one of special interest being a 45 minute recording made in 1934 which was subsequently used in preparing the soundtrack for the film on lyrebirds produced on behalf of the Commonwealth Government by Ray Littlejohns."

But the 1931 experiments also included live transmissions from the field: "The first direct broadcast of the song of the Superb Lyrebird went to air on Sunday morning 5 July 1931, following some earlier test transmissions in Melbourne. This broadcast, by the Australian Broadcasting Company, was made from Sherbrooke Forest with various telephone and land-line connexions making it possible to relay the signal for simultaneous transmissions out of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide radio stations."

The July 5th transmission also reached further, across Bass strait to Tasmania: "Reception was hailed as excellent; indeed, reception of this transmitted signal in Tasmania allowed for re-transmission from a radio station in Hobart." It was also heard live across the dateline: "A short wave overseas transmission of the broadcast on 5 July 1931 was provided by Amalgamated Wireless (A’asia) Ltd. and reception was confirmed, at least, from North America. Broadcasts of Superb Lyrebird song from Sherbrooke Forest were transmitted in 1933 and 1934, including further short-wave overseas transmissions."

In June 2016, during the depths of winter (which is Lyrebird breeding season), I traveled to the Sherbrooke forest on an initial field trip to conduct the first of a series of sonic re-mediations, undergirded by an exercise in investigative biomedia archaeology, researching and recording the site of the 1931 and 1932 recordings and broadcasts of the first wild bird in Australian media history. 

I took with me on this trip an 'original copy' of the 1932 gramophone record (from my own collection), which was one tangible object which emerged from these initial collisions of site, species, and technological invention, as well as a gramophone player on which to play back this record to the (presumed - Lyrebirds are extremely territorial, and don't roam far over the generations, a fact reflected in the content of their sonic repertoire) descendants of the single Lyrebird captured on it. In this exercise I was assisted by members of the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Survey Group in (approximately) identifying sites, and while in the area I also joined their dawn survey session the next day, and recorded the sounds of these dedicated citizen scientists in their work, as well as the dawn chorus of Lyrebirds in the forest.

The 1932 record, recorded on the 29 May and released later that year or early the year after,  is credited to "Herschells Pty Ltd. Sound Picture Producers Melbourne, recorded in the Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria, Australia under the supervision of Mr. Ray Littlejohns, member of Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union. Dialogue by Mr. Alfred L. Samuel."

From the first pressing of the record's original wrapper (beautifully illustrated with a drawing of a lyrebird), we can read a decsription of the bird it presents to home listeners, far from the Dandenong forests:

"His mimicry is almost uncanny and in addition to his wonderful repertoire you will hear above the roar of the wind in the forest, perfect imitations of - the Butcher Bird, the Kookaburra, the Australian Thrush, the Whip Bird, the chuckle of a flock of Crimson Parrots, the Pilot bird, the Black Cockatoo, the Honeyeater... You will also distinguish what appears to sound like a man hammering a fence, a water pump in action, a Dog barking the warning cry of a White Cockatoo, the chuckle of a domestic Fowl and a man whistling for his Dog."

Side A of this recording is a voiceover narrative, which functions to construct a setting of romantic wilderness, a framework into which a recording of a single lyrebird is placed, a "wild Australia" in contrast to the home listener's position in their domestic sitting room: "Don't forget that what you are about to hear", the male voiceover says, is "a bird singing its own wild song, with "the nearest human being almost a quarter of a mile away."

side B of this recording comprises a demonstrative cataloguing of examples of the lyrebird’s mimicry. the record's narrator, in introducing each of these in systematic fashion, describes the lyrebird as “Australia’s greatest mocking bird”

The record is copyrighted as follows: “Melbourne: Herschells Pty Ltd, 1932. Recorded in the Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria, Australia, under the supervision of Mr. Ray Littlejohns. Must not be sold below price fixed by Copyright Owners. Must not be used for Radio Broadcasting or Publicly performed.” No-one apparently asked the Lyrebirds whether they had given copyright clearance for their sounds.

In the re-recording I made on this initial field trip, the record was taken back to the place (as closely identified as I could manage) where it was recorded over 70 years later, to produce a new residue of its playing to living Lyrebirds (a performance without human listeners), who are presumed to be direct descendents of the historically recorded bird. Listening back to the recording I made that day, the calls of various distant Lyrebirds in the present time of the 2016 recording echo that of the 1932 bird, their long-dead ancestor on the shellac record, but they also overspill the record's narrative framing, to answer, to speak back, to include their own voices in the recording, to include the recorded voice in their own transmission (broadcast/reception) space. They seem to "mock" the plummy radio voice of the narrator as he praises them for their mocking-bird abilities, and his efforts to systematically set out each incidence of mimicry as a catalogue frozen in time. Other sounds recorded on site include wind in the trees, human voices (of passing tourists), rain and other species of birds. The collision of the two times – 1932 and 2016 - destabilizes both the constructed soundscape of the record and the integrity of the location recording.

Many thanks to Jan Incoll (a.k.a "The Lyrebird Lady") and all involved with the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Survey Group for the dawn cups of billy tea, the companionship, and the tolerance of microphones. More field trips and other experiments and formalities are planned for this project. Stay tuned.






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