5 Nov 2017

'three variations on a study for a data deficient species (grey ghost transmission)' on air at Radiophrenia 87.9FM, Glasgow

I have a radio art piece included in the impressively extensive schedule of radiophonic experiment coming up in the programming of radiophrenia 2017, a temporary project station for radio art, broadcasting 24 hours a day from 6 - 19 November, out of Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts. This solid fortnight of radio, sound, and transmission art (from friends, peers and many new names), together promises to "promote radio as an art form, encouraging challenging and radical new approaches to the medium."

My contribution to the project is a piece freshly edited for radiophrenia, from three recordings of sound documentation of my radiophonic artwork/score and live transmission installation “study for a data deficient species (grey ghost transmission).”  the three variations were recorded while this work was in-situ at its two erstwhile exhibited locations on either side of the globe: the Radio Revolten festival in Halle, Germany (2016), and Outposts/Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania (2017), as well as a third recording made during the live activation of the work which included new sonic elements, and which I performed as an improvised piece for an experimental sound series called The Last Bastion, within the exhibition in Hobart.

This work, in all its iterations, hinges around a poetic interpretation of an endemic NZ bird species, the South Is. kōkako, which may or may not be extinct. Its audible components include a sound library of speculative bird calls, gathered by New Zealand ecologist Rhys Buckingham in the field over 40 years, much of this time while the species was officially classified as extinct. The occasional presence of playback from Rhys's fragmented, ghostly library, which is a jagged, highly amplified listening space more silence than sound, is supplemented by the interpretation of the bird's song from various NZ archival sources (notation found in private letters, and published ornithological literature). These are played on piano, violin, clavichord and harpsichord by myself, string virtuoso Sarah Claman, and art historian / traditional music expert Tony Green. Running parallel to this historic and contemporary Pakeha listening, a more decolonised listening/memory space can here be heard ghosting through the live iteration of the piece toward its end. This is provided by the nga Taonga pūoro (traditional Māori musical instruments) player and maker Rob Thorne (Ngati Maru, Ngati Rahiri Tumutumu, and Pakeha), who is playing the pūtōrino, a flute-like instrument developed by Maori over centuries, in direct collaboration/interaction with live kōkako. Rob improvised this piece in direct call-and-response to a field recording I sent him of the "data deficient" bird's endangered cousin, the North Is. kōkako, which I made on the bird sanctuary Kapiti Island. My recording remains inaudible in the final piece, making Rob's haunting playing of the traditional instrument a space in which only the ghosts of the missing bird are left to respond.

Other sonic elements included in the live improvisation, audible here, are the sounds of the earliest commercially available recording of a bird (from 1910), played live by me during the set on original 78rpm record: Song of a Nightingale, Made by a Captive Nightingale in the possession of Herr, Reich, Bremen. This suggests the replacement of the endemic wildlife of Aotearoa in the 20th century by an invasive European biota, as well as evoking the idea of beauty in bird song, as elsewhere, as a Eurocentric construct.  Included are also other birds, dead and alive, which would have been / are still in the kōkako's environment - the huia (exitinct, here on paper music box) and the pīwauwau/NZ rock wren - endangered (a mountain dweller whose Te Reo Maori name means "little complaining bird" and whose call is so high pitched it's almost outside the range of human hearing - here the audible part itself sounds like radio static or electronic noise). Also included are some vlf or "natural radio" recordings, recorded in off-grid remote areas, everything played back in all instances through very unstable microcast transmitters and "flocks" of radios.

while I was developing this work in 2016 I wrote the following notes to a friend: "have spent the last few days experimenting with putting speculative South Island kōkako calls (no-one actually knows whether these birds are extinct or not) through equipment so rudimentary that its success and its failure are almost indistinguishable. the thin signal of what might be a bird - or what might be the hole where there once was a bird, the echo of a bird's loss in a forest that still remembers it as part of the interconnected soundscape - seeps vaguely through the noise of more robust radio stations on tiny transmitters that are strikingly unsuccessful, uncompetitive and unassertive in any kind of territorial sense. but I was thinking about restraint in relation to something Jen Bervin wrote about Emily Dickinson's relationship to scale: "The writing is small in relation to the compositional space, floating in its firmament. [...] When we say small, we often mean less. When Dickinson says small, she means fabric, Atoms, the North Star. "

More information on the work in its initial exhibition context in Halle can be found here. the Radiophenia broadcast of the reworked piece for three variations can be heard on the 6th November, from 4:30 - 5pm, on Radiophrenia 87.9FM in the Glasgow area, and online anywhere in the world at radiophrenia.scot.

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