22 September 2014
© Stephen Oxenbury
Musician, composer and sound artist Boyd has collaborated with visual artist Alison Clouston over many years to create immersive sound and sculpture installations, for galleries and alternative sites, both inside and out in the landscape. They bring their close observations of the natural world into a poetically charged relationship with technology to examine our human place within the rest of nature. Their installations Carbon Dating (2013) and Coalface (2014), are currently touring nationally with the exhibition Bimblebox: art - science - nature.
153 artists contributed to Coalface, including Sandy Evans, Karlin Love, Alister Spence, Chris Williams, Damien Ricketson, James Eccles, Aviva Endean, Vanessa Tomlinson, and many more. You can listen to their sounds, as well as the whole Coalface soundtrack, on the project website.
Coalface 2014 is an expansive art project that evolved over two years after Boyd and Alison participated in an artists' camp on Bimblebox Nature Refuge, a sanctuary now threatened by big coal in Central Queensland's Desert Uplands. Coalface incorporates sound, sculpture, performance, community engagement, video, a webpage and a greenhouse audit and off-set.
Boyd and Alison invited 153 musicians from all around the world to give voice to the 153 species of birds sighted on Bimblebox. Each participating musician was given the description of one of the birds' calls, sourced from field guides and birdwatchers. In accordance with ornithological tradition, these are either onomatopoeic (e.g. 'orry-orry-orriole' for the Olive-backed Oriole), or mnemonic ('Give-the-boy-a-go' for the Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater). As well, Boyd asked the musicians to interpret the call of the Australian Bustard, a resident species of Bimblebox. (a 'deep booming, rather like the roar of a distant lion, rising then falling…').
Musicians were asked not to refer to actual recordings of the birds, but to allow the richly poetic words of ornithologists' descriptions to inspire their efforts. This Chinese whisper effect, where voices are recalled and recast, intimates what occurs when a species is allowed to slide into extinction; just as for the Dodo, we could be left only with indistinct memories and beliefs. Yet simultaneously, the project hopes to seize hold of an emotive response to the birds right now, in an act of solidarity.
Almost daily, for months, Boyd received sound files via the internet, as musicians sent in their recorded interpretations of the birdcalls, performed on their particular instruments or improvised sound devices. They are haunting, strange and beautiful, mysterious or funny. Instances of synchronicity emerged - such as when a Norwegian group produced a Laughing Kookaburra call of exactly the same length as the Blue Winged Kookaburra call from a New Zealand bass player. From these hundreds of contributions, Boyd composed the Coalface soundtrack. It runs for almost two hours, and comprises a prelude, thirty-eight choruses and one reprise.
Whilst Boyd worked at his computer, Alison was in the workshop making the performance body-work, a Coalface mask and two enormous coal-ship-shoes. Made from riveted aluminum and woven recycled auto rubber, the ships are wired all along their bridge and gunnels with speakers to broadcast the ten channels of soundtrack. Coalface mask has in its sights, as video in one eye-socket, scenes of the innocent birds on Bimblebox drinking and squabbling at the old stockyard water trough, and in the other eye, a slideshow of birds' nests built from human detritus - plastic, wire, acrylic - by refugee birds living on the periphery of our cities. When a performance takes place in this outfit, a risky navigation in clumsy vessels with its potent soundtrack, we are reminded of the sounds and silencing of a whole landscape, of displaced beings, and the seas of the Barrier Reef that heave under bulk carrier coal.
During the 'Bimblebox: art - science - nature' tour, the work Coalface is capable of standing alone, with the electronics running the show, with an accompanying tablet giving online access to the details of all 153 musicians and their calls, and others who contributed to the work. For the webpage, the artists ran a drawing workshop, where thirty children made illustrations of the 153 birds of Bimblebox to accompany the sounds (see drawings and listen to the 153 musicians' contributions on the website).
A cry of protest, the soundtrack for this work is an enormous collaborative effort. Each of the 153 species of birds sighted on Bimblebox has a human musician advocate, who each gave voice to their assigned bird. As we write, these birds and millions of other creatures are under threat from an enormous coal mine. For the next two years or more, the musicians' birdcalls will ring out from galleries across the land.
dates and venues 2014 -2017
More information about Coalface and Carbon Dating
Bimblebox Nature Refuge (the nature refuge where the artists camped, now under threat from coal mining)
Bimblebox art project
See also: an additional part of the Bimblebox 153 Birds project for printmakers/artists' and poets, writers, scientists and academics.
© Australian Music Centre (2014) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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