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11 July 2017

Hollis Taylor's Absolute Bird

'Moving beyond being quite obsessed with ourselves'

Pied butcherbird at Wogarno Station Image: Pied butcherbird at Wogarno Station  
© Chris Tate

Jim Denley writes about Hollis Taylor's new double album Absolute Bird. In Taylor's work, he recognises a rare attempt at deep listening, and a possible model for those seeking a new way to compose and to learn from the world around us. The double album Absolute Bird has been recently released by ReR Megacorp, and Taylor's new book Is Birdsong Music? has been published by Indiana University Press. -- You can listen to two MP3 samples from Absolute Bird: extract 1 - Green Lake, Victoria for soprano recorder and field recording (Genevieve Lacey, recorder) by Hollis Taylor; extract 2 - Owen Springs Reserve for vibraphone and field recording (Claire Edwardes, vibraphone) by Hollis Taylor/Jon Rose.

Here in Sydney, if any edifice was to be judged, by visiting aliens from planet Zog, to be a place of worship, it would be the Opera House. The architecture redolent of temples in Australian cities, resplendent on our rivers and harbours, are museums, art galleries and concert halls - but what are they shrines to? The objects and rituals within celebrate human virtuosity and creativity. Our Zoglings visitors might say we are in danger of worshipping our own species.

I grew up entrenched in this worship. Throughout my teens and twenties, combining a passion for football and art, and taking cues from Monty Python's Philosopher's Football, I played a fantasy football league of chance, where teams of heroic geniuses played each other, Duchamp vs Jasper Johns, Mondrian vs Picabia. (Jasper Johns had Whitman in goal, a back 3 of Burrows, Trane and Monk, wing-backs of Mingus and Ives, a midfield of Taylor, Kerouac and Miles, with Lloyd Wright and Tatum up front. Warhol and Gorky warmed the bench.)

Silly - but it correlated with the theory of individual genius generating human culture that most histories presented to me. Now, after a life lived co-creating with others, I have a different view of innovation in music, with greater emphasis on collectivity and locality, and less belief in individual agency - more like the way linguists think of the evolution of languages. Linguists tell us that groups of speakers will reflect new places, situations, and objects in their language, whether they encounter different people there or not.

We have a newish term for the ways humans respond to place through sound-culture: acoustemology. Stephen Feld sought to describe the highly developed practices of listening, hearing and sounding that characterised the Kaluli people's engagement with their rainforest environment in Papua New Guinea. Feld used 'acoustemology' to expand upon existing vocabulary for the anthropological discussion of human engagement with sound, coining this new term,

'...to join acoustics and epistemology, to argue for sound as a capacity to know and as a habit of knowing. I needed a way to talk about sound that was neither a matter of critiquing the anthropology of music or language nor of extending their scope to include environmental ambiences and human-animal sound interactions. I wanted to have a new all-species way to talk about emplaced copresence and correlations of multiple sounds and sources.'1

Our Zoglings would observe that the sound culture associated with the first peoples who came to Australia, around 60,000 years ago, is rich in references to the biophony (sounds of other animals) and geophony (the acoustics of places and sounds of the world, like wind and rain). They have a belief system that animates the world, and includes them in it, so listening deeply (dadirri) comes naturally. Their capacity to know the world they lived in, through sound, is highly developed.

In contrast, the so-called art music of the migrants and their offspring, who started coming to Australia in the late 18th century, has a confused engagement with the biophony and geophony, both in content and context - you could say that much serious music making is acoustemologically misplaced. Music practices are shut out from the world, in concert halls and world-cancelling headphones. We sing in languages, play on instruments and have ensemble types that originate in other time/spaces. Opera Australia's production of Bizet's Carmen on Mrs Macquarie's Point, overlooking Sydney Harbour, is a case in point - it's spectacularly out of place.

There is, though, a genuine desire, by contemporary Australian composers, to address this out-of-placeness. From John Antill's Corroboree in 1946, through to David Ahern's Journal in 1969, and Peter Sculthorpe's 1988 Kakadu, there have been references to locality, history and Aboriginal culture in art music, but, in these examples, there is appropriation of Aboriginal instruments or melodies as material within larger musical structures, controlled by the composers - it's not even postcolonial - and the results are awkward and inauthentic, to my ears.

Ahern is enigmatically self-critical in an interview in 1972, when talking of Journal, his radio composition that includes readings from James Cook's journal, didjeridu, live electronics, bullroarer and vocal parts that resemble Aboriginal song.

'...that was another one of those mistakes as far as I'm concerned. I used didgeridoos and things in it - argh no good. Looking back on it - no good - not worth mentioning.'2

It's as if not enough listening has gone on - Sculthorpe studied photos and recordings before composing, but how long had he actually spent in Kakadu, listening? If the answer is a few weeks, or even a few months, then the text below from his program note seems to be a mighty claim.

'The work, then, is concerned with my feelings about this place, its landscape, its change of seasons, its dry season and its wet, its cycle of life and death. In three parts, the outer sections are dance-like and energetic, sharing similar musical ideas. The central section is somewhat introspective, and is dominated by a cor anglais solo. ... Apart from this solo, the melodic material in Kakadu, as in much of my recent music, was suggested by the contours and rhythms of Aboriginal chant.'

But he'd never been there before composing the work. He goes on to say,

'When I finally visited Kakadu National Park, it wasn't at all as I'd imagined it. I'd seen a number of photographs, but none conveyed the spirit of its landscape. Also, it was much more serene than I imagined. I felt like I really belonged there, a strange feeling for a Tasmanian. I'm glad that I wrote the piece Kakadu when I did. If I'd written it after the visit, it would have been a very different work.'3

Scientists suggest to us we now live in the Anthropocene - that we have entered an age where there is significant human impact on the Earth's geology and ecosystems, and that that impact is dangerous to many life forms on the planet. With human-induced ecological crisis, we face a crisis in music making ― the narcissism we display in our self-referential temples, imagined engagement with place and anthropocentric music rituals, has lost all currency. Implicitly we understand we can't keep putting ourselves at the centre ― narcissism is not only eventually destructive, it's ugly. If our music is just about genius composers or improvisers and their imaginings, heritage works, brilliant virtuosos and well-informed listeners, there is something Nero-like in its mind-numbing insensitivity. Genuine new music, in our age, should provide alternatives to an anthropocentric world view.

Absolute Bird - a double album of Hollis Taylor's work - starts with Genevieve Lacey's recorder playing a virtuosic melody against a backdrop of cane toads. The melody has the spontaneity and brilliance of Eric Dolphy's cadenza flute solo from 'You don't know what love is' on Last Date, and is full of the complex extended techniques you would expect from a flute work by Salvatore Sciarrino. But there is something alien about it - it sets the scene for an extraordinary body of work that Hollis Taylor has developed. On the front cover is one of the creators she's co-authored the works with - a mob from another species.

For the last 16 years, Hollis has listened deeply to, and recorded extensively, the sounds of pied butcherbirds (Cracticus nigrogularis). Travelling all over this vast continent, she's brought considerable musical skills to construct scientific and artful transcriptions of their songs. The transcriptions fix the transient, spontaneous birdsong into Western music notation - a human technology of analysis. The notation on paper and the audio transcriptions (recordings) allow us to know the birdsong in a different way to the real-time knowing of simply listening to the bird in the bush, but you feel that Hollis has done plenty of 'listening in wonder'. She's been there.

Using these transcriptions Hollis has composed a set of pieces for human musicians and field recordings that showcase the extraordinary musicality of Cracticus nigrogularis. In a small way I'm involved, playing Lamington Plateau on disc 1. The work is based on a pied butcherbird nocturnal song, recorded at Lamington Plateau National Park in 1986 by David Lumsdaine. In learning to play the work, I became entranced by the timing of the phrases and the exquisite choice of tones - it's complex.

As the CDs play out, the beauty and structural ingenuity of the melodies unfold through the bodies of the musicians re-sounding the transcriptions - each inevitably bringing something of their own art to the project. In this re-sounding there are clearly compositional and interpretive decisions to make - a violin, vibraphone, flute, choir, bassoon or double bass are not pied butcherbirds, and in the attempt to mimic the melodies on instruments, there is transformation of the material - it enters the human realm. Hollis has become a medium - her sustained forensic listening has opened up a wormhole to another world.

There are wonderful performances from the human musicians, but when Hollis fiddles the transcriptions herself, the parallel worlds collapse into one. She has allowed herself to be taught by these avian maestros, and her mimicry is full of love and understanding. Has she achieved a sort of individual totemism with this bird?

There are plenty of other composers and improvisers who have used birdsong for inspiration, many of them using transcriptions, although rarely as rigorously as this. But what Hollis does differently is to allow the birds to structure the music. She says in the liner notes,

'I see myself as a sonic explorer, and I understand the pied butcherbird song to be the manifestation of many tens of thousands (and likely millions) of years of culture. I do not set out to improve on their vocalisations - that is their task - but rather to commend and showcase them. Therefore, it is key that my (re)compositions of their songs maintain a close connection to the avian original.'

Although the transcriptions are played by human instrumentalists and singers, there are plenty of performances by pied butcherbirds on the field recordings to convince you of their incredible skills. The structuring and juxtaposition of the field recordings on the CDs is one of Hollis's major compositional tools, and, throughout the discs, we hear a wealth of sound from the biophony, the geophony and even the anthrophony - other species of birds, flies, cattle, frogs, radio, trucks and cars, wild dogs, wind, wire fences and gates, insects, helicopters, auctioneers, human music and stories.

The last track on the CDs Bird-Esk for string quartet is based on an ensemble of birds recorded at Esk, Queensland in 2008. Hollis writes,

'This group of 8-10 energetic singers disappeared in 2012. My extensive questioning of locals failed to come up with an explanation... Also apparently gone - their superb singing tradition.'

Well, not quite gone, because in this transcription and performance the players have created an audio object that translates something of the birds' amazing ensemble music - we will be able to appreciate their remarkable collective culture for some time.

Absolute Bird questions human uniqueness in the realm of music. Hollis has written,

'To withhold the label music from birdsong is outdated and arrogant. As we move beyond being quite obsessed with ourselves, although we could think of songbirds as distant, earthly, and substandard ancestors, we could instead consider them as world-forming colleagues and contemporaries - and I do.'

Hollis heard her first pied butcherbird song at Wogarno Station, West Australia in 2001 - since then she's been a devoted disciple. Clearly it was a passion from the first - she's set aside her own aesthetics to give her highly developed skills of listening, hearing, transcription and sounding to her teachers, absolutely. Her work has already deeply enriched the acoustemology of contemporary Australia - I now know a great deal more about sound in this continent after listening to the CDs.

In the arrogantly anthropocentric, shallow sound culture of much of 21st-century Australia, her humility provides a subversive model of another way to compose - sit down and listen. Beyond the realm of music it becomes a radical model of how we might, in this time of ecological crisis, take time to perceive and learn from the world, and to move beyond being obsessed with ourselves.

And getting back to our visitors from planet Zog, what if, rather than obliterating us, or using us as chest-punching hosts for their incubating young, they observe that the most mysterious and technologically advanced activity humans do is music, and hence decide to co-create a double CD with us (or whatever audio format is in vogue on Zog). On the other hand, on the evidence of this release, they might bypass humanity and collaborate with pied butcherbirds.


1) Stephen Feld (2012) Sound and Sentiment - Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song
in Kaluli Expression.
Duke University Press, Durham.

2) David Ahern interviewed by Hazel de Berg for the Hazel de Berg collection, National Library of Australia: http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/2150360

3) Peter Sculthorpe (2001) Sun Music. Journeys and Reflections from a Composer's Life. ABC Books: Sydney, p. 256.

AMC resources and further links

Hollis Taylor - AMC profile

Absolute Bird - Hollis Taylor (ReR Megacorp) - album details on AMC Online. See also: ReR Megacorp website.

Hollis Taylor (2017) Is Birdsong Music? Outback encounters with an Australian songbird. Indiana University Press - book details on AMC Online. See also: publisher website.

Event 21 October: Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/Paul Kildea - Absolute Bird - event details in the AMC Calendar.

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Love to buy this, but where?

Hi,  my sister has asked for this cd for her birthday but I can't find it anywhere!  The only reference is http://www.rermegacorp.com - from UK.  Anywhere I can buy it in Australia?  Thanks Karen