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Borderlands Biophony : for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello, with live interactive audio

by Miriama Young (2021)

Work Overview

Borderlands Biophony blends together instrumental quintet with acoustic ecologies of the natural world. The piece is focussed on endangered fauna of the borderlands area of the Bundjalung people - north-east NSW and south-east Queensland, including Uralba region, NSW. The final movement features recordings from Dorrigo National Park, traditional lands to the Gumbainggir people.

The piece is modular, consisting of five movements which may be performed as an entire set, or as stand-alone pieces. Each movement features a different subset of instruments. In any given movement, the instrumentalist performing the least may be deployed to manipulate live electronic sound (thus enabling the piece to be tourable without the need for additional sound technicians). These electronic sounds may be manipulated on the performer's personal mobile device, using interactive software such as Fonofone. The audience may also be involved in playback and manipulation. Instructions on the intended manipulation are provided within each movement.

Movement One captures the Uralba soundscape, and the lone last Albert's Lyrebird inhabiting of this particular region of southern NSW. The species is generally endangered.

Movement Two features two endangered species in duet - the Philoria loveridgei (Loveridge's mountain frog), and the Rufous Scrubbird in cool-temperate rainforest at 1170 metres altitude in Border Ranges National Park, amongst a remnant Gondwana grove of Antarctic Beech trees, which are up to 2000 years old.

Movement Three celebrates the plentiful rainforest soundscape of Knoll and Witches Falls, both situated upon Queensland's Tamborine Mountain. It was here in 1988, on Tamborine Mountain, that Olivier Messiaen notated and recorded the Albert's Lyrebird. Messiaen had been introduced to some of the birds of Australia by park ranger and ornithologist Syd Curtis who in 1981 sent the Composer birdsong recordings including that of lyrebirds incorporating 'flute' music in their song - the reverse of Messiaen's use of birdsong music. In this movement, Syd's voice is heard documenting - over the passage of time - his long-time friend, George, the Albert's Lyrebird. Curiously, it was Syd's mother who in the late 1800s coined the name Witches Falls.

Movement Four focuses on absence, and the haunting call of the Greater Sooty Owl, now a vulnerable species. Instrumentals and Sooty owl sound as if they echo and dissolve into one another, leaving space for reflection.

Movement Five, a sweet coda, features flute imitations of a Superb Lyrebird, a lyrebird who imitated a flute performing Keel Row. After recording the flute-mimicking Lyrebird in 1981, Syd Curtis explained: 'The "Flute-playing" Superb Lyrebird needs some explanation: The story I was told is that in the 1920s a lyrebird chick was taken into captivity and raised in a farmer's fowl-yard. It was a male, and immature male lyrebirds learn their songs by copying mature males. The captive lyrebird could not hear any lyrebirds. What he did hear and therefore copied was the farmer's son practising a flute. Later he was released back into the wild. He then copied the other male lyrebirds, and they could not afford to let him be distinctive in competing for female attention, so they also copied him. Over the years his "flute-songs" spread through the population, but also with time deteriorated: the scale, and two simple tunes that it was claimed he learnt, are no longer recognisable. But something of the flute sound-quality remains.'

Work Details

Year: 2021

Instrumentation: Flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello, live interactive audio.

Duration: 24 min.

Difficulty: Advanced — certain movements easier than others

Contents note: 1. Forest Lyre-- 2. Leapfrog --3. Rainforest Bath at Witches Falls -- 4. Sooty Owl Nightcap -- 5. Flute Mimicry.

Dedication note: For Syd Curtis (1928-2015), who enlivened and encultured Australian birdsong in our collective musical consciousness; and to Mike Fitzgerald and Kimbal Curtis, whose generosity enabled the presence of nature to sound through this piece.

Commission note: Commissioned by Syzygy Ensemble.

The composer notes the following styles, genres, influences, etc. associated with this work:
Australian birdsong; climate change; Australian soundscape; Australian fauna; place-making; Olivier Messiaen; Syd Curtis; lyrebirds NSW; Queensland; interactive audience participation through phone playback of soundscape


Performances of this work

20 May 2022: at Soaring Beyond Borders (The Ian Potter Southbank Centre, Hanson Dyer Hall). Featuring Syzygy Ensemble.

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