Kookaburras! and the sonic topology of night....
Monday, November 16, 2009 at 10:05AM
Warren

We moved into our new place in Kanahooka, NSW, in the southern suburbs of Wollongong, in Feb. 2009.  Sometime in late winter (August, for you northern hemisphere types) we noticed that every morning some kookaburras were singing in a tree right outside our kitchen/bedroom windows.  What an alarm clock!  About 4 or 5 each morning, they would howl and laugh like crazy.  You might or might not know that the spectacular kookaburra shouting only happens when there is more than one kookaburra around.  It seems that a pair, at least, had set up home in one of the trees in one of our neighbour's back yards.

Every morning, as I woke up with the kookaburras, I thought, "I really should record that."  But, of course, I didn't.  I just rolled over and went back to sleep.  Finally, it occurred to me that my new Zoom H4 sound recorder should be able to record about 4 hours of sound with batteries.  So for a couple of nights I woke up at 3 am, placed the recorder out on the porch, and then went back to sleep.  After a couple of days of bleary eyes caused by sleep deprivation, it occurred to me - duh! - I could of course power the Zoom with a power supply, and since I had an 8GB SD card for the Zoom, I could record about 12 and 1/2 hours of sound in stereo 44.1 kHz quality.  I didn't have to wake up at 3 am.  I could set the recorder going before I went to sleep and turn it off in the morning.

Of course, by the time I got around to doing this, the kookaburras seem to have gotten more mobile.  They wouldn't always sing outside our window, but were sometimes in the distance, and sometimes not heard at all.  Finally, on Sunday morning, 15 November, in what I surmise can only be a burst of nostalgia for their old tree, they DID sing, loudly and long, just outside our window.  AND I was recording.  It's such a wonderful sound, that I have to share it with you.

Kookaburras, Kanahooka, NSW, approx 4:45 am, 15 Nov. 2009

(Pop Culture note: My first hearing of the kookaburra, like many of you who don't live in Australia or New Guinea, was in Tarzan and other jungle movies as a kid in the 1950s.  I especially remember one Tarzan movie, supposedly taking place in Africa, that was shot in South America, and to indicate that we were in the jungle, the sound track consisted of the sound of kookaburras!  Although I was aware of this anomaly before moving to Australia in 1975, once I moved here, the ludicrous nature of it became quite clear to me.)

There was an unexpected fringe benefit from all this recording.  To find the kookaburra cries, I would load up the sound files of the night's recording into my audio editor, and look for things that were a little louder than the background sounds (the Zoom conveniently divides up long sound files into manageable chunks).  This meant that I didn't have to listen to 8 hours of sound to find one 50 second kookaburra chortle.  However, I quickly found that there were all sorts of other sounds happening at night that were equally interesting.  Most obvious were other birds, and the very friendly big yellow dog who lives across the fence from us.  Less obvious were the sounds of traffic - distant traffic filtered by the night.  I soon found these incredibly beautiful.  And this "quick scan" listening to the sounds of the night made me aware of both the "sonic shape" of the night at our place, and of what I might term the "sonic topography" of our immediate area. 

We live on the side of a hill, facing inland, facing the Illawarra Escarpment, as the local section of the NSW Coastal Ranges are called.  Between our house and the escarpment (about 5 or 6 km) is a large valley, and in the centre of that valley is Princes Highway, the main north-sound freeway, and the South Coast railway line, used by both passenger and freight services.  But between our house and the freeway / railway line is a smaller, intervening hill.  So the topography is that behind us is the crest of the hill (beyond that is Lake Illawarra and the ocean), and in front of us is a downward slope, then an upward slope, then the freeway / railway line, then a large flat valley floor, and finally the mountains of the Escarpment.  There is no point where we have a direct line-of-sight view of the freeway / railway line complex.  However, we do hear both the freeway and the railway.  Sometimes.  It really depends on atmospheric conditions whether we hear them or not.  I recall one incredibly quiet morning in September.  Not a whisper of sound could be heard from the distance.  Since this was a Friday morning, about 9 am, I knew that the freeway would be chock-a-block with traffic, and was amazed that I couldn't hear it at all.  At other times, one can hear the freeway, and the trains, very clearly indeed. 

What impressed me about the long night recordings was how the sound from the freeway would change.  At times, there would be only the faintest hint of freeway traffic vaguely in the background.  Then, the wind would shift, or the atmospheric pressure would change, and for about 20 minutes, the sound would be very clear.  Then things would change again, and there would be no freeway sound.  So I find myself becoming very aware of the shape of the night sounds - as they change over time.  I know that Sarah Lloyd, in Tasmania is doing a similar project with long-time recording.  She's doing it as a means of assessing the bird populations of Tasmania.  Although I started this project just to get the sound of our kookaburras, I now find myself using the project to learn about the shape of the night soundscape at our place. 

As I said above, I find myself very attracted to the distant car sounds.  Filtered by the night air and the topography and atmospheric conditions, they can be very beautiful.  And with digital recording, of course, one can boost the level greatly, and hear detail that one couldn't hear at first.  What I find myself doing is listening to the timbral quality of these sounds for periods of about a minute each. Since for me, one of my main motivations for making art is to share my enthusiasms with people, I begin to puzzle how I can share these sounds with folks.  It would have to be some kind of situation where we could actually take our time listening to these sounds, without pressure - including the pressure of what we might call "the well formed composition."  At the moment I don't know how to do that, but just for fun, I thought I'd do something completely different - just to show how different these "night noise drones" can be, I selected 12 of them, pretty arbitrarily, and without thinking about it too much, grabbed bits of them and spliced them together to make a little noise melody.  Of note to suburban nature lovers - that repeating "woop woop woop" sound, just before the end is, I think, a distant owl.  This melody might be good sampling material, too.  We'll see.  Meanwhile, I continue to occasionally make my all night recordings, scan them, and occasionally find some sonic gems.  Watch this space - if I come up with something made from these sounds, I'll share it with you here.

Little Night Sounds Noise Melody

 

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