Perhaps More Conceptual Art than Anything Else, Except That The Music Sounds So Engaging

A lot of my composing work over the past year has been using data from various mathematical things as a source for making music. Finding a clever way of realizing those numbers into sound is part of the fun of composing like this. Is there some kind of unique gestural activity hidden away in this sequence of numbers, and is the music I'm realizing with this able to show that uniqueness? These are the kind of questions that usually occupy me.


When I'm using, for example, a chaos equation, or the digits of pi, or other kinds of generated material for data, the implication is that the equation could generate new data forever, and the length of the piece is simply a matter of where I chose to hit the "stop" button. But there are some sequences that do have a finite length - they're just very very long. For example, these days mathematicians are continually discovering prime numbers which are longer than any discovered before. The current longest prime, as of today - 3 January 2010, is 2^ 43112609 - 1, discovered on 23 August 2009. It's 12, 978,189 digits long. So, although long, it's not infinite. Here's the website for those of you interested:


Another source of information is strings of letters - these can make very interesting patterns. As Chris Mann points out, we call these patterns "words." If one could turn a text into a string of letters and read those letters out one at a time, converting them into numbers, this would be another source of information with its own unique probability distribution, that of the distribution of letters in the language you're using. (The old nonsense phrase "etaoin shrdlu" is a list of the frequencies of the 12 most used letters in English. Google it for a lot of fascinating trivia.) One of the things added to ArtWonk version 4, was the ability to do just that, in a number of different ways.Many people have done letters to numbers to notes conversion in the past, not just the BACH or DSCH or ASCH of classical German composers, but more extensive use by composers such as Jackson MacLow and others. But I don't think it's been possible to do this with a large text, easily and in real time, before. As a source text, it occurred to me that an ideal one would be James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. After all, it's a very long text, and it's on-line (, and it's got just about all of human history contained within it. Plus, Joyce's continual use of puns and neologisms sort of guaranteed that the string of letters would have something other than the usual English "etaoin shrdlu" distribution. (Although I haven't investigated that - I'll leave that to the Joyce scholars!) I converted the first 60 pages of the Wake into a string of letters (no punctuation or spaces). It was just over 100,000 letters long. On the basis of this I can estimate that the full 645 pages of the Wake would be just over a million letters long. Not quite as long as the world's largest prime, but enough to keep life interesting for a while.


Then it occurred to me - why not do both a once? Back in 1997, I'd done a couple of pieces with the digits of Pi and the digits of the square root of 2 - Pi controlled music in one channel and Root 2 controlled music in the other. I could do this again, but here, my two sources of information would be very different - so why not have different kinds of music for them?


And so, Ladeez and Hermorphrodites, for your entertainment and amusement, a brief excerpt from





Warren Burt: Finnegans Wave Vs. The World's Longest Prime - first 5 minutes


This might be more of an excursion into conceptual art than anything else, except that the music here sounds so engaging. The stately bell like sounds in the left channel are produced by the digits of the worlds longest prime controlling the Alchemy softsynth which is playing an additive synthesis timbre made up of the first 10 prime numbered harmonics (and no fundamental) on a just-intonation scale of the first 10 prime numbered harmonics. Pitch (each harmonic in its proper octave), duration, loudness are all controlled by the digits of the world's longest prime, appropriately scaled.


The demented pseudo-folk music in the right part of the stereo space consists of accordion, ocarina, viola and tabla (substituting for bodhran) samples in the Wusik sampler playing in a 13 note scale which is prime numbers 3, 5, 11, 17, 31 and 41 treated as harmonics and subharmonics (with 1/1 left in for good measure). The data source here is the first 60 pages of Finnegans Waken each letter being interpreted as a number between 0 and 25. Each instrument plays over 2 octaves in the 13 note scale, with durations and loudnesses also controlled by the numbers produced by sequencing through the letters of the Wake. Each line starts the sequence at a slightly different place, so the right channel music is also a kind of pseudo canon.


The left channel music, slow and stately, also exists in a kind of stasis - its type of activity doesn't change a lot. This is to be expected - the digits of a prime number in the long term are very close to an evenly distributed series of random numbers - in the long term, there's probably an equal chance of any of the specified durations, pitches, etc. happening. The right channel pseudo-folk music, however, is produced by a decidedly non-random series of letters - the letters of Finnegans Wake - and there will be all sorts of surprises, as Joyce repeats, puns, and collides words together.


(And as a smart-alecky musicological note - of course, some mathematician is going to discover a new longest prime any day now.  In that case, the title of this piece will become "Finnegans Wake Versus the World's Second (Third, Fourth, etc) Longest Prime."  I'm not going to make even more work for myself by trying to keep up with every advance in mathematics!)


The excerpt here is only 5 minutes long. My crude guestimate of how long it would take to play the entire piece was originally just over 25 days. However, that was before I slowed down the tempo of the left-channel music. So now, I guess the total length would be several months. In the interests of good taste, and download bandwidth, I'm limiting this excerpt to 5 minutes. However, if any museum curator is reading this, and would like to have the piece installed as a sound installation, just get in touch. For an appropriately large fee, I can manufacture as much of this as is required.



Things Just Fall Together - and the SoundByte Culture

I've noticed in the past few years that there has been a demand for short new music pieces. One of the chief perpetrators of this (and blessings be upon him, too, as Harry Partch might have said) has been Rob Voisey, of New York, whose 60x60 project (60 pieces of recorded music, each 60 seconds long, assembled into a one hour program for concert, dance or broadcast formats) goes from strength to strength. I also noticed a recent project called "Momentary Pleasures" in which composers were invited to write miniature piano (on the keys only, please!) pieces for possible inclusion in the 2010 ISCM World Music Days. And a number of others. Well, while decrying the sound byte culture these things seem to be reflecting, I'm fully willing and in fact eager, to take on the challenge of brevity. The only problem is, doing these things seems to leave you with all sorts of tiny pieces hanging out all over the place with nowhere for them to go. And in addition to that, over the past year, with my development work on Algorithmic Arts ArtWonk4, I've made a number of very short demo pieces, in which the output of a particular equation or data set is demonstrated. Many of these are simply demos - showing the kind of sound they produce, but some are developed into little pieces in their own right. Which leaves me with even more llttle scraps of tunes lying around. What to do with all these?


A few days ago, I was making a list of everything I'd written in the past year - in preparation for updating my "List of Works" on this website. I noticed I had an awful lot of these little pieces that I'd made either as demos or as entries into these various contests. Why not, I thought, just string a bunch of them together and hear what happens. I did, and began to notice various connections (purely subconscious, and not planned in any way) between the pieces. Over 3 days of intense work at the very end of 2009, two pieces emerged. In fact, they sort-of just fell together. I'm as surprised as anyone by this - I don't normally do this kind of "assembling of pieces from disparate ideas" thing. But I'm happy with these - they seem to work, and have a cross referential logic, that although unplanned, seems to feel right. The first, longer piece, called "December Medley" incorporates the Ryokan Gurgle, Christmas Tie, Cicada and Finnegans Wake pieces described above, as well as four other selections, and is 25 minutes long. The second, "Algorithmic Demos" clocks in at 9:05 in duration, and has 8 sections, lasting between a minute and 1:40. One section of this - "Little March" has been played earlier on this blog. The Lottery, Sprott Attractor and Rossler Attractor pieces are pretty much pure outputs from their respective data sources - once a particular realization was set up, it was allowed to play unmodified for the duration. Here are the titles of the 8 sections of the piece. A PDF file of notes for the piece is available by clicking HERE. Those wanting even further explanations of these little miniatures can contact me.


Algorithmic Demos (2009)

1) Irritating Song

2) Little March

3) Playing the Lottery in Plano - Part 1

4) Sprott Attractor Blues

5) Rossler Canon

6) Playing the Lottery in Plano - Part 2

7) 93 Tone Road, Wangaratta, Vic.

8) Webern By the Lake


And here, as a special New Years gift for friends far and wide, is the mp3 of "Algorithmic Demos."





Warren Burt: Algorithmic Demos (2009) - duration 9:05


Algorithmic Demos, December Medley and 6 other pieces are all from a forthcoming CD of mine - "Warren Burt: 2009" which I'll be launching on this website soon (in the next couple of months). It will be available both as a physical CD (through the post), and as an MP3 download, as soon as we can get the mechanism for the downloads set up. As those of you who design these things know - this website stuff takes time.



There are lots of things to announce here - many projects have come to fruition, and I haven't had a chance to publicise them yet. So here we go.


1) ArtWonk 4.0 is now available.  I've been working on this project for John Dunn, the program's author, for more than a year. There are many new functions and capabilities. Lots more fractal and random and pseudo-random resources available for composers. The old Algoart website called the program "algorithmic Midi and Paint," but in fact, it's lots more than that now - it can be used for music composition, sound modification, computer animation, algorithmic text generation, etc. If you're already an ArtWonk (or MusicWonk) user, the upgrade is well worth it. If you're not, and you're interested in the field, check it out - it's an incredibly powerful, easy to learn program.


2) Publications publications:


a) Going Down Swinging, Issue 29 is now available, with a spoken word CD, one track of which is my "Waystations" for computer voice and live computer, another of which is a duet with Jo Truman, voice, and myself, again, on computer. Both these tracks were recorded at the Overload Poetry Festival in Melbourne in early September. Most of the things I've read in the magazine and and heard on the CD so far are delightful. Going Down Swinging have done their usual excellent job assembling a wide range of material. Highly recommended. Info:



b) Voiceprints 09, a CD of sound poetry from this years Overload Poetry Festival is also now available. Contributions from Peter Murphy, Eddy Burger, Jeltje and Friends, myself (2 computer songs - "Eleven Short Anagrammatic Chance Poems" and "Irritating Song."), Alex Selenitsch and Unamunos Quorum, Anna Fern performing Kurt Schwitters, Ania Walwicz, Jo Truman and Hans Stibbe, Jorg Piringer, and Santo Cazzati. I was at many of the performances at Overload, and heard a lot of these folks, and it was some of the most fun sound poetry I've heard in quite a while. For more information: F..tloose Recordings, PO Box 277, Clifton Hill, Vic 3068 Australia



c) Whale Music Remixed, assembled by David Rothenberg. This is a bit of an "old" announcement - the CD was released in April, but I haven't publicised it here, so I will. This cd is 18 tracks by human and cetacean musicians, sometimes collaborating, sometimes not. It's quite a cast list, one which I'm proud to be part of. The music is great too. OK, I love to name drop - here's who's on the CD: DJ Spooky, Markus Reuter, 3 Corners of the World, Scanner, David Rothenberg, Stephen Chopek, Belugas of the White Sea, White Sea Shamans, Gari Saarimaki, Mira Calix, Lukas Ligeti, Cycle Hiccups, me, Strings sof Consciousness, David Rothenberg and Mark Johnson, Francisco Lopez, Ben Neill, One Lone Maui Humpback Whale, and Robert Rich. More information from:


d) Fractions of Illumination: Cross-Cultural Music by Australian Women Composers. Music by Ros Bandt, Brigid Burke, Dang Kim Hien, Anne Norman and Catherine Schieve. I'm playing on Catherine's track, an extract from her "Attunements" from 2006. It's a great CD, produced by the amazing Le Tuan Hung for his Sonic Gallery label, and his Sonic Gallery website. I wrote a text for Le - a review of the CD to send to the funding bodies, and I'll paste that review to the end of these announcements. Of course, I'm prejudiced, I'm married to one of the composers, and I'm good friends with all the other ones. But even with that prejudice, I can still say, it's a great CD. Info at:

And for those of you in Melbourne, there will be a launch party on Dec 22, at a venue to be announced on the AAF website. Stay tuned.



3) Some reviews:


Normally, I don't get reviews, because I mostly do things in places where critics don't go. For example, my 7 mid-day concerts at Kinross House Gallery in Toorak, Melbourne, in July, or my recent Saturday afternoon performance at SNO Gallery in Marrickville, Sydney. However, I wrote pieces for acoustic performers recently, and those concerts WERE reviewed in Resonate, the Australian Music Centre's web magazine. Here they are, and they even say nice things about my pieces.  Many thanks to the reviewers for taking not only my works, but the other works on the concerts seriously, and writing perceptively about them. - scroll down to Tape It (10 September 2009)


And just in (December 20) - Jonathan Marshall also contributed this review of Tape It to the most recent issue of Real Time: - this is only the 3rd time, I think, that my work has been mentioned in Real Time, so even though I only rate a sentence, it's worth noting.


4) The Merri Creek or Nero #15 is now out. This is the web incarnation of Kris Hemensley's literary magazine, which first started, in print, back in the late 60s or early 70s. In the current issue is an exchange between Kris and myself on algorithmic composition, and how and why one might use it. For those interested in the field, there is a nice exchange of opinions and stories. - OR - and follow Kris's directions to the entry for Oct 21, 2009.


5) Coming SOON!


Frog Peak Music will soon be publishing 6 new scores of mine. These are pieces for acoustic instruments, voice, or acousticinstruments and prerecorded accompaniment. The pieces are:

a) Repetitive Rant for Peace - mezzo-soprano and microtonal guitar (performed by Lotte Latekefu and Gary Butler, Sydney, May 2009)

b) Emergence - 2 Quarter-tone trumpets in C and Bb, Quarter-Tone Horn in F, and Electro-Acoustic Sound (performed by Stephen Altoft, Matthias Mainz, and Samuel Stoll, London, March 2009)

c) Divine Permutations One and Two - Piano or Microtonal Piano or either with Electro-Acoustic Sound

d) Bass Drum, Vibraphone, Voice and Electronics - for what it says. (written for, and performed by Matthias Schack-Arnott in Melbourne, July 2009 - and reviewed in Resonate - see above.)

e) Another Noisy Lullaby - 3-9 acoustic instruments and Electro-Acoustic Sound on Portable CD Players. (written for, and performed by Decibel in Perth, Sept 2009 - and reviewed in Resonate - see above.)

f) Prototype and Composite: Obsessive Compulsive Re-order - Piano and Pre-recorded Electro-Acoustic Microtonal Piano.

Keep watching the Frog Peak Website - the Warren Burt page, for when these works will be available.


And here's my review of "Fractions of Illumination"


"Fractions of Illumination" - review by Warren Burt


Melbourne based publisher Sonic Gallery has released a wonderful new CD, "Fractions of Illumination: Cross-Cultural Music by Australian Women Composers." (Sonic Gallery, SG0901) At the moment, it's available at their website, ( ) and should be available at a number of other sites (like this one) soon.


It's a collection of mostly short works, mostly modal, and mostly for acoustic instruments, mostly non-Western, used in unusual contexts. As all those "mostly-s" show, there are plenty of exceptions to the generalizations, and in fact, one thing that makes the album so attractive is its diversity.


Ros Bandt's "From the Venetian Mansion," a short duet for tarhu, an Australian designed string instrument with bowed and sympathetic strings and viola da gamba is a good curtain raiser, a gentle drone-oriented modal melody for two bowed stringed instruments. The contrast between the two instruments is subtle, but this is not the case with Dang Kim Hien's "Melodia Nostalgica" for piano and experimental electric Dan bau, the Vietnamese monochord. Here the two instruments have radically different timbres, tunings, and sets of associations. Both are playing together, and both are trying to express the same sets of emotions, but the contrast between the instruments is so great that the instruments co-exist in the same acoustic space, but in very different aesthetic worlds. The tension is not resolved, it simply is, creating a unique kind of emotional pull. The modal character of the piano playing connects with the modality of the opening Bandt piece, but the Dan bau, which could have been reduced to a "funny kind of bass" here holds its own with its own repertoire of gestures, melody, timbre, and tuning.


It's interesting how even an unfamiliar instrument can have a wide range of emotional characters. From the very first phrases of Dang Kim Hien's "On a Quivering String", a solo amplified experimental Dan bau piece, it's quite clear we're in a very different emotional world than the gentle nostalgia of the previous duet. And the presence of a familiar instrument to help us tell the difference in mood is not necessary. This is one of the strongest pieces on the CD, and (at 7 minutes) one of the longest. The length of the piece is well supported by the strong timbral progressions here. A very absorbing piece!


The CD is mostly acoustic, as said above, but musique concrete techniques appear in the works of Anne Norman and Brigid Burke. In Anne Norman's "Ask Not-Fear Not," a diptych made by manipulating improvisation recordings of herself on shakuhachi and power pole bells and Brigid Burke on clarinet, a moody, reverberated soundscape results. Attractive low tones and bell tones alternate, with a sense of distance to some of the sounds - a nicely shaped piece, with new material fading in towards the end. The second part, although using some of the same materials, has its own charms, with a beautifully melancholy duet for recorded and live shakuhachi near the end of the piece.


Anne Norman's works often have interesting shapes - changing and growing in unexpected ways. Her "Deep Sea Divers" in one such work, progressing from an opening ocean blast to a melancholy melody at the end, with stops along the way at a variety of other sound materials. An unusual shape, but one that's satisfying, and fits the narrative content of her piece very well.


Similarly, Ros Bandt's "Whale Song," with its lovely use of reverb, and distant-seeming sounds, also creates a suspended, melancholy feel, as do her next two pieces "Tragoudia 1 & 2." The recurring motifs of modal melodies, sustained sounds (bowed string, winds), and bells fill these pieces as well, but with a difference. Here the bells are worn by goats, whose braying is heard throughout both pieces, mixing in with the melodic playing of the tarhu. In the second of these pieces, the whinnying of a goat kid is one of the most striking sounds on the CD. In finding and using this sound, Ros clearly knew she was on to a good thing.


A completely different mood is immediately established in Brigid Burke's "Air Dance," another musique concrete piece made from clarinet and sampled gamelan sounds. After the leisurely or stately feel of many of the previous pieces (the succession of pieces feels like an extended Indian alap), the rhythmic pulsing of this piece make quite a contrast. Also new here is the introduction of very noisy sounds, which also bring us into the world of Brigid's "Fractions of Illumination 1 and 2," another diptych, using sampled improvisations by, again, Brigid and Anne Norman. The first section has what I might call a "held back," rather than "meditative" sound, while part 2, a much noisier piece, features high sustained and popping percussive sounds. Here the feeling is that all the sounds are recorded close miked, they have a kind of "in-your-face" feeling. This sets up a contrast with the last, and longest work on the CD.


That work is a10 minute excerpt from near the beginning of Catherine Schieve's "Attunements," an hour-long piece for acoustic and electronic sound sources performed in November 2006. Immediately, we're in a different acoustic world from the very close-up sounds of the previous work. There is "air" around all the sounds, as if it were recorded in a large room. And in fact it was. Emotionally, too, we're in a different world. To some degree, all the pieces before this have shared at least some emphasis on melody - a series of changing discrete sound events occurring in moderately rapid succession. Here, we're in the world of the drone. The acoustic nature of the sound, its drone-like nature, and the complex harmonies that the sruti boxes are playing establish this is a piece by a very different personality. Just before the end of this excerpt, the sound changes from drones on harmonium-like instruments, to a rippling texture of water and xylophone-like sounds. This establishes the ongoing nature of the piece - there is more to hear, and someday hopefully it will be made available.


Overall, this is quite an impressive collection of pieces from a collection of strong and uniquely indinidual composers. It's very good listening, too! And full marks must be accorded to producer Le Tuan Hung, who composed the sequencing of the pieces, creating the emotional ebb and flow that the CD has. One can't escape the overall feeling of melancholy with much of the CD, but pieces which don't have that feeling are placed throughout the CD, creating its emotional shape. The production and packaging are beautiful as well. All in all, definitely worth buying.




I've just uploaded to YouTube three new video works of mine. Or maybe that should be three old video works of mine, rejigged.


Back in the summer of 1971, I did some experiments scratching on film, with the idea that they would become graphic scores for some kind of photocell-driven sound maker or graphics-to-sound conversion thing with a computer sometime in the future. I then filed them away, and promptly forgot about them. I just found them, and using Rasmus Eckman's free "Coagula" program, DID convert them to sound, and they're just what I was looking for. At the same time, Catherine sent me a little note using the "Pre-Columbino" font, (which uses pre Columbian type characters for letters) suggesting playfully that it could become a kind of "secret code" for us. I converted the Pre-Columbino characters, line by line, into white-on-black graphics, and converted them to sound with Coagula as well. I was delighted with the results of all this, so I decided to add the graphics to the soundtrack, making a little video out of it. Here are some of the graphics that started this all.





July 71 - hot pin on black slide film:



August 71 - hot pin on slide film roll ends.



November 2009 - a line from Catherine's "secret message," converted to white on black.

In the video, what you see is what you get - it's that simple, that literal. Each image is what produced the sound for that image, processed by Coagula. I'm so delighted with the results, that I'm going through my slides, looking for black ones, and black slide film, to do further work with this technique. Composing sound with a hot pin, and exposed film - seems like a fun idea to me!



Also back in 1970-71, when I was at the State University of New York at Albany, encouraged by the filmmaker / video artist Tom de Witt, I began experimenting with putting the output of the Moog synthesizer through an oscilloscope, making "Lissajous figure" graphics with it. There's more about this on the "My History with Music Technology" pages, but eventually, I made a piece with this technique, and several years later converted it to video. Today, I can only find a couple of stills from that piece - where the video master is, and how recoverable it is, I don't know. Here are the stills from "Starship" for electronic sound and video, which, as I remember, was 80 minutes long, and was designed to be an installation piece, whirling away in a corner of a gallery somewhere, which never happened.





Starship graphic 1.



Starship graphic 2


However, John Dunn's Artwonk 4.0 has a Lissajous module, so one can make real-time animated Lissajous figures with it. In the mid-70s, I also did some work with an oscilloscope, colorizing the results with an EMS Spectre Video Synthesizer, but never had access to an oscilloscope after that. Now, after 30+ years, I can return to using a technique I liked way back when. This short piece shows the new, more complex results that can now be made with this technique. The soundtrack is also produced by the Lissajous module. I took 2 stills from the video, converted them to sound with Rasmus Eckman's free "Coagula" program, and then put those into Camel Audio's Alchemy softsynth.    I time-stretched them, and played a sequence of microtonal clusters with those sounds, and recorded that. So although sound and image are not in sync, they come from the same source. This piece is also an experiment to see how "fine-grained" computer graphics will look when compressed and put on YouTube. And although I think that a high-res version on a big screen might be nice, I'm actually quite pleased with the way that this version turned out.



Finally, LADEEZE AND GEMMMELMEN! for your edification, delight and amusement, we present a TRIPLE FEATURE (huzzah! huzzah!) of three VERY silly videos made with the mighty Intel Play video camera (cost $30US, 15 frames per second, low res) between 2004 and 2006. I've shown these privately to friends, just for grins, and now I share them with the world. Again, just for grins. Although, as the artist Donald Roller Wilson says (and he ought to know) "You can make a profound intellectual statement just by basing your efforts on silliness." All the videos were made very quickly. The last one was made, in fact, in about a half-hour after dinner one evening, to show our dinner guest, choreographer-director Anne O'Keeffe, how easy it was to use the camera and its built in software, stock music, and sound effects. And as one of the two crazed penguin-masked psycho-killers, Anne well and truly rose (or is that sunk?) to the spirit of the evening. Catherine Schieve's camera work is superb. She should get an Oxcart for cinematography! And my four other co-stars, Baby Wombat, Bluebearry, Chicken, and Mechanical Penguin, not to mention my film composer buddy Yellow Hippo, are bugging me as to when they're going to get their residuals from all this. And - here's one for the Zen scholars - what story from the "Blue Cliff Record" is referred to in the "foot scene" in "Bluebearry and Chicken's Zen Adventure." A no-prize for the correct answer. And if you taught Asian Art at York University in Toronto for 30+ years, you're ineligible to enter! Enjoy!




Kookaburras! and the sonic topology of night....

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