Back around March, when I learned that the theme of this year’s Australasian Computer Music Conference, to be held in Auckland in July, was “Organicism in Electro-acoustic Music,” I decided to make a piece with all bird, or bird-like, sounds. I was involved in the ongoing beta-testing of Richard Orton and Archer Endrich's Process Pack, so I decided to start with bird song and see what sounds I could get with that software. Looking through my collection of bird samples, I chose three Australian birds (Magpie, Tawny Frogmouth (which I had recorded outside our window when we lived in Kanahooka NSW), and Rainbow Lorikeet), two Brazilian birds (Uirapuru, Toucan) and one Antarctic bird (the Emperor Penguin).
I chose the bird samples pretty quickly – I wasn't too particular about which birds I used, but I quickly realised I wanted a sound with more bass or depth than most birds. Even the Emperor Penguin didn't have enough of that for me. Where, I wondered, could I get a recording of a BIG bird? Besides Sesame Street, that is.
I remembered that back in 2002, when I was in Urbana, Illinois, Anthony Ptak and I had made a fun trip up to Chicago to the Field Museum to record their Parasauralophus simulation. The Parasauralophus was the Cretaceous dinosaur with the long crest on the back of its head. Examinations of the skeletons have shown how their breathing mechanism extended up, thorough and around their crest. Their vocal track was several meters long. The Field Museum had constructed a pair of “lungs” that you could squeeze, and the pressure from those went through curved pipe of the same length and diameter as the vocal tract of one of the skeletons. Depending on how you squeezed this, you could get anything from gutteral grunts to extended sliding wails. Since current thought is that these were pack animals who used sound for communication, the Cretaceous must have been a very lively and noisy place. In our time at the museum, we recorded about 20 minutes of different kinds of dino sounds.
I don't know what Anthony did with his samples, but I used mine later that year in a performance in Albany, NY, with performance poets Lori Anderson Moseman and Druis Beasley, entitled “Bog Girl and Mud Womyn.” Here are some links to their current websites and work:
Pictured: Lori Anderson Moseman (top), Druis Beasley (middle), Perry Parasauralophus, who followed me home from the Field Museum and has been cheering up the place ever since (bottom).
So back to the sample vault I went. The Parasauralophus sounds were indeed very good material, and so one of those, along with the other six bird sounds were the source materials. Four of the resources of Process Pack were used on the original sounds: Filter Bank, Hover, Pyramid, and Wraith. I used Filterbank to create suspended chords with the original sounds softly present underneath them. With Hover, I drew all the “control curves” used in the process by hand, fragmenting the original sounds in ways that sometimes resembled the original sounds, and sometimes were quite abstracted. Pyramid stacked the Hover sounds into chords of the same sample played at many different speeds. Wraith extracted only a few harmonics out of the spectrum of the treated sounds. Additionally, I used PaulStretch to time-stretch the Wraith sounds. The Filterbank and Wraith sounds were smooth and pitch oriented, while the Hover and Pyramid sounds were noisy and agitatedly textured.
With 7 original bird calls, (assuming that a dinosaur, even a virtual one, is a bird relative), and 4 processes, this gave me a vocabulary of 28 sounds to work with. To play these, I used the same Plogue-Bidule sound-mixing patch I'd developed last year for “Texan Stretches” but changed the transposition possibilities for the sounds as I was mixing them. There were four different sample players. Each had all 28 samples available. As the transposition of each sample was different on each sample player, any of the samples could be played in four different versions at once, making chords and polyrhythms drawn from five different pitch possibilities (the original and four different transpositions).
For the transposition pitches, I used a scale that Jacky Ligon had sent me – a non-octave Pythagorean-type scale in which phi was the generator (1.618/1 = approximately 833.09 cents) and in which phi raised to the power of phi (2.178/1 = approximately 1347.968 cents) was the period, or fold-over point.
(Technical tuning note: In a normal Pythagorean scale, you stack up copies of a single interval (in this case 833.09 cents), and if the resulting interval is more than an octave, you lower the resulting pitch an octave. In this scale, instead of “folding over” the intervals at an octave (1200 cents), we fold them over at 1347.968 cents. Scales of 5, 8, 13, and 21 notes made in this way exhibit Moment of Symmetry properties. If anyone wants a further explanation, they should write me directly with the Contact form on this website. If enough people contact me, I’ll write a small blog post explaining the matter more thoroughly.).
The original sounds already had a sense of pitch about them – the scale was used to make further transpositions of these sounds. With the addition of these transposition possibilities, I now had far more sound resources than I could possibly mix and play with in any individual performance. Since I value unpredictability in performance, this meant that each performance, even if it followed the same general form, would be different.
I envisioned each performance as being around 10 minutes long, and the first performance, at Box Hill Institute, on a Faculty afternoon recital in May, was about that length. In later rehearsals in my studio, the length of a performance seemed to stretch out to 12 minutes, and that was also the duration of the performance I gave (the first one which incorporated the Phi-scale transpositions) at the Australasian Computer Music Conference at the University of Auckland, on July 6. (That performance was on a lunchtime concert. This piece seems to be evolving as a mid-day raga!)
Finally, in early August, I sat down to make a good studio recording of the piece. I decided that rather than adopt the strategies I'd used for making shorter performances at Box Hill and Auckland, I'd just play away, letting the sounds take their own time, finding out how long that process would be. The completed recording was 23:40, and when I listened back, I was delighted with the pace of the performing. Now the sounds seemed to breathe. The progression from smooth pitched sounds to noisy textures and back to pitch didn't seem forced to me, either. I enjoyed hearing different families of sounds (modified magpies, for example) as the appeared and reappeared in the piece in different guises.
The performance at the University of Auckland was also videoed. That is now available at this address. For those who want to hear the longer one, here's the 23:40 version of “The Bird is the Word,” in streaming form, and downloadable in mp3 and ogg (higher fidelity) formats.