5 Feb 2015

Collected Huia Notations (like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded)

Collected Huia Notations (like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded) is a work for phonograph, solo piano, and extinct bird. It collates the four known Western musical notations of the song of the Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), an endemic New Zealand wattlebird of the ancient family Callaeidae, which was driven to extinction in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, partially through the attentions of overzealous wealthy Victorian Ornithologists and Museum collectors.


“As traditional memory has vanished, we have felt called upon to accumulate fragments, reports, documents, images, and speeches—any tangible sign of what was—as if this expanding dossier might some day be subpoenaed as evidence before who knows what tribunal of history. The trace negates the sacred but retains its aura. We cannot know in advance what should be remembered, hence we refrain from destroying anything and put everything in archives instead.” - Pierre Nora, Between Memory and History

We are not so much mourning our own inevitable loss, or the ego reflected in that loss, as we are mourning the absence of the connection. (…) A more tenable ecological conceptualisation of mourning needs to consider connectivity, rather than unified subjectivity, as a tool for exploring the deep channels of grief over the loss of the more-than-human.” - John C. Ryan, Why Do Extinctions Matter?

“The category of the fragmentary (…) is not to be confused with the category of the contingent particularity; the fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality.” -Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 


The few musical notations of the Huia that exist date from the late 1800s, and are preserved as brief - yet retrospectively poignant - details within descriptive passages in the accounts of scientists and museologists such as Sir Walter Buller and Johannes C. Andersen, but are themselves (as is standard for folk music of the era), largely uncredited. A projective ethnography renders them analogous to the sounds of the bird itself, but these are in fact cultural texts: colonial folk notations transcribed directly in the field by anonymous surveyors, or musical interpretations derived from observations of the vocalisations used in the forest by Maori to attract and capture this most sacred of birds.

Music, clearly, can not reproduce birdsong. Olivier Messiaen is perhaps the most famous of the Western musical birdsong transcribers, but his beautiful compositions, arising from patient field work, are arguably more of service to music than birds. If the human-centred perspective in music must be noted, then in terms of the Huia, we have the paradox of a bird song only known through human vocalization and human musical notation. Collected Huia Notations is an 'old media' work, which stages the pathos of this paradox, in the words of Media Archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst, as an “epistemological reverse-engineering” that “makes us aware of discontinuities in media cultures as opposed to the reconciling narratives of cultural history.” As a story of the past it is nonnarrative, neither epic nor chronicle, its interest in the history of sonic memory is of the material-technological traces of an overheard dailiness, which for some reason became momentarily solidified.

The notations perhaps reveal a hidden history of familiarity, an insight into a world in which the Huia was not yet a tragic symbol of loss and extinction, but an everyday forest bird whose pleasant calls might have been whistled absent-mindedly while walking down a bush track. This experience, along with the wider soundscape of 19th Century New Zealand, is now an inaccessible listening space, which seems all the more distant through the fact that no actual sound recordings of the Huia exist, apart from these traces, despite the invention of commercially available recording technologies at roughly the same time. Now, in the absence of the source, we have the trace of a sound, in the form of imperfect, highly subjective notation. These notations counter the notion of a bird as a nationalist symbol, through their evocation of the relationships with birds the transcribers might have had. Yet they are not well known, compared with the other more visual-material traces - the melancholy specimens of the Huia scattered throughout the world in the glass cabinets of museums, the drawings, the sacred feathers passed down within families.

In developing Collected Huia Notations, the notations were first played on piano (a musical instrument found in most domestic houses in colonial New Zealand) by Pascal Harris in Dunedin, New Zealand, in December 2014. 

They were then cut to phonographic wax cylinder (invented in 1877, this was the only commercially available sound recording technology available while the Huia was alive) by Graham McDonald of the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, Australia, in January 2015. They are played back in the gallery on an Edison Gem phonograph, the smallest and least expensive machine Edison produced, introduced in February, 1899, one intended for domestic use. (Many thanks to The Sound Preservation Association of Tasmania for their kind loan of this machine). The sounds are further degraded and rendered intangible through the successive stages of this translation process, only serving to emphasise their distance, and the lack of accuracy which in empirical terms renders them dubious scientific records.

The wax cylinder is an extremely fragile recording medium and this work will eventually be destroyed by its own playback. For this reason (and replicating the standard practice of contemporary sound archives), a digitally recorded version of the first playback of the cylinder's sound was also included in the exhibition as an option for listeners, to relieve the burden on the material object of the cylinder itself, so that it might be accessible to as many listeners for as long as possible.

This material fragility is also conceptually relevant, and crystallises the poetics of the work, which aims to represent the mortality of media as much as it does the gaps and silences within the totalising forces of historical (and contemporary) environmental and museological discourse. A series of recordings of the wax cylinder were made in a progressive manner throughout the show, charting its wearing-down.  As an experimental process, this charted a sonic shift, in which the initial clarity of the piano notes started to sound both more spectral and much more like a bird. The wax cylinder itself seemed to be engaged in a rite of some kind, back-engineering a taxonomic poetics which is itself progressing toward erasure. It is a false historical object, constructed from the marginalia of historic sonic narratives, which inserts a speculative form of environmental witnessing back into the historic record, a fragile and fleeting reconstruction, a fragment which hopes to remind the archive that its own memory, too, is full of blanks and erasures.

Collected Huia Notations (like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded) was exhibited alongside works by Alex Bishop-Thorpe and Matt Warren at Constance ARI, Hobart, from 10-31 January, 2015, as part of the Mona Foma 2015 programme.