restricted access 3. The Nature of Transcription and the Transcription of Nature
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53 C H A P T E R 3 The Nature of Transcription and the Transcription of Nature Lamington National Park, Queensland, 22 June 2005, 5:00 am: I’m scrambling across a steep cliff track behind lyrebird expert Sydney Curtis . My small flashlight and I are barely up to navigating this cold, damp rainforest. We’ve come for the winter breeding, and thus singing, season of the Albert’s lyrebird (Menura alberti). Curtis has been recording this individual, nicknamed “George,” annually since 1984. Lyrebirds are powerful singers who, although they have their own territorial song, are bestknownfortheirmimicryofotherspecies.Primarilyground-dwelling birds, they are understandably cautious, which explains why Curtis wants us in place well before sunrise. We stop at what he identifies as one of the bird’sdisplayplatforms:trampledvinesthatGeorgehasmodifiedtoserve as a stage. Curtis places a microphone above it, attaching a long cord, and then we back off. I position myself behind a tree. George begins in the distance, and after nearly an hour, he approaches the platform near us. An Albert’s lyrebird is variously chestnut, red, orange , cream, and grey in body, complemented by a spectacular black, white, and silver tail. This hugely elongated appendage consists of a pair of long, broad feathers; another pair of ribbon-like plumes; and a dozen lacey, filamentous feathers.1 When he arrives at his platform, George suddenlyerectshistailoverhishead ,partiallyspreadsitlikeafan,andbegins No notation is a transparent representation of music; or, to put it the other way round, all notations are a blend of conformance, complementation and contest. —Nicholas Cook, Analysing Musical Multimedia 54 is birdsong music? to sing. The ethereal effect is à la Loïe Fuller, a theatrical play of light and shadow complete with flowing “veils.” His head is in constant motion as he rocks his body from side to side. He mimics a number of avian species and other sounds. Lyrebirds are known to mimic wings beating, feathers rustling, feet thumping, bills snapping, frogs calling, and even people talkingatadistance(aswellasmechanicalsoundswhenkeptincaptivity). After about ten minutes, George moves his tail farther forward, enveloping himself. This heralds the dance section of his multifaceted performance . First, he balances himself on several crisscrossed vines. It’s not apparent which of these “high wires” he should grab onto; none appear stable to me, but perhaps that is as it should be. He stretches a wing and curls it down. Then he grabs a vine and taps it against another. The immediate stage décor is vibrating vines and leaves set a-shimmer. This in turn shakes the vegetation in all directions of the understory, making for an enthralling spectacle. Curtis describes how such a simple act, amplified by nature’s available technical resources, can impact a wide area: “The effect can be quite surprising. The vines are thin and pliable; the movement is transmitted from one vine to another and along them to the surrounding screening vegetation.Onemeterawayinonedirectionasmallbranchofashrubwill move up and down; perhaps a meter or so above it some leaves will shake; three meters away in another direction a large leaf will start to oscillate, and so on.”2 Next, all mimicry ceases as George prances from foot to foot while jiggling his tail. Instead, he vocalizes clicks and clacks reminiscent of boomerangs and clapsticks, or castanets or even tap dancing. “Gronk!” George then alternates sections of his unmetered “gronking” song with synchronized singing, dancing, and drumming on the platform: “whoawhap -whap, whoa-whap-whap.” George performs in strict 3 4 time. Other Albert’s lyrebird populations may choose two, four, five, or even six beats to a bar, with all the males in an area adopting the same meter. Albert’s lyrebirdsineffectaccompanytheirsongwithahomemademusicalinstrument —birdsongs are seldom so strictly measured.3 When done, George thrusts his tail feathers behind him and departs the partially concealed platform. Facing our direction, he gives a shake and heads off to his next platform. And great George’s multimedia performancewas .Aphotographerwhoinvestedelevenyearsbeforesuccessfully The Nature of Transcription 55 filming George characterized the spectacle as “an Aboriginal corroboree dance” and George’s demeanor as “dancing with all the showmanship of a Broadway entertainer.”4 As Curtis and I walk back, I notice that even when the sun rises, competitionforlightisintenseinthethickcanopy .Thecooltemperaterainforest sports a mix of ancient, immense individuals: gnarled Antarctic beech (Nothofagus moorei), Moreton Bay figs (Ficus macrophylla) whose buttress rootsseemtomeltintothetrunkandground,afewhooppines(Araucaria cunninghamii), and various eucalypts. We pass red-necked pademelons (Thylogale thetis), forest-dwelling marsupials who are grazing on leaves and mosses. Later, while warming up over coffee, Curtis asks, “I don’t supposeyou...


Subject Headings

  • Birdsongs -- Australia.
  • Butcherbirds -- Behavior -- Australia.
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