Michael Pestel

The purpose of the The Lyrebird Project is to interact musically with perhaps the ultimate, mysterious avian singer, the Lyrebird. I intend to observe and record both the Albert’s and the Superb Lyrebird (audio and video) in the wild and in captivity at a number of aviaries and bird sanctuaries in southeastern Australia. In addition, I expect to share my enthusiasm for bird sound with a number of musicians, sound artists and aboriginal musicians in Australia who have explored similar terrain and have expressed an interest in this work. Through both interactions – avian and human – and in a different cultural and natural landscape from my own, I expect the possibility of considerable artistic growth.

The sound materials gathered will contribute to a growing repertoire of extended techniques and sound patterns for flute and other wind instruments used in experimental improvisation and in a work-in-progress for piccolo, concert flute, alto flute, bass flute, contrabass clarinet, and pre-recorded and sampled sounds. This work, an homage to Olivier Messiaen, is based on the global red list of over 200 extinct birds. Of course, the sound of most of these birds is unknown because they died out before the advent of recording technology. Thus, among other techniques (an aleatoric system based on the Latin nomenclature), I am extrapolating sounds from similar extant species in order to construct this avian requiem from known quanitities. Furthermore, these materials will form the basis of an interactive sound/video installation and performance by the same name, The Lyrebird Project.

Lyrebirds are extraordinary mimics (cars, other birds, chain saws etc) and have a wide range of calls and songs, most notably rapid-fire intervalic phrasing as well as plaintive melodic lines, “gronks” and growls ( Their mating season is in the Australian winter (June-August), during which time their singing is most active and when the males can be seen in choreographed mating rituals that combine sonic frenzy with exquisite tail plumage displays. In general, I regard birds, particularly song birds, as every bit the equal of human musicians. In some areas of musicianship, such as timbre flexibility and variation, multiphonics, microtonal scales, glissandi, intervalic “frenzy,” whistle tones, and other extended techniques, they are certainly our superiors. In this sense, the Lyrebird has few equals.

In Brisbane, I will meet up with Dr. Syd Curtis, probably the world’s leading expert on the Albert’s Lyrebird. We will spend several days together in Lamington National Park in Queensland trekking in the rainforest looking for the Albert’s Lyrebird, much as Dr. Curtis did with Olivier Messiaen fifteen years ago. I will take a DAT recorder and mini DV camera, and a flute for ultra subdued and subtle sounding. Lyrebirds in the wild are extremely shy and will possibly not interact with the flute, though I will try. A particular Albert’s Lyrebird named George, one that Dr. Curtis has been observing for years, is the only speciman that is not overly bothered by human presence. Of course, there are other species of acoustic interest in the area and they will not be ignored, e.g., the Noisey Pitta, Paradise Riflebird, Marbled Frogmouth, Sooty Owl, Spotted Quail-thrush, Glossy Black-Cockatoo, as well as a number of frog species.

The improv sessions with captive Lyrebirds, who apparently are much more inclined to “converse”with people, will take place at sunrise on several mornings in two aviaries in particular, the Healesville Sanctuary near Melbourne and the Adelaide Zoo, both of which have Superb Lyrebirds. According to the curators, Matt Vincent and Tim Nielsen, they should be quite responsive to my playing. In addition to playing alone with the Lyrebirds, I will contact other musicians and sound artists in Melbourne and Adelaide and arrange for sessions at these aviaries with them.

In Adelaide, I will also meet with Dr. Barry Craig, curator at the South Australia Museum, to discuss aboriginal history and stories relating to landscape and fauna in general, and to the Lyrebird in particular. I am aware of numerous connections in this regard between aboriginal culture, musical ritual and birds. In many ways, The Lyrebird Project is already becoming a kind of songline, mapping my way between and through two very different cultures.

Indeed, it is not my aim to simply bring materials back for colonialistic processing at home, but to make human (and, of course avian!) contacts vis a vis performing live with birds that will continue to extend these extraordinary interspecies dialogues on both hemispheres. The Lyrebird Project is a culmination of over a decade of bringing together musicians, sound artists, dancers and filmmakers in Europe, Japan, and the United States into the various and charmed venues where birds sing. Today these activities seem all the more urgent in the face of rapidly deteriorating eco-systems, eco-systems in which birds are often the earliest victims and therefore poignant indicators for our own survival. I expect that this will become even more clear in situ with the Lyrebirds of southeastern Australia.