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The owl and the glacier, and some avian automatism

September 12, 2007

After all my chatter about bird decorations, bioacoustics and uncanny electronic gadgetry, I couldn’t possibly let this new find by Lord Whimsy pass without mention:

There is a good tradition of avian automata going back to the inventions of Jacques de Vauconson, who made, amongst other mechanical lifeforms, the creature known politely as the “digesting duck” (otherwise, the shitting duck). This feathered forgery became something of a touring celebrity in the early eighteenth century. Gaby Wood’s recent book Living Dolls, and Hugh Kenner’s earlier The Counterfeiters, are both excellent cultural histories tracing developments in automatism alongside the contemporary growth of Cartesian cognitive science. Of the two books, Wood’s real is mostly in the psychological uncanny, whilst Kenner casts his net a bit wider and connects automatism with the slapstick comedy of Buster Keaton.

But both those stories are really about the replication of human life. My imaginative sympathies, for some reason, are more with with bird replicants like the character acquired by Whimsy, because this fits nicely into a related, but different cultural history — the one to do with sound technologies and the natural world.

This is a history — a magical history, of sorts — that I keep fingering. I’ve already mentioned how birdsong is one step ahead in the game of mechanical reproduction, in that it already replicates itself (and us humans, as in the case of the mimicry of the lyrebird). Both the mechnical bird and the lyrebird have in common a capacity for avian phonography, or sound-writing. They are their own gramophones.

But what about birds and wireless technology? Well, many thanks to Ginny for bringing the next two items to my attention. First there’s this inspiring story about owls who are on a mobile phone network — for good ecological reasons, but let’s pretend it’s for some obscene owlish purpose. The great thing about owls, of course, is their ability to turn their heads fully around 360 degrees. You would think that a creature with the ability to do that would have little need for any further technology, but there you go.

Then there’s Katie Paterson’s art, which involves micing an Icelandic glacier and inviting the public to telephone the glacier, to talk about splintering ice and that kind of thins. I actually tried to phone the glacier several times when I was back in England, but she was busy, and I felt terrible.

I’ve made the transition from air to water, which is the same transition that R. Murray Schafer makes when he describes the loss of sounds like birdsong in our post-industrial soundscape, a soundscape in which urban woman becomes fully immersed. Immersion is also the result of sound technologies that help rather than hinder hearing — technologies like sound-recording or mimicking devices, and mobile phones, which allow an otherwise impossible clairaudience. Schafer makes a wonderful connection between the “massaged”, “flooded” listener in her living room, and the sound spaces designed in the Middle Ages: the reverberating, immersive sound in Norman and Gothic churches, he suggests, “strengthens the links between the individual and the community”. In this way, modern and medieval man are connected — and I presume that Marshall McLuhan woud be in general agreement with this. “But we can look back farther still to determine a common origin”, Schafer goes on, at his most superbly shamanistic:

Where then is the dark and fluid space from which such listening experiences spring? It is the ocean-womb of our first ancestors: the exaggerated echo and feedback effects of modern electronic and popular music re-create for us the echoing vaults, the dark depths of ocean.

Perhaps this is the appeal in calling up a glacier in the middle of the night.

And finally — the first song that I was ever really involved in (I didn’t write it, Jonny Opinion did) was called Come Home. Perhaps the title itself expressed a little bit of womb-longing, or a return to primitivism, or something… I don’t know. But I remember that the second verse posed the question, “If you woke up in a lost liberation, who would you phone?”. And who would I phone — owl, or glacier? It seems to be a choice between wisdom and womb, between intelligence and magical stupidity. A three-way-call would be ideal.

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