NOTES ON THE PROJECT
This project commemorates the songs of fifty birds once heard in central Sydney before they were gradually forced out of the city by European settlement. The calls, which filter down from the canopy of birdcages suspended above Angel Place, change as day shifts to night; the daytime birds' songs disappearing with the sun and those of the nocturnal birds which inhabited the area sounding into the evening.
The recordings you can hear in Forgotten Songs are from bird species that sang in central Sydney before Europeans settled and gradually forced them away. Some of these birds can still be heard on the city margins where they find food and shelter in thick native vegetation.
While working on an exhibition for the Australian Museum in Sydney, I met scientist Dr Richard Major. He works as the Australian Museum Ecologist and has researched bird species that have disappeared due to habitat loss in built-up areas, but also those opportunist species such as the White Ibis and Noisy Mynah that have benefitted from the spread of the urban environment.
In developing the concept for the artwork, I asked Richard to provide a list of bird species that may have lived in the Angel Place area before the arrival of Europeans. He developed a schedule of the bird species based on the type of soil (therefore the type of vegetation that grew there) and also on the fact that the Tank Stream runs through the area and may have encouraged other different species to live close by. By examining the Australian Museum collection of bird skins gathered from various parts of the city from about 1850 onwards and using estimates based on similar vegetation types elsewhere in the Sydney area, he created a list of 50 species of both diurnal and nocturnal birds.
One of Major's colleagues, wildlife recordist Fred van Gesell, had recorded the birdsongs of all these species in bushland around Sydney and provided the sound files for this project.
Some of of the songs can be heard on the Australian Museum/Birds Australia website, Birds in Backyards.
Commissioning and Construction
The project was originally commissioned as a temporary work as part of the City's ByGeorge Laneways project, and after it proved popular with visitors to Angel Place, the City of Sydney's Public Art Advisory Panel recommended to Council in March 2010 that the City should make the work permanent and incorporate it into Aspect Studio's upgrade of Angel Place.
The sound hardware comprises 5 pairs of Tannoy Di5 DC loudspeakers, drive by 4 Gilderfluke SD-25 and controlled by a Gilderfluke SD-50-8. The two sound tracks - day birds and night birds - play have to play at different times of the day. Easy enough with standard timers, but we wanted to have the bird sound tracks switch over at dawn and dusk throughout the year. We thought of using a light sensor to make the switch, but we couldn't control that with the levels of electrical light in the laneway. So instead Dave Towey developed a calendared sequence of triggers that progressively allows for longer days in summer and longer nights in winter.
For the temporary version of the project we got a lot of bird cages from second hand stores, e-Bay, and from the side of the road on council pick up days. But when it came time to make the long-term version the engineer advised against using anything with plastic, anything that could rust, or anything that could be shaken loose and fall on people's heads. Fair enough I guess. But it meant that we lost some of the tacky colour that the original version had.