The story of Psaphon, perhaps one of the most obscure figures of Greek myth, is a classic hubris story. Psaphon, in novel self-promotion, released birds that he had trained to call out his name, "Psaphon! Psaphon!". Some sources cite that the birds died upon their arrival in faraway territories, faced with an overwhelming draught, as they had no trees to shelter and nourish them. Regardless of the vague details of the story, the word “psaphonic” has made its way into the English language with a definition relating to “the preoccupation with plotting your ascent to wealth and renown”.
What strikes me most about the tale is its parallel to modern digital art making, where it is commonplace to capture, control, and edit elements of our own world(s) down to the minutiae, to reflect an individual vision or aesthetic. Why we cannot just let the natural world be is a mystery, but this prideful act is the foundation of making art. Psaphon’s no doubt immense effort of bending the natural expressive output of birds to his own will reminds me of the transformational aspects of my own work: manipulating found sounds to create new instruments far removed from their origins.
All musical material was created directly from collected field recordings of birds. Individual sounds from these recordings were then isolated and processed using a computer to create an entirely new palette of sonorities to be performed and arranged. The resultant pitched material was composed utilizing 12-tone Pythagorean just tuning (subset of a 17-tone scale), giving the melodic and harmonic elements exotic flavoring and a nod to ancient Greece’s great musical heritage. Listeners might recognize quotations from Olivier Messiaen’s bird-song transcriptions for piano, “Catalogue d'Oiseaux” and “Petites Esquisses d'Oiseaux”, throughout the piece, a truly great effort to qualify, quantify, and ultimately edit the nature of birds. Upon hearing the piece, the listener will perceive both familiar and unexplored sounds, evoking everything from bird song (re-created from scratch) to synthesized and acoustic instruments. However, it is important to note that each and every sound utilized in the soundtrack was meticulously created from the original bird field recordings without any additional source material or instruments.
The video material was created using Apple’s developer tool, Quartz Composer. Bird images and video are prominently displayed, augmented with bold, almost comic book-like colors (a major influence). Of special note is the video footage of 19th century bird automata controlled by man-made springs and gears, again presenting the human take on bird creativity. Text also plays a major role in the visuals, spelling out mnemonics of bird calls used by “birders” for identification in the field (a further reduction of bird creativity into simple human syllables). Text symbols are utilized as much for their graphic shape, as their meaning within human culture.
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