ornithology

2009, theme park

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Review by Richard Pinnell:

Tonight I have been listening to a CD that falls somewhere between the opposing poles of really intriguing and completely pointless. Which one it sits closest to will be a matter of personal opinion. For me it jumps between the two, though I have to admit I find myself admiring the idea behind it. Ornithology is the title of a CD on the Theme Park label by Olaf Hochherz, the Berlin based Laptop / electronics musician I have written about here before. If the title seems a bit odd, then the track titles, such as (white-throated) clupper, (red) indeobird and (blue-billed) quealea read more like a birdspotters guide book than a CD track listing. However the real surprise comes when you play the CD- It is made up of nineteen tracks of small electronic sounds that are made to resemble the calls of assorted imaginary birds. Unless you already know what you are listening to, unless you listen really quite closely you would be forgiven for thinking that you are hearing some kind of National Geographic audio catalogue of birdcalls. And that’s it – the tracks each sound like a different bird, some more convincing than others, some really very convincing indeed. The question we are left asking though, is why?

But let’s step back a moment first and think about what we are listening to here. There are no birds on this CD, or at least I don’t think there are. The titles of the birds that make up the track titles don’t seem to exist, and their presumably imaginary sounds are created entirely electronically here. Now, most people would consider birdsong to be beautiful, perhaps not great music, but certainly an enjoyable sound to be surrounded by. So if these tracks sound exactly like birdcalls, what would happen if we tried to forget that we know what a bird is and how it sounds and took the tracks here on face value, as just pieces of organised sound. Would we think about them in the same way? Would they feel as relaxing / beautiful as birdsong is supposed to feel? Then, even if we are to acknowledge that these pieces sound like birdsong, should we not still respond to them in the same way we might a field recording of assorted birds? Certainly I doubt I would have much time for a CD of recorded birdcalls, so why have I played this CDr three times tonight and not been annoyed or bored as I might if these sounds had come directly from one of our feathered friends? Is it merely the fact that I know these are fake birds, that I might be able to spot irregularities in the production of the sounds, that the human input into them is indelible, that makes this project quite interesting, even if it doesn’t make for particularly enthralling music?

I guess that in many ways there is little difference between this CD and a Greatest Hits compilation of Roger Whittaker’s wildlife impressions, which is in itself something of a nightmare possibility, so why is this CDr intriguing when released on a familiar label as a piece of “artistic” music? Hochherz offers nothing anywhere about the music other than the track titles. So we are left to project our own ideas, thoughts about the CDr, why it exists, what the message behind it could be, if indeed there is one at all. I suspect that Hochherz might be questioning how we hear sounds when we are aware of their context and their origins. Do we listen differently to field recordings of birds than we do to precisely made electronic manipulations, even if they sound almost identical? If so, why do we? Why does this extra knowledge, or the involvement of human beings change our response?

Whether any of this really matters much, whether these questions are worth asking is up to each of us to decide, and I suspect that how we answer will also colour how much interest we each have in this CD. While I find it musically uninteresting, I was certainly lead to ask a lot of questions by it, the answers to which I am not sure I know. That in itself gives the CD some value for me, though its not one likely to come back down off the shelf in a hurry unless the turn into my forties suddenly makes me feel the urge to go virtual twitching at the weekends…