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Creativity and being part of the natural world: resounding with a riroriro
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary
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Creativity and being part of the natural world: resounding with a riroriro

Written by Dave Wilson – Senior Lecturer in Music at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

What does it sound like when musical artists understand themselves as part of nature?  

The sounds that artists create are embedded in the sound worlds of the millions of non-human species sharing the planet with us, whether they recognise it or not.  

But how can those who make music reflect an awareness of this embeddedness in the natural world? And might it be possible for musical sound to point listeners to understand themselves as part of nature to a greater extent as well?  

These are some of the questions I’ve been asking as a musician-composer and social science researcher over the last few years, especially since I moved from Los Angeles to Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington in 2016 to work at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.  

My workspaces at the university in Kelburn are in the area of the “halo effect” of Zealandia, where birdlife, and birdsong, have increased dramatically since Zealandia’s establishment. By the time I arrived in 2016, the birdlife in Kelburn was abundant. I found myself in a completely new sonic environment, hearing the calls and songs of species that were, for the most part, new to me. 

As I got my feet on the ground at work and in my personal life (most of my human relationships were new as well), I noticed a particular birdsong near my workspace that repeated every now and then at unpredictable, intermittent moments. That song became a sort of sonic companion for me, and I began to feel sense of familiarity, almost comfort, from hearing the song, even though I never saw the bird.  

I started asking around and listening to audio recordings of birds at Department of Conservation websites, and learned that it was the song of a riroriro (grey warbler). I also learned that only male riroriro sing, and each individual riroriro has its own song that is important in maintaining its territory. I found a blog post on Forest and Bird from a Bird of the Year campaign for the riroriro, and it quoted a handful of New Zealand poems about the riroriro that encapsulated some of the ways humans in Aotearoa have interpreted the bird’s song through our own experiences and lenses for meaning. 

My curiosity about this song led me to realise that I was sharing space and time with a particular riroriro, since my territory was overlapping with his. I began to think about what that experience felt like, and whether I could, through engaging with this bird’s song, invite musicians and other listeners to direct their own attention to the multispecies sound worlds around them in new ways. I decided to compose a piece for an ensemble of improvising musicians that includes an approximation of this riroriro’s song. In the composition, I situated the approximation of the song in the musical framework in a way that doesn’t exactly mimic the song, but instead makes it available for musicians to improvise with it and to transform it, allowing it to disappear and reappear in new contexts, just like the sound of this riroriro has done in my personal experience.  

The title of the composition is “speak to me of yesterday and tomorrow (elusive as the dead),” which comes from poem by New Zealand Poet Laureate Brian Turner that references the riroriro. At performances, I usually read the poem before performing the composition with the group, and I tell the story of how I got to know the song of this particular bird, which gives listeners a foundation for understanding what the sounds of the composition might mean for them. The musicians I play with, as well as some other listeners, have told me that they now recognise this riroriro’s song when they hear it in various areas of its territory, with reports of it stretching from Aro Valley up to Zealandia and from Kelburn down to the Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā.  

My hope is that in some small way, through the experience of hearing a riroriro’s sound in multiple ways, humans can draw their listening and other elements of their attention to increasing numbers of nonhuman individuals and their species. Through music and sound, we humans can perhaps more fully grasp what it means to be members of one species among many, and more fully understand the interconnectedness of our actions with those of the other species with whom we share space everywhere we are.  

I’ve already released a recorded a version of “speak to me of yesterday and tomorrow (elusive as the dead)” for those who want a sense of what this concept sounds like. And early in 2024, I’m publishing a longer article in the scholarly journal Environmental Humanities, which discusses the artistic research process around this composition in more detail. 

Check out my new album Ephemeral, which is available via streaming and on vinyl LP on Thelonious Records and at your local Wellington record store.

Image credit by Ebony Lamb. 

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