Unreliable Encounters in Jurong is a collaboration based on a field recording I made in the songbird aviary at Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. Using the idea of language as an open structure that continually produces change and renewal, I have invited Peter Knight to work with me and poetically improvise with this recording through exchange and reciprocity using a combination of voice, pre-recorded materials and electronically generated sounds.
In the bird park the sign on the path to the aviary reads ‘The illegal capture of songbirds is the sole cause of the decline of many species in South East Asia.’ An appreciation of songbirds is deeply rooted in many South East Asian countries and with increasingly urbanised populations caging birds has become a popular answer for maintaining contact. It is the complex soaring songs of the birds that captivate and immerse listeners, yet the caged bird trade is decimating populations in the wild and the trade is on the increase. We seem to like listening to songbirds too much.
The aviary is a rich and varied sonic experience for visitors, full of the voices of a wide variety of birds, and the soundscape in the aviary may seem relatively authentic to those of us unfamiliar with their songs or original sonic environments. In the park, the sounds of human activity mix with the birdsong. My presence is audible as I move around the space, bumping the recorder on occasion, reacting to the birds and asking the bird keeper questions. Other human voices are audible as visitors watch and listen to the birds. Two park keepers clean out the cages and feed the birds. About half way through the recording a muffled loud speaker makes an announcement and then a loud performance begins.
As I move through the aviary I wonder about the impact of the park on the songs of the birds. Songbirds are vocal learners. It is only a small group of animals (that we know of) that learn their language from their parents, including bats, whales, dolphins, songbirds and ourselves. These species’ vocalisations are not innate but are learnt from their parents and other adults around them. I wonder how the birds sonically cope with the proximity of unlikely species in an artificial setting and whether they change their songs. Biophonies are all the sounds of living organisms in a particular habitat (Krause, 2013) but I am not familiar with the biophonies that these birds would inhabit in the wild so I can only speculate. How do they adapt their voices to locate their sonic niche in captivity? As survivors of their species their songs are unlikely to remain the same in the bird park. We know that songbirds develop accent and dialect according to geographical place, just as we do, and, also like us, there is no reason to think that these birds do not improvise with their vocalisations. How long might it take for a biophony specific to the aviary to develop? Days, months, years?
Krause, B. 2013. The Great Animal Orchestra. London;Profile Books, p68.