For the past year or so Simon Whetham has been traveling around the world performing and taking field recordings. His music is derived completely from field recordings, so he is a logical choice for Flaming Pines’ Birds of a Feather series. His track is paired with one from Broken Chip for this third installment. Avid birders are no doubt very interested in the bird choices these artists make and what they come up with. So it is initially a let-down to see Whetham choose a symbolic creature, rather than one of the incredible species he was nearby while making these recordings in Cambodia.
Giant ibis, one of the rarest birds, found only in two forests in the world, certainly would have been an exciting choice. Even though roughly 250 remain it is Cambodia’s national bird, with extensive conservation efforts on the rise. It is a huge task to overcome cultural hardship, and this great bird’s fate is linked to the country’s improving health. Instead, Whetham approached the project through a different lens, citing the phoenix’s resurrecting energy to be synonymous with the people’s and culture’s recovery from terrible wars. The Phoenix recordings thus feature more people than birds as conversations and gongs populate the forested surroundings.
The Phoenix begins inside a small structure on Cambodia’s Phoenix Island. Whetham’s recording devices are either really old, or his filters attempt to sound like microphones from the Fifties. The emitting of ambience from the act of recording keeps the setting draped in mystery. Rain hits the metal roof as a woman and child can be heard from another room. When led outside, the forest opens up with a chorus of insects, distant violin musings, ghostly voices, and (hey!) some birds heard somewhere from faraway thickets. Most of the work in this series sounds as if someone went to a magical place, hit “record” and left the microphone alone. Conversely, Whetham’s piece changes dynamically, as if we are walking through a variety of places, and this gives us a sense of needed travel and exploration. It is a highly engaging piece. The segment with meditative gongs and chimes is joined by distant bustle and sonic errata. The gongs continue as we pass men working with hammers and other tools, indicating that, despite the beautiful surroundings, this is a busy place where quiet comes at a premium cost.
Finding peace amongst the chaos is a daily practice for many of us on this crowded earth, and it is the heart of Whetham’s philosophy in choosing the Phoenix. In truth, this mythological bird is as real as any living animal, as poets, writers, story-tellers and artists in all ages have found birds to be a fertile source of imagery and symbol. The phoenix’s is a (re)creation myth we can all understand, one that has applicability. Whetham writes, “Sound recordings are fragments of the past, and composing with these sounds is a means of deconstructing and reconstructing them, giving new life to echoes from times gone.”
For many, the critically endangered giant ibis is Cambodia’s phoenix, especially if its numbers continue to increase over the coming years. Most people thought it was extinct until its fairly recent discovery. Now locals, scientists, and the nation work together to help these and many other special animals survive. If you follow Simon Whetham’s journey through sonic space, you might just spot one. (Nayt Keane)
Watch a 6-minute video about the giant ibis and Cambodia’s conservation efforts here.
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