Saturday, 21 February 2015

Australian bush soundsdcapes: Various releases - Carl & Lise Weismann, Harold J. Pollock (1964 - 1970)

This post has been written by guest blogger, Roger Close.

Demand for album-length recordings of field sounds is not what it once was. In the mid-twentieth century, though, long before smartphones could summon up any bird-call in seconds, there seems to have been a thriving market. This suite of five EPs from the 1960s and ‘70s (packaged with slim hardback volumes by The Jacaranda Press) brings together a splendid range of field recordings from the Australian natural environment. The earliest two records, Australian Bird Songs (1964) and Australian Bush Sounds (1966), were recorded by Danish couple Carl and Lise Weismann during a ten-month traversal of the continent in 1957. Zoologist Carl Weismann was one of the pioneers of ornithological field recordings, having collecting bird calls for Danish radio as early as the 1930s. However, it was the popularity of their ‘Singing Dogs’ novelty records that financed their Australian tour. Vocalisations on these two albums are presented without a narrator: the interested listener can follow ornithologist Alan Keast’s extensive written commentary. However, the calls are sufficiently distinctive that it’s easy to keep in step with the track listing. The later three recordings, ‘Menura—The Lyrebird’ (1967), Bird and Animal Calls of Australia (1968) and Voices of the Australian Bush (1970) are the end-result of thirteen years of outback travel by of one of Australia’s leading wildlife photographers at the time, Harold J. Pollock. Although these recordings also contain extensive notes, the subject of each track is also announced by Mr Pollock in a delightfully old-fashioned tone.

Nineteen species are included on Australian Bird Songs, all of which are captured clearly and with minimal background noise—perhaps attributable to the gigantic three-foot parabolic microphone reflector dish pictured on the back of the EP (wielded by Carl; his wife (“at this stage a new bride”) operates the portable reel-to-reel tape recorded slung over her shoulder). Recordings were made in a wide variety of remote environments. Both sides of this EP contain a mix of common and lesser-known (and more unusual-sounding) species, although they are frequently referred to by obsolete names, which might confuse modern listeners a little. Accompanying the black and white photographs, Alan Keast provides lively and poetic descriptions of each species’ calls, which are preceded by an informative discussion of the biological roles of bird song.

Additional material recorded during the Wiesmanns’ Australian expedition was released the next year on Australian Bush Sounds. Unlike their previous recording, this EP is not limited to birds, and features several mammals, amphibians (the Weismanns professed to be overawed by the incredible variety of frog calls on offer in this country) and even insects, a greater variety of calls that makes for more pleasant background listening. In particular, the far-off howling of a pack of dingos is very evocative, and one can only imagine how the two Scandinavian globetrotters felt as they captured this soundscape.

‘Menura—The Lyrebird’ is the only EP to focus on a single taxon. Most of the recordings are of two Superb Lyrebird individuals: a male, ‘Wanderer,’ in Sherbrooke Forest in Victoria, and a female, ‘Theresa,’ living near Sydney; the text gives detailed biographies, along with accounts of the natural history of the lyrebird. An anonymous Albert Lyrebird from Southern Queensland also makes an appearance. It seems this release was a tie-in with a now-forgotten documentary film of the same name, during the making of which Mr Pollock lived alongside his subjects for six months. (Pollock also made short documentaries about pelicans, brolgas, red kangaroos and koalas, all financed by the State Bank of New South Wales). The EP gives a terrific impression of the variety of calls and imitations that these peculiar birds are capable of—particularly mimicry of other bird species, although ‘Theresa’ does produce a fine imitation of a dog’s bark.

Bird and Animal Calls of Australia (‘animals’ here being synonymous with ‘mammals’) is the first instalment in this Jacaranda series to be printed in full-colour. The first side of the EP presents calls from a range of fairly common bird species, including the melodious Pied Butcher Bird, the curious but familiar Pied Currawong, and the less-commonly-heard calls of the Cassowary and Brolga. Side two is perhaps more interesting, focussing on mammal species. The male and female koala calls provide an amusing contrast, particularly the ‘courting’ vocalisations; we’re also treated to the sound of koalas fighting and to a baby koala, which is rather cute. More obscure ‘animal’ calls include the Squirrel Glider, Tasmanian Devils (which sound remarkably like feral cats) and Flying Foxes. The natural history of each species in included in the booklet, along with an extensive description of the technical hurdles of recording field sounds, should you wish to attempt your own. If you wish to go down the reel-to-reel tape route, the German-made Uher 4000 Report S is a “lightweight masterpiece of electronic engineering” (only 7 lb. complete with battery); this will no doubt make it easier to lug around your parabolic reflector and AKG microphone.

The final EP, Voices of the Australian Bush doesn’t include Mr Pollock’s announcements, but does cover 29 species of bird, both rare and common, accompanied by colourful descriptions and photographs. In addition to an updated guide to making field recordings, there is a portrait showing Mr Pollock brandishing his equipment.

Download - Mediafire.