“Immerse yourself in the wonderful sound ecology built through a collaboration of Splinter Orchestra with The Pilliga National Park.”
Dandry Gorge lies in the National Park, The Pilliga, in New South Wales. It provides the setting for this remarkable album by Splinter Orchestra, whose obvious goal is to tread softly on the environment, whilst highlighting all its natural sonic treasures.
There is, of course, a strong history of composing about the natural world. These reflections can be felt responses, sound depictions, or metaphors which align human lived experiences with natural phenomena such as with Australian composers Peter Sculthorpe, Ella Macens and Gurrumul Yunupingu for example. Equally, they can capture actual sounds of nature, sometimes also employing sound making objects and at others, leaving it to nature, found, for example, in the compositions of Peter Mummé and Ros Bandt.
There’s a nuanced difference to these compositions in the works of the improvisatory ensemble, Splinter Orchestra. The humility of their approach in occupying space with nature and adding to nature’s sounds, means that the listener often finds it hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. The ensemble’s philosophy is made manifestly clear from the comments introducing the project, where the group describes the impact of the fossil fuel industry, which never seems far away. The encroachment of industry onto land adjacent to this significant National Park offers a stark contrast to the endeavours of these musicians, the first invasive, the second, sensitively persuasive.
Armed with acoustic instruments, sound-making objects found within the environment, plus rudimentary and more advanced sound enhancing and capturing technology, the scene is set. The video provides insights into the spacing of players, the landscape they’re working with, and the playing techniques employed, such as Max Alduca’s innovative approaches on double bass. I may set up a ‘Save the Bows’ society as a result (smiley face).
For this listener, there is a totally addictive and immersive desire to understand how sounds have been captured in this environment. This ranges from the resonance of a hit and scraped hollowed-out tree stump by Adam Gottlieb, to the muting of a trumpet with a CD by Joseph Derrick, the gorgeous crunch of steps on leaves, and the impact of Weizen Ho’s use of tiny pebbles used in a tambour, with similarities to the techniques required with a wave drum.
However, music necessitates the manipulation of these sounds, their careful placement in time and space, with thought for both their three-dimensional vertical and temporal positioning, and sensitivity to timbre, dynamic and overall textural aesthetic. There is also a need for alertness to, and empathy with, the natural environment, obvious in the video, but much more pronounced in the audio, which can be accessed from the Orchestra’s Bandcamp page.
With visuals removed, it is our ears and bodies that are primed by this superb sculpting of sound. There are two pieces, the first, Dandry Flow is forty-one minutes in length. The listener becomes drawn into, becomes a part of this environmental world. The harshest sound, punctuating this nurturing environment is a bird’s squawk. This is offset by the beauty of a currawong call. The prominence of individual instruments, from voice, to flute, clarinet and trumpet for example, are used to highlight those sounds that would naturally stand out in the landscape. Percussive sounds often keep company with the ever-present wind through trees, and perhaps flowing water from Dandry Creek, the drumming with a similarly soothing impact. The way in which sounds are panned, distanced and foregrounded through the placement of players and subsequent recording and editing process, creates a soundscape that is beautifully balanced, whilst facilitating highlighted instruments at considered junctures. The ‘soundprint’ is initially small, and though it builds, one is hardly aware of it until it fades again, the soothing movement of the trees, a distant bird and subtle percussive sound, which are amplified from a natural source, the movement and interaction of trees perhaps. It conjures auditory images of a boat nudging a pier as it docks. This sound has the final say.
Perhaps it is two adjacent trees that rub together creating the ending sounds of Dandry Flow for Two Trees begins where Dandry Flow left off, and this sound, this amplification of trees physically communing, again has prominence. I wish I knew distinctive bird songs better, as the array of avian calls in Two Trees is an utter delight. It feels like the early morning and is a reminder of the deluge of everyday noise to which we have become so accustomed, because of its absence in this work. As with Peter Mummé’s Rain Storm on Shoalhaven, nature here, too, is allowed to speak, unaided (but for its capture) by humans! It provides a stark reminder to us of how different the urban soundscape is, and what we have relinquished, or forgotten, about our connectedness to the earth, our place within it.
Splinter Orchestra has an ever-evolving line-up of performers with a staple core of players at its heart. It is an inclusive, collaborative music-making enterprise where, as artist Gary Warner remarks, ‘every performance unfolds a unique sonic ecology combining highly developed music skills with thoroughly experimental sound-making’. This album is a wonderful exploration of that ethos.
VIEW AND LISTEN
Gurrumul – Djarimirri
Peter Sculthorpe – Kakadu
Ella Macens – Ar Dieviņu
Peter Mummé – Rain Storm on Shoalhaven
Peter Mummé – atmospherix on Shoalhaven
Ros Bandt – Raptor
Ros Bandt – Water Dreaming
 Splinter Orchestra https://www.splinterorchestra.com/about-1