My work has nearly always been about 'nature', and often actually installed
in the bio-physical reality: at Kare Kare on the west coast of Auckland,
underwater at the Goat Island Marine reserve, in the Australian bush,
and in Cambridgeshire in the UK.
The opera, Requiem for Electronic Moa, sits firmly
in those works done under the ruling meta-title ‘Towards a Feral
Art’ and later, ‘Towards a Hyper-Feral Art’. If you
run wild and adapt in Hyper Nature then you must by definition be Hyper-Feral.
This whole body of work/thinking has been evolving since 1970's but
the first works to 'nail down' the position were done in the 1980’s.
Requiem for Electronic Moa 1999 and 2000
A performance piece in six bits
When I arrived to live in New Zealand an item on the news intrigued
me. I heard that a Japanese PhD student had worked out what sort of
sound a moa must have made – and had used a computer to generate
a probable moa voice. He then built an electronic device that made
what he thought must be the right sound.
He came to New Zealand with a documentary film crew to test this device.
They set off for deepest Fiordland, convinced that if only it heard
this special sounding device, the last remaining moa would respond,
and they would prove that the bird was not extinct after all.
This performance piece deals with a familiar theme in opera tradition:
unrequited love (in this work, of the electronic sound machine which
hears no response).
The opera is typical of a body of performance/sound work where the event,
or performance is installed in a constructed nature [hyper/nature] which
itself is installed in the venue/gallery. It is an extended percussive
solo by each performer – for example: two men, one operating the
digital technologies, the other constructing ‘nature’[a waterfall];
and a woman improvising movement and moving technological objects around.
The Opera starts set in a real or bio-physical reality, i.e. moas exist
There is a short sound work – a computer voice ‘reading’ a
poem: ‘Gondwana Two step, in a Ratite Mode’
A solo dancer does a ghost duet with Swan Lake on a large screen
TV, she gives up, and improvises to NZ birdsong. She is in a black tutu
and red tights: the computer voice intones in text-to-voice ‘The
Swans are Black here’.
Swan Lake inverted………….
The work moves to an age of automata, [Vaucansons Duck]... metronomic
and clockwork sounds begin to dominate.
In an age of mechanical representation slides of birds as depicted in
books are ‘flown’ around the room [by slide projector] as
a duet for dancer and projector operator.
The dancer defends herself from the images with a portable projection
screen but the relentless images of moa skeletons drive her from the
Through all this the computer divas continue to recite, in both text-to-voice
and pitched phonemes, a list of all NZ birds [an apochryphal field guide
to moas], and the rendering of bird calls into English, again in pitched
phonemes [each phoneme specified by pitch/hertz, and timed at 1/100ths
of a second.]
They sing on relentlessly, ‘Kakapo, Kea, Kaka……[parrots]
And Kiwi, …. Kiwi, ….kiwi kiwi kiwi; [Pitched phonemes]
At last we are in the present with shriekingly insistent digital moas,
and about 100 tracks of live and pre-recorded sound all building to a
chaotic digital nature which is both self-sustaining and alien.
John Lyall on Requiem, from an interview by Nigel Clark:
Chaos is the natural ground state for any work for me. You drag
form and content out of that chaos, and often then return it to chaos,
disassembling it in some other order. But for the time that the work
is in existence you get three states: the assembly state of some growing
order; the organised state of the piece of work; and then you get the
disorganisation or dispersal.
We are aware through the media of concerns at the extinction of more
and more species, the destruction of habitats, the loss of global biosphere
quality, and so on. At the same time as this surge towards extinction
we have a massive growth in the invention of new classes of constructed ‘animals’,
and new culturally constructed habitats: a whole plethora of digital
creatures activating their simulated worlds.
Against this there is a quieter extinction: the demolition of the twentieth
century (and earlier) modes of representing nature, those less Te Papa-ised
dioramic views of nature, and those wonderfully erudite and pedantic
vast glass cases in which every known species was painstakingly annotated
and impaled on pins or fixed to twigs in some expectation that the naming
of the parts would explain the whole.
From the essay ‘Chaos/Rhythm/Refrain: Toward an Ecology
of the Electronic Moa’ by Nigel Clark:
The unanswered mating call of an electronic machine. The idea seems
farcical, as human artefacts are obviously not the same as living organisms:
they don’t reproduce themselves or self-disperse, they don’t
die and neither do they evolve. Or do they? There are at least a few
good reasons to be wary of a hard and fast line between the born and
the manufactured, the organism and the artefact….
Metamorphozing over some fifteen years, Requiem for an Electronic
Moa is an engagement with the impact of digital technologies
on Aotearoa/New Zealand….How does a being – an entity – explore
the space of its possible futures? Where there is reproduction, wherever
messages of any sort are passed from one site to another there is a
chance of slippage or mistranslation. And where the resulting differences
encounter a mechanism for selection, ‘evolution’ will take
In culture and in nature, in linguistic groups and in genetic pools,
in music and in birdsong, repetition with difference provides the resources
for prospecting in fields of potentiality. Environments select
and selections resound by transforming environments. Some lines die out,
because their milieux have been transformed too rapidly for novelty-generating
mechanisms to respond. Still others succumb to the very mechanics of
chance, as genetic drift or the ongoing attrition of random exchanges
drives diversity down beyond the limits of self-sustainability.
But out of the same chaotic milieux emerge new forms and structures,
probing the future in ways that seem both too innovative to be ‘blind’ and
too complex to be safely subjected to design. Who knows what enchantments
and what catastrophes are still to spring from the feral ecologies of
these far-from-isolated islands? And who can tell what chorus might respond
to future calls of an electronic moa?
The two texts above are from the book by Claudia Bell, Nigel Clark
and John Lyall which accompanied Requiem for Electronic Moa,
the SOUNDCULTURE aotearoa/ New Zealand performance, 1999.
My next big sound work is for early 2006, which will be a motet for
massed computer voices delivering pitched phonemes in real time. The
libretto is the list of Aotearoan / New Zealand birds.
The four or five parts of the ‘choir’ will deliver computer
pitched phonemes in various strands of the libretto which will unpick
all possible lists from the definitive bird lists.
Voices…[a choking bark…..]
And so on…..
Essays on Lyall’s work
in Derrida, Jacques (2001) Derrida Downunder. Dunmore
Clark, Nigel (2003). ‘Feral Ecologies: performing life
on the colonial periphery’ in Nature Performed. Environment,
Culture and Performance,
eds. B. Szerszynski, W. Heim and C. Waterton. Blackwell/Sociological Review
e: jlyall at unitec.ac.nz
Recent exhibitions and performance work
Requiem for Electronic Moa
2000, Between Nature: Explorations in ecology and performance conference/event,
Lancaster University, UK
1999, SOUNDCULTURE aotearoa / new zealand
Towards an Hyper-Feral Art, Aotearoa: Picketing the Sublime; Given
Both a Blue Displacement and an Illuminating Vessel
1997, ART NOW, Auckland Art Gallery
Towards an Hyper-Feral Art, Aotearoa: Pumping up the Sublime Given
both a Waterfall and a Designated Seat
1994 Fisher Gallery, Auckland
The Waterfall, Kant’s Train Set and a Tent
The Drawings Gallery, Auckland
Text and Photo Credits
Photographs provided by and copyright of John Lyall
The two texts above are from the book by Claudia Bell, Nigel Clark and
John Lyall which accompanied Requiem for Electronic Moa,
the SOUNDCULTURE aotearoa/ New Zealand performance, 1999. It is copyright
Bell, Clark and Lyall, and published by enzyme, Auckland, NZ, edited
with permission by Wallace Heim.
Claudia Bell lectures in Sociology at the University of Auckland, NZ.
Nigel Clark lectures in Geography at the Open University, UK.