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Synth Birds of Dawn

10 January 2005

Synth Birds of Dawn

Wellington composer Nic McGowan presents a futuristic early-morning concert high above the rooftops which you attend by simply staying in bed.

This summer Nic McGowan is creating a new aural work of literally epic proportions inspired by the synchronous church bells of San Giminano, Italy, and the dawn chorale of the Wellington Zoo. As a feature of the Island Bay Festival in Feb 2006, Nic & two fellow musicians will present an artificial 'dawn chorus' using three vintage synthesizers (known as theremins) and enormous custom-built speakers placed on hilltops around Island Bay.

“The soft creature-like electronic tones soar out to each other across the valley, eerie and otherworldly”, says the composer. “Like questions punctuated by silences in the enchanted stillness of daybreak. The suburb of Island Bay provides a perfect auditorium with its flat valley floor and surrounding hills.”

Drawing on such images as Steven Spielberg's exchanges of musical phrases with visitors from other worlds, and H.G. Wells' grim vision of strident alien craft calling to each other, Nic is interested in the potential of large-scale musical statements, resonating through the still air over the sleepy rooftops. Where only church bells have ventured before, he seeks an epic soundscape that mimics natural primal intelligence. Better yet, like the giant church bells, the Synth-Birds are performed live by musicians, using equally historically significant instruments.

Nic uses the Moog Etherwave Theremin as the performance instrument for this work because of the unique method by which it is played, and its heritage as the precursor of the modern synthesizer. Invented in
1919 and one of the very first electronic instruments, the theremin consists of a box with two projecting radio antennas around which the user moves his or her hands to play. Never touching the instrument itself, the musician's interaction with the theremin is truly ethereal and highly expressive.

“Its going to be subtle” says Nic. “Like the gibbons calling out at dawn in the Wellington Zoo . When I first lived in Newtown and heard their calls, I thought some musician was up on their roof with a synthesizer. I was jealous of the simplicity and audaciousness of the idea until I learned what was going on. I found out that there was no synth... that the gibbons had given me the idea. When I stayed in Italy I was equally inspired by the call-answer techniques used between bell towers. I became fascinated by the arena that exists up above our heads and what things fill it with sound each day, whether by design or by accident. An aeroplane for example just pollutes carelessly with its noise. Animals or birds call out to each other from vantage points – I like that. And I like that with bell towers and minarets, humans have done the same. Things have to be loud to present themselves in that big sky auditorium... but are always heard softly/distantly.”

The 'Synth Birds' is being filmed for a documentary about Nic's work in the music, theatre and film industries. He has recently finished work on a new feature film by Academy Award nominee Taika Waititi and is completing sound-mixing work on a television series about drama school students.

Other recent projects include producing/mixing critically acclaimed Ghostplane album 'Beneath the Sleepy Lagoon'. He is currently working on a commission to create a dark and witty stageshow, 'Instructions for Modern Living' with successful writer/performer Duncan Sarkies for the 2006 Wellington International Festival of the Arts.


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