The music of

David Lumsdaine

The music of David Lumsdaine

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Lake Emu

Lake Emu lies a mile or so to the west of the Darling River in the plains of far western New South Wales, part of Kinchega National Park. When the river rises to flood level, it fills the lake, covering a wide area of open woodland, mostly Black Box (Eucalyptus largiflorens). The area furthest from the river is largely open water and, as the river falls, the lake is held back by a shallow area filled with islands of lignum (Muehlenbeckia cunninghamii) through which it slowly drains via a creek back to the river again. Beyond the timbered margins of the lake stretches dry open country covered with saltbush and spinifex.

The lake and its margins are home to an enormous number of birds, particularly ducks, waterfowl, parrots, and birds of the open woodland. My first visit there was in September 1984 and it was my memories of the intensity and variety of the birdsong on and around the lake which drew me back early in November 1989. However, I found a very different soundscape; summer had come early, and it was rearing time rather than breeding time for the birds. Most of the songs had finished, and in their place were the simpler calls of contact between adults and young. Rather than exuberant melodies which caught my ear it was the rhythmic interaction of simple repetitive figures building into complex textures: birdcalls, crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, flies, bees, and, above all, frogs; with just enough melody from the Grey Shrikethrush, Willy Wagtail, Magpie, Pied Butcherbird, and the hundreds of Little Grassbirds hidden in the lignum, to create a contrasting melodic line. The wind itself became a part of the texture, singing in the lignum, shaking the leaves, gusting in the middle of the day so that the boughs of the trees creak and groan; so too, the sound of water splashing, the plopping of so many feet in the mud and the drumming of wings in the air.

Before I began to record the sounds which make up this soundscape, I spent over a week exploring the lake ‘by ear’, listening to it in terms of texture and learning how I could use the wide dynamic range and enhanced clarity of digital recording to capture the music of frogs and insects as well as the wide contrast in perspective between the closest and the most distant sounds. Perhaps more than anything else, I was excited by the possibility of capturing in sound a sense of the space of this country.

The soundscape is made up of four sequences. The first is recorded on the northern side of the narrow, muddy bung of the lake, and covers the period 4.30—bright moonlight, before the first light of dawn—to 6.00 and sunrise. A Willy Wagtail, a Black(?) Duck and a group of frogs open the sequence which follows the development of activity as the light grows. Magpie, White-plumed Honeyeater and Variegated Wren, Grey Shrikethrush, Little Grassbirds and Peewees join in. After a series of close calls from a Peewee, a Pelican circles overhead uttering its deep resonant croak. More ducks and waterfowl, including Grey Teal, Coot, and Pink-eared Duck join in the activity on the water, while, on land, the Grey Shrikethrush reiterates its melodious call. Towards the end of the sequence, the activity recedes into the distance except for a Red-rumped Parrot which flies past with its sharp, metallic call; in the middleground a Whiteplumed Honeyeater calls and we hear the characteristic wing sounds of the Crested Pigeon as it flutters from one tree to the next.

The brief second sequence was recorded at 6 o’clock, about 1 km from the first position, and is a more open view from the opposite, southern side, of the lake looking towards the lignum islands. The busy soundstage is dominated by the intermittent songs of three Clamorous Reed Warblers. A Whistling Kite calls in the distance, and a feral pig rootles in the mud to the right.

The third sequence was made at the same place as the first. The day has warmed up and a gusty wind begins to blow from the south-west. The first section—Spotted Crakes, Sacred Kingfisher and Mallee Ringneck Parrots was made between 7.15 and 7.30. A dead tree, close to my recording post, was a favourite roost of a Black Kite. As it flies above or sits in the tree, its calls punctuate the rest of the sequence. The second section is woven from the song of the Grey Shrikethrush, 9.00 to 9.45. In the third section, the frogs return along with the song of a Clamorous Reed Warbler, and closes with a trio of Spotted Crakes as they forage in the mud in front of me, 10.45 to 11.25.

The final sequence, sunset to moonlight (the full moon rose while it was still light), covers the period 19.15 to 21.00. There are few close solos in this sequence; as the evening develops it explores the texture of sounds, particularly those of cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets. The first part, 19.20 to 19.45, records, from the same location as sequence 2, the settling of the birds as daylight fades. It closes with a brief ‘reprise’ of the opening frogs and Willy Wagtail heard distantly across the lake. The second part, 20.18 to 20.56, opens with a recording made from a slight rise in the ground behind the location of the first and third sequences, panning slowly across the furthest distances of the lake and its margins. In the foreground are the high bell-like chirps of crickets. It is interrupted by a move into the middle of a loud chorus of crickets and tree frogs which were heard far away in the course of the pan. The sequence closes on the southern margin of the lake, with the sound of Black Duck in flight.

DL 1990