LIAR LYRE (videos and full sound recordings below) was a live film-scoring experiment curated by Amy Cutler at the Wellcome Trust as part of the public drop-in weekender ReMaking Nature (6th May 2017). It was made up of nine brand new collaborative compositions, improvisations, and experimental re-scorings of nature documentary clips, with a dreamy line-up of colour morphing cuttlefish, musical saws, underwater dances, concept waltzes, dead radio transmissions of extinct birds, electronic violin, cassette loops, live-feed interactive mashups, archival natural histories and "aggressively re-contextualised" glacial lines of fog... and even some costumes.
The weekend as a whole was designed to reassess ideas of nature, as the exhibition Making Nature: How We See Animals came to a close and in advance of a follow up, publically curated exhibition, A Museum of Modern Nature (“If you built a museum of nature in the 21st century, what would it look like? What objects would you collect and display? What purpose would it serve – and should we be putting nature in a museum at all?”). For our live session, we considered some of these ideas of modern and alternative natures, in particular challenging some of the ways it has been spoken for, or spoken over, in soundtracks. Nature has a huge amount of media strategists, and this event asked us to look again/listen again to the photogenic and mediagenic natures we see beamed into our homes in nature documentaries – such as the famous clip of David Attenborough and the titular lyre bird, captured imitating the sound of camera shutters.
Each performance was a re-scoring or re-setting of an existing nature documentary extract, wiping the sonic and narrative norms (stagey; cinematic; sensory; moral; sentimental; gendered; hyper-real; exotic), and replacing them with a newly written, synthesised, or improvised performance. A short introduction at the beginning of the session highlighted what the ideas and performances meant and were about – in terms of the technologies and ideologies at play, and the traditions by which the sounds of nature in its twentieth and twenty first century documentary incarnations have been culturally produced and imagined (but also erased). The first-time collaborations brought together uniquely for this event included innovative pairings across scenes and disciplines, from Alison Blunt’s improvised violin, to the mediatized natures in the performance art of Mark Peter Wright, each bringing attention to and subverting the norms of our usual ways of listening to and/or narrating nature – from the prudish anthropomorphications of Disney’s True Life Adventures series, set to symphonies emphasising seasonality and order, to the lascivious and psychedelic “eco-jazz” of Jean Painlevé’s surrealist underwater cinematography, to the ambient or droid-like futures of science-fiction and Gothic sound effects in insect documentaries of the early 1970s.
How do these diverse sound scripts mark out certain nonhuman natures as, say, vulnerable, sexy, villainous, eerie, secret, garish, compliant, alien, chaotic, unpredictable, or even (in insomnia aids) soporific? What do they have to do with longer standing traditions of nature and its characterisations in literature, music, and science? How can we rewrite or remix these scripts, and why might we want to? The film clips ranged from the re-scripting of iconic moments from “nature’s nickelodeon” to the further reaches of what constitutes “nature” on screen, including lichens, shape-shifting slime moulds, or long takes in which the subject matter is simply a line of fog. Running from slow eco-cinema to experimental time lapse, and from foley recordings to lo-fi transmissions of extinct animal voices, this programme explored some of the weirder avenues of nature documentaries and their soundtracks – which turn out to not be so familiar after all.
Performances by Alison Blunt, Douglas MacGregor, Sylvia Hallett, Justin Hopper, Sterling MacKinnon, Sally Ann McIntyre, Mark Harwood, Mark Peter Wright, Angus Carlyle, Postcards from the Volcano, Sonia Levy, Izzy Galleymore, Drew Milne, Iris Garrelfs, Douglas Benford, Edmund Hardy, and Amy Cutler. Poster and screen-printed artworks (above) on the day created by Max Bondi; event film (below) by Larissa Karl.