The Alien Kin
Diane Barbé & friends
The Alien Kin is an experimental research and sound-performance project that uses selfmade instruments, voice and processing to explore the sonic words of bogs, meadows and imaginary places. It has been running since march 2022, delving into bird calls, biomimicry and interspecies communication. The project has taken many different shapes and continues to grow. It is curated by Diane Barbé and brings into play instruments co-created by Joe Summers; different participants contribute to different performances.
It was shown as open-air workshops and concerts at Global Forest e.V. in the Black Forest, at Floating University, Berlin, at Morphine Raum, Berlin and most recently on the acousmonium of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) at Le Centquatre, Paris.
Working in the temperate Black Forest at the border between Germany, France and Switzerland, I became particularly interested in little sound devices usually called bird whistles or game calls in English, appeaux (“caller”) in French, and Wildlocker or Lockjagd in German. Game calls are most often wind instruments that use fipples or reeds to resonate hollow cavities, but they also include rattles, twisted pegs, membranes, and other ways to produce and amplify sound.
Little by little, I started to craft a collection of these sound devices: copper fipples, spruce recorders, “screaming” whistles, lamb bone edge flutes, rubber membrane geese callers… Toward the end of the residency, my collaborator Joe Summers joined me in Sankt Georgen to help produce some of the other bird calls, particularly those requiring small fipples in the copper tubes. With the exception of the copper tubes, all other materials were either found or recycled. We chose to associate timbres and frequencies in ways that felt non-intrusive, inspired from Bernie Krause’s niche hypothesis in which different species vocalise in different frequency ranges and different rhythmical patterns to avoid interference and masking.
In ensemble performances, the core question is one of synchronicity and dialogue: the device are simple (usually no more than 2 discreet pitches), loud and high-pitched, similar in timbre, and usually wind instruments, which has immediate rhythmical implications since the players need to breathe. It is crucially interesting to wonder –at what point does a chaos of tweets start to feel like a meadow in the woods? When do we begin to “feel” patterns and imagine other bodies, other temporalities?
“Did imitative calls of other species assist our ancestors in hunting? . . . When exactly was it that a person was so adept at producing a call during a hunt that he was asked to do it again for the entertainment of others or taught it to his children as a life-skill?”
– Ian Nagoski, Ecstatic & Wingless: Bird-Imitation on Four Continents, ca. 1910-44, released October 2016, Canary Records
Human lives and ways of living cannot take place or be described in isolation; as all species become caught in the multilayered entanglements of the global economy, we become more and more aware of the disruption of human–animal interactions. The many voices, stories and sounds that compose these interactions all carry meaning, in the sense that they represent something to someone –the natural world is deeply semiotic and deeply sonorous.
The oldest fossils all reveal organs dedicated to making and receiving sounds, pointing to the crucial importance of listening and uttering in evolutionary processes. Research in anthropology and archaeology has extensively investigated the origins of sound-making practices in humans and other species, be they accidental, aesthetically-driven, or simply serendipitous; and some studies on the oldest known wind instruments (40,000 year old bone flutes) seem to imply that they may have been game calls, for deer or birds.
Whether considering the hunter who can imitate bird calls to attract them, or the vocal learning abilities of nightingales who pick up new songs throughout their entire life, the acoustics of particular ecosystems influence all musical practices. And when considering mimicry (a broader term that may include inaccurate, failed or misleading imitation), we are in fact dealing with deception—with the capacity of natural forms to create confusion, a playfulness at the thresholds of coherent analysis.
Timo Maran, in Mimicry and Meaning, points out that the “ability to perceive something as something else appears to have a strong linkage with illusion, belief, magic . . . and imagination” (2017). He insists that mimetic relations need to be understood not in general, but rather as a specific relation between three individuals (the mimic, the model, and the receiver, all linked through the mimetic sign). In this sense, sound mimicry should be understood more as “a multiplicity of things related by family resemblance rather than as a monolith,” according to the musicologist Emily Doolittle (Other Species’ Counterpoint—An Investigation of the Relationship between Human Music and Animal Song, 2007), or indeed as a game, driven or not by direct intentions.
For me, working with game calls is therefore at a crucial intersection that helps understand the kinds of relations that have been woven between humans and animals –hunting, sanctifying, revering, communicating, sacrificing. Doing so through sound, following Milla Tiainen, reminds us of the “distinctive capacity of sound to emerge in and establish relations.” (Milla Tiainen, “Sonic Technoecology,” Australian Feminist Studies 32, 2017).