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The birds and the bees6:32

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olga ulkova

The first ideas I had before even coming there about how this place must look and sound like were somehow vague. I had a strange image appearing in my head on its own, which could definitely not exist in reality (according to some knowledge about the place) – some sandy street, more resembling one in India, 3-4 meters wide between single-store houses lit with yellow light of the sun going down. At the same time the sounds which seemed likely to be present there were mostly of artificial, industrial character – working conveyors and beats of huge hammers over metallic surfaces.
My work upon the project for Siemensstadt began with a long walk around its area. I came there on the evening of the 1st of May, expecting to find something special happening on that day in the place which is directly connected with the idea of labor. To my disappointment, I came upon only one place where there had been people celebrating the Workers’ day – a small tavern. The people were listening to old German songs, drinking beer, talking.
During this 2-hours walk I made 2 recordings – the sound which came from this tavern, and the low humming of a power plant in the area walled in barbed wire. I recorded them just to have later the image of the sound reality which was around me, without any idea of using them in the future work.  The sound reality was strikingly not the one I was imagining to myself – there were birds singing, distant planes taking off, cars in the main street, but no kind of industrial sounds anywhere. The views were also in a huge contrast to the ideas I had – green trees in bloom, empty streets and overall feeling of calmness. Eventually I even found the yellow sandy street that was appearing in my imagination – in the colonies north of the main buildings.
The second time I visited the area on working day, and it was all the same.
The striking contrast of the image of an industrial area in my mind and its real appearance brought me to thinking about why it looks like this now. In a way, if a person hates the conveyor job he or she is making, one can easily understand this, for it’s the type of job that makes a human being not him/herself anymore. And this type of jobs definitely existed at the factories of Siemensstadt. Now the people are replaced by the machines in performing same-type movements, but what did happen to the people? They are living in the area close to their job, the environment is quite likable, even so likable that one doesn’t need to go anywhere else anymore, one doesn’t need to travel and enjoys the “life” in this kind of pleasant-looking ghetto, getting home from work in 15 minutes of walking amidst the trees. In this case there’s even no reason of feeling yourself somehow dissatisfied. What place can be better?
Starting the actual work on the piece, I didn’t have any intention of making anything using only direct sounds from the area itself or reproducing the sound of the area in the most natural way. My point was to create a musical story, not a documentary about the place.
At first I had a clear idea about how the end of the future work should sound like: there were supposed to be the siren marking the end of working day and the applause following it. Then I needed a few sounds to still make some accent on what is heard at the place itself. I intended to pick some parts from “field recordings”, such as the bird’s songs, sounds of landing planes, bicycle rings. The two recordings I made at the place served as prototypes for three more tracks in the project: the low humming which imitated the sound of a power plant (two samples downloaded from freesound.org), and the sample I made around three years ago, which turned out to be a piece from the work of Puccini. That last sample was recorded from the radio while I was playing its antenna. I liked the bright pathos of this work and natural distortion of the sample. In some strange way it sounded as if it could be really present in Siemensstadt instead old German songs.
Then I wanted to create some effect of a working machine. The first idea was to have a constant sound and a kind of short beats to create a rhythmical structure. I started playing a simple chain of FM-synthesizers in Max/MSP, recording it live as I changed the parameters. Thus I got two tracks of “unknown devices” which sounded the way I liked. Then I tried to edit them and to cut the places where nothing seemed to be happening (although there had been microscopic changes in timbre all the time). Then I edited them while playing together, and I got the dialogue of these “unknown devices” with some tension appearing between them. This was almost the result I was looking for, I liked this feeling of work performed by these devices over a long period of time.
The sirens which are heard in the end were taken from Dziga Vertov’s movie “Three songs about Lenin”. In the movie this sound follows the scene in which Lenin is being buried – masses of people crying when the news about his death is spread, sirens of the plants hooting as the sign of mourning. In a way the use of the sound taken exactly from this source gave me a possibility of expanding a secret metaphor. The sound of applause never appeared in the composition, for at that point it seemed to be already unnecessary.
In the end I used only two sounds taken directly from the environment – the planes and the tweeting of the birds. The name of the composition (The birds and the bees) actually appeared before I even started working on it, it originates from the name of a song performed by Pat Metheny and Jim Hall and is also used in a metaphoric way. The easiest way to understand it is to treat birds as birds and bees and humans, deeper aspects of this metaphor regard to the art of David Sylvian and his concept of a bee as a creature desiring to get the perfect product (honey) and finally merging and dying in it (also a metaphor of death of ego for him, see interview on release of his album “Dead bees on a cake” in 1999).
The work was followed by an accompanying text:
“The fight for equal rights of employees and workers has brought its results: social respect towards workers and their comparatively high income level; factory hooters are no longer heard.
When one gets in a factory zone, there is no feeling of conveyor work being made somewhere around, on the contrary – trees in bloom and natural sounds of any ordinary city.
One can be mislead about work in modern society in two ways – in a way of socialistic countries, whose people are sincerely excited about positive results of their work without having much from it themselves, believing in happy future; and in a way of society which satisfies all the basic needs of its workers and gives even a bit more, making people feel happy about it now.
But work doesn’t make free”.