Dawn Chorus

This multi-screen video installation by British artist Marcus Coates is both hilarious and fascinating. To create the videos for the project, Coates took slowed-down birdcalls and taught various people to sing them in their slowed-down state. He then filmed them singing the songs in ordinary situations or 'habitats' and sped up the footage again so the birdcalls are at normal speed again. The result is remarkably similar to the original.

dawnchoruscoates2.jpeg Click on the picture to see the entire installation in sequence and read a more detailed description of the process.

Coates' collaborator on the project, wild-life sound recordist Geoff Sample has posted a bunch of great clips of the bird-songs slowed down by increasing factors here.

Sample explains: "Birds are thought to have a finer temporal discrimination of sounds than humans. This means they hear the individual elements of composite sounds that for us appear as a single blurred sound. Their hearing may have up to eight times the temporal resolution that ours can achieve. One way getting some impression of this is by slowing down bird sounds; the simple way of doing this also lowers the pitch of the sound by the same factor and this is a fascinating way of tuning in to the hidden depth of birdsong, a kind of transformation to a more human musical sensibility."

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  1. Birdsong has always been my favorite music, and I’ve always said so.

    This, therefore, has given me awesome street cred.

  2. I used a technique similar to this to create movie-style “demon speak” in college. I recorded a phrase, like “Get out or die,” then played it backwards to hear what it sounded like (surprisingly hard to predict, and it’s NOT the same as just reading the words backwards!) Then I mimicked what I heard and recorded that. In other words, I recorded myself saying the target phrase backwards. When THAT recording was played backwards, it was an eerie backwards-sounding but perfectly understandable phrase.

  3. I’m having a hard time getting it to play, but from what I’ve seen it’s impressive– note how you can see their breathing has sped up, mimicking the increased heart rate of a bird? It also reminds me of Jim Fassett’s obscure “Symphony of the Birds” LP where he slowed down bird songs and superimposed them to try and create classical music counterpoint (amazingly reissued on cd a few years ago– one of those things on an ever decreasing list of LPs I never thought would get reissued.)

  4. National Geographic had an issues about 30 years ago with a tiny record inside with humpback whale songs. They sped one up, I don’t remember by what factor, and it sounded remarkably similar to bird songs.

  5. I also had a difficult time downloading the full video. This “making of” video is on youtube.

  6. Interested readers might also want to check out the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who composed numerous works based on bird song that he meticulously transcribed, including a monumental opera about St. Francis.

  7. Geoff Sample? Is that his real name? I wonder if he knows Mr. Smoketoomuch.

    (Sorry, nothing useful to contribute to the conversation).

  8. Fascinating to consider that birds might be functioning essentially at eight times our cognitive speed — not implausible given the incredible quickness with which some of them can react to the world. I recall seeing slo-mo footage of a bird flying through the gap in a picket fence barely wider than its body, timing its flaps so that the wings were tucked as it went through. What would the world seem like? Sometimes, we can get a hint: in the throes of intense fear, we too feel like our cognitive resolution is magnified, and times slows down, as I describe here: http://bit.ly/ajey1P

  9. @#2: You’re in the company of David Lynch with that trick– that’s how the accents of the Black Lodge inhabitants in Twin Peaks were created.

  10. This is so cool on so many levels! I’m a birder, so I know how extremely important bird songs can be when identifying a bird sometimes.

    I was once able to identify a life bird (an Least Flycatcher) purely on listening to it’s song in the field and then going home and listening to the songs of the three almost identical looking birds I thought it could have been on my bird songs CD.

    Bird songs can also allow you to identify a bird you can’t even see. Red-eyed vireos don’t usually come down from the tree tops to let you have a look at them but they sing their distinctive song away up there so fervently that any visit to the woods pretty much guarantees they go on the “seen” list even though you didn’t. Eagles, barred owls, red tail hawks, thrushes, wrens, northern loons, and lots of other birds are easily identifiable by their calls, although the ones I’ve listed are probably the easiest to learn. Being able to identify purely by bird song is one of the hallmarks of a hardcore birder and I am so not there yet.

  11. “The result is remarkably similar to the original.”

    Close enough to fool my cat who is looking all around the room for the birds, and she doesn’t usually react to sounds on the TV or computer.

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