Re-imagining a talking budgerigar

BY BRENDAN SMITH

In 2013, as part of The Art of Sound exhibition at Caboolture Regional Art Gallery (Qld), the NFSA was introduced to musician, composer and multidisciplinary artist Heinz Riegler (pictured above). Heinz had co-created an artwork entitled Score for a Mineral Landscape with artist Allyson Reynolds, exhibited at Caboolture Gallery prior to The Art of Sound, that also combined sound and visual art. We began talking to Heinz about the idea of remixing one of the recordings from the NFSA’s sound palette for The Art of Sound.

Red and black Macquarie records record label for Billie Peach recording

Billie Peach Part One record label. NFSA title: 710849

We eventually decided on a 1939 shellac disc recording entitled ‘Billie Peach Parts One and Two’, a commercially released home recording of an articulate (and slightly demonic sounding!) budgerigar owned by Mr and Mrs Peach of Darling Point, NSW. Billie was said to have a vocabulary of 400 words, and sounds very similar to his female owner.

The recording is both amusing and disturbing, from its plummy narrated introduction to Billie’s seemingly random and unsettling stream-of-consciousness words and phrases. Billie also appears on film in the NFSA’s collection in a 1947 documentary entitled Time Off (NFSA title: 7604).

 

Heinz was given access to the Billie Peach recording and invited to re-imagine the recording.

Listen to the original recording, ‘Billie Peach Parts One and Two’:

Several months later, Heinz returned with his re-invention of Billie Peach, a new work entitled Billie Peach: Escape from Darling Point. As part of his approach and response to the original recording, Heinz’s new work addresses Billie’s apparent imprisonment and vocal indoctrination as a ‘caged’ bird, and sets him free (80+ years later) among the melting snow and wild birds of the Austrian alps.

Listen to Heinz Riegler’s re-imagining:

These words accompany and contextualise Heinz’s new work:

Billie Peach: Escape from Darling Point
(04 mins 20 secs – signal processing, field recording)

What do we look for when we domesticate a bird?
How do we justify this act – staring at it, sitting in that cage.
Train it to speak human.
A reward when it succeeds to mimic a word.
Another stale cookie for Billie Peach.
God save the King.
The property of Mr and Mrs Peach, of Darling Point, Sydney.
No.
Late March in the Austrian Alps
72 years later, Billie Peach has fled his captors.
Following a long winter, snow is now melting fast and water is streaming all around.
Multiple female black grouse are calling for a mate.
Their counterparts are strutting in return.
Snowfinches and blackbirds are celebrating the first warm rays of sunshine.
A yellow-billed chough swoops in the distance.

Billie’s sitting up ahead in a larch tree.
He’s forgotten how to speak English.
He doesn’t want a cup of tea.

Heinz Riegler at a mixing desk crop with people n the background

Heinz Riegler at his synthesiser in Burnie, June 2014

As part of the most recent The Art of Sound exhibition at Burnie Regional Art Gallery in Tasmania, Heinz took part in a Q&A with Brendan Smith of the NFSA to discuss and explore his work, his initial response to Billie Peach, his reasoning for his eventual approach to re-imagining the work, and his experience of working with archival sound recordings.

Heinz also took part in a wax cylinder recording, breathing new life into an archival sound recording technology over 100 years old.

Wax cylinder recording of Heinz Riegler’s improvised synthesiser: