multispecies collaboration: easter at the piano mill, 2021

Hannah playing the flute at the Piano Mill, 2021.

The struck chime sounds in the distance.

Perched on the wet wood log of a fallen eucalypt that is suspended between three granite boulders and another tree, I am hidden from view by the moss, ferns, and rise of the rock. I start the tracks—recorded yesterday—on three phones, two borrowed, playing through three waterproof Bluetooth speakers concealed amongst leaves, stones, branches: decoy Hannahs[1]. Whistling, fluting, the occasional birdcall, and a different quality of wind start to emerge from three directions around me. The wet of the log I am sitting on has long ago soaked through several layers of leggings and thermal underwear and I notice a leech explore the edge of a nearby leaf and toss it further away; I’m not too interested in a closer collaboration with that particular critter at this moment. I hear the clink of the chain around the gate 100 metres away as this group of listening participants make their way down the slope, and I begin to play. This is maybe my fourth or fifth rendition.

I am playing at the fifth and final Easter at the Piano Mill—an extended afternoon event that sends listeners on an journey around the Harrigan’s Lane property of Jocelyn and Bruce Wolfe, adventuring to various structures and stages and natural formations like my trio of boulders dubbed Bowmore (each place is named for whiskeys). The Piano Mill itself is a structure designed by architect Bruce in collaboration with musician Erik Griswold, housing 16 upright pianos in various states of disrepair, which when played becomes this incredibly complex meta-instrument. I am here as a Boundary Rider: an artistic guide that leads listeners to explore the environment of my “stage”, a short walk from the fence line of the main yard.

My vision is to sound these stones as some kind of rock-dwelling bird-person-critter, co-creating with local birdcalls, raindrops on leaves and tendrils of mist and gushes of wind, multitudes of multispecies communities of moss, lichen, and other plants and fungi and insects, the ancient granite, my “outdoor” flute[2], and my self-of-yesterday. As I was making the recordings I took a break to speak quietly with the Old People, the rightful owners of this land, to introduce myself, where I came from and what I was doing, to give them thanks and to honour them. I acknowledged the violence done, the massacres committed by my own peoples, and how I am still in training, learning to listen, to pay respect, to be and to soundmake responsibly on this land. This is connection country, Jukembal, Kamileroi, and Bundjalung country, with history that also involves other nations: Githabul, Kambuwal, and Keinjan. The gravel road Harrigan’s Lane may possibly have served as a pre-invasion track that linked different nations. The property is situated just over the border between Queensland and New South Wales, partway between the towns of Stanthorpe and Tenterfield, in the highlands of the Granite Belt. It is a region that I feel a connection to, situated along the southern edge of the Darling Downs, which extends several hours drive north to include my parents’ farm, my childhood home.

Currawongs loop their way through and above the canopy of the wet sclerophyll forest[3] as I gaze up. I watch treecreepers—slight, brown birds that skim up and down the trunks of trees snapping up insects—and recognise their song in my recordings. Sightings and soundings of red-tailed black cockatoos and crimson rosellas and quails by the roadside bring joy to my inner twitch. Birds especially remind me of the remarkable beauty and the joyful noise of this continent. They are a significant part of why I returned to australia after studying overseas, and I wrote a flute duo during my return here that featured a transcription of pied butcherbird song in a northern NSW regional dialect, stunning several European composition tutors who had never heard a bird sing so low and clearly. Recordings of australian magpies at the opening of Liza Lim’s 2016 opera Tree of Codes prompted my German friend Hanna Kölbel to ask me in fascination about the complex electronics Lim had used. I was confused until I realised she had meant the birdsong. I feel so incredibly blessed to hear these songbirds almost daily outside my bedroom window, and have had their likeness imprinted onto my skin. The flute is regularly called upon to invoke birdcalls, and I play with this association perched atop this stone. I am exploring complex call and response structures, mimicry and reply, through my use of my former self reflected back to me through phones and speakers.

I am especially cognizant that I cannot hold all of the connections and contaminations that I am making here within my conscious awareness. It is unavoidable when playing in a place like this, surrounded by the activity of an abundant ecosystem in which lifeforms are tumbling over one another in a glorious green array, with rain and mist and moss and moisture and cold challenging your finger dexterity and footing and the ability of your flute keys to close and open, in dialogue with trees and birds and frogs and insects and the Old People and your deepening fatigue and your own self in mp3 format. One friend calls me a “moss witch”, another says “forest nymph but making it cyberpunk”. Several women over 50 tell me they could have stood there and listened for hours. I hold eye contact with children gazing up at me in a mixture of curiosity and bemusement, and am aware when certain listeners wandering around the rocks are fellow musicians. “Did we go to a yoga retreat together?” one listener asks (we did). My parents stop for a brief chat after they have heard my set; close friends wink and wave from the crowd. Listening back to the recordings I made of my performances I notice how I giggle to myself, laughing at my awkward bows and waving people on as I finish each iteration. I know how to compose myself during performance, but still not how to receive applause. I play for the human listeners, but also for the forest, for the stones, for the ground beneath them, for all the times I have played here over the past five years, for all the people and places and experiences and things that have brought me to this point. Only some of these were collaborators I had chosen to engage with in advance. Some are collaborators I couldn’t help but bring with me. Many are surprises. I welcome them in, and welcome the opportunity to begin my performance again, anew, with newness, with new and old collaborators, with a continuing neverending process of contamination.

One of my seven ‘Hannebird’ performances.

This text is an extract from my forthcoming doctoral thesis.

[1] These also became somewhat ghost-Jodies: my best friend and close collaborator Jodie Rottle is a fellow flutist and was herself playing flute as a Boundary Rider at another location, and although she was not featured in my set I was asked by several listeners where she had been hiding.

[2] The Sankyo Etude with a David Williams headjoint that saw me through my undergraduate and two masters degrees, tarnished and a little worse for wear, but familiar in a homely way that helps me to gently revisit my own roots and imperfections. It now serves as the instrument for more risky, adventurous gigs, and I am incredibly grateful to have this freedom—I have played this flute in rain and Tasmanian snow and at a New Year’s Eve bush doof on the Sunshine Coast. It has been all over the globe with me, almost to as many places as I have been.

[3] I know that this is the classification for this kind of forest because my ecologist mother texts it in her Easter-morning message to my sisters and I.

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