A Butcher Bird sings to her chick while sheltering from the rain. The calls of Australian birds were once regarded as inferior to those in Europe.
When Australia was first colonised in 1788 its soundscape was completely alien to the foreign British ear. The vibrant sounds of the tropical wilderness and desert areas were listened to with colonial disdain. The native Australian soundscape was marginalised and regarded as inferior, much like the attitude towards Australia’s indigenous inhabitants. This process of marginalisation was later described with terms such as The Great Australian Silence and The Great Australian Emptiness. In post-colonial studies this notion of silence is seen to have aided in legitimising the colonisation of Aboriginal land, a space which had been occupied for over 40,000 years.
As the colonial territory expanded the 500 Aboriginal language groups that had existed prior to 1788 were systematically silenced. English was imposed as the dominant language and along with it the cultural system in which to interpret the world. The introduction of reading and writing further devalued the Aboriginal cultures’ aural interpretations of the Australian landscape; western society favouring the visual sense above all others. Today only 250 Aboriginal languages remain. This silencing has resulted in the loss of indigenous knowledge and ways of listening to the environment throughout Australia.
During the late 19th century Australian nationalists attempted to forge a cultural identity seperate from Britain, however there was still an inability to acknowledge Australia’s unique acoustic space. This was exemplified by one of the leading literary nationalists, Adam Lindsay Gordon, describing Australia’s birds as songless.
Soundscape: Bird House.
It is now 223 years since colonisation. Has our ability to listen to the sounds specific to our environment improved, do we still hear the great silence? Reynolds argues that the silence has been broken by Aboriginal people speaking in public soundscapes, and by our developing willingness to hear, articulate and confront the unspeakable of our history.
Indeed the Australian film and tv industries now make great use of the local soundscape, and contemporary composers have attempted to interpret the calls of native animals in their compositions. After 223 years post-colonial Australia finally seems to be entering a period in which we recognise our sonic identity, our soundmarks. Perhaps this growing awareness will also benefit the acoustic spaces in which we live.