Grackle Call: The setting of a gem (2018)

GRACKLE CALL from Steve Parker on Vimeo.

Steve asked me to contribute to his piece, GRACKLE CALL, as part of the Fusebox Festival.

I started by getting up before sunrise for eight weeks and making recordings of grackles. Along the way I taught a workshop on the technical and aesthetic roots of field recording, took a birding workshop with Martin Byhower, and ended up creating an eight-channel installation at Patterson Park Pavilion in which to play the recordings back. You can see the installation in the video above, from 2:00 to 2:40.

I also contributed this piece to the GRACKLE CALL zine.

As an admirer of their blue-black feathers, Emperor Auitzotl brought the great-tailed grackle to Tenochitlan from the eastern provinces of Mexico in the late 15th century. He called them teotzanatl (divine/genius/marvelous grackle) and insisted that they be fed and protected from human interference.

It’s likely that Auitzotl collected and protected grackles out of vanity; he wanted exclusive access to clothing made out of the feathers. Whatever his motivation, their protected status helped grackles wreak havoc: fucking and eating their way to establish an empire of their own that stretches from Iowa to South America.

Grackles don’t have the good taste to communicate in a pitch range or timbre that most of us would find musical. They are not the gentle creatures of the forest who lighten our ennui with a song. With the fixed gaze of a street preacher on meth, they heckle us with a harsh rattle that mocks us and all we care about. The omnaepoetic word grackle is really the perfect name for this bird.

The territorial call of a grackle opens with the sound of a metal fence being torn apart by a tow chain, builds into a piercing siren, hacks up half a lung through the parched lips of a desert pariah, then closes with a leering whistle as loud as an air raid siren. It’s almost too much to understand, too much information to take in for so short a time.

Hearing the call is like hearing the handshaking sound of a vintage modem, communication from an alien mind with logic and priorities we could never parse.

Grackles don’t have the aesthetic discipline to die a fragile, beautiful death when confronted with an encroaching urban environment. They refuse to be martyred to your human cause of saving the world for them. They may be trying to make it clear that they are beyond saving.

They like the spoils of gentrification. Grackles jockey for strategy and a good viewpoint, figuring out where the best perches are, which cars to shit all over, where the tastiest bugs are.

The conventional wisdom says that grackles live in parking lots and make horrible sounds to establish their territory, safely. The conventional wisdom, however, doesn’t really explain the aberrant behavior of a grackle.

A perch above an acoustically reflective parking lot would be the best place for a grackle to break out your abrasive built-in noise generator, because it serves their art better. The perch above an asphalt surface at a distance of three meters or more would provide the artist with a distinct echo of its own call; the louder the initial call, the louder the echoed sound will be.

Grackles like the parking lot like you like to sing in the shower; the architecture puts a pleasing acoustic ambience around your voice, like a complimentary setting for a gem. This is the thrill of being a grackle, brilliantly blue-black, naked, out of harm’s way, surrounding a captive audience with disorienting shrieks and echoes.

Haemig PD (2014) Aztec introduction of the great-tailed grackle in ancient Mesoamerica: Formal defense of the Sahaguntine historical account. NeoBiota 22: 59–75. doi: 10.3897/neobiota.22.6791