The Pet Sounds Project

I wrote the following post during 2012, on my class blog for MEDIA ARTS 301. I’m transposing it here as it may have broader appeal… It details a collaborative project, involving pigeons, which I am keen to get off the ground, working with media arts students. So far I’ve not found the right class or assignment to slot it into. It could even be carried out with a small group of students who have already graduated, as a pathway project to working collaboratively outside the university context.

dubstep pigeons

Ok, so I want to begin by saying, I have no idea what the term “Dubstep Pigeons” could even mean.

A quick google shows that it’s the name of a live music act in northern England. I imagine that band is probably really good (and I love their logo), but apart from the “music” part, they don’t really have anything to do with this project.

It was Stacey [media arts student 2012] who came up with this term “Dubstep Pigeons” to describe the collaborative “pigeon project” which I’ve been thinking about for over a year now, and which I’ve been muttering about to anyone who will listen, and which I’ve been looking for an opportunity to carry out. But as I say, its relationship to the respected Dubstep flavour of dance music may only be coincidental…

In the blog entry which follows, I’ll outline my vision for the project. Maybe some of you want to get involved as part of your Major Project for semester 1.

It all began when we were working on the project “What Lies Beneath” in MEDA101 last year. It involved audio field recordings from the Port Kembla Steelworks, which were then transformed through editing software into digital alarm clock soundtracks.

The best student audio works from that assignment were selected to be included on an old skool LP record, which is right now in the process of being mastered, and which we’ll launch later in 2012.

At the time, I was listening, incessantly, to an album of great genius, Pet Sounds, by the Beach Boys.

Here’s a pic of those whacky Beach Boys interacting with some pet goats for their album cover shoot:
pet sounds album

Over at, I found a great description of the album:

Recorded and released in 1966, not long after the sunny, textural experiments of California Girls, Pet Sounds, aside from its importance as Brian Wilson’s evolutionary compositional masterpiece, was the first rock record that can be considered a “concept album”; from first cut to last we were treated to an intense, linear personal vision of the vagaries of a love affair and the painful, introverted anxieties that are the wrenching precipitates of the unstable chemistry of any love relationship.

This trenchant cycle of love songs has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel, and by God if this little record didn’t change only the course of popular music, but the course of a few lives in the bargain. It sure as hell changed its creator, Brian, who by 1966 had been cruising along at the forefront of American popular music for four years, doling out a constant river of hit songs and producing that tough yet mellifluous sound that was the only intelligent innovation in pop music between Chuck Berry and the Beatles.

It occurred to me that the formal structure of a piece of experimental sound (like what the students were working on for What Lies Beneath) had a lot in common with a good pop song:
Gentle entrance&#8594intensification&#8594grand exit.
Convincingly making a whole new world within 2-3 minutes, and then leaving it behind.

That sort of thing.

Simultaneously, and perhaps serendipitously, while travelling on a train from Wollongong, I found a set of colour photocopies showing pigeons nosing around in their coops. Somebody had left them on the train seat. I did some (but not much) research and discovered that the Illawara Homing Pigeon Society is quite active in the region.

The photocopies I found looked a bit like this:


And so the idea emerged to combine the practice of audio field recording (of these pigeons!) with experimental editing, and with intensive research into the form of the pop song.

Here’s how it would work:

The project would start with a full listen-through (on good speakers etc) of the Pet Sounds album. Ideally this would happen in a room where we could really concentrate, relax our bodies, not be distracted etc.

This would be followed up by each student having a digital copy of the album to take home, and listen to on good headphones, on the bus, train, walking etc. To really get Pet Sounds under their skins.

Each student would be allocated one song from the album, as “their” song. There were 13 songs on the original album, so ideally 13 students would get involved. If there are fewer than 13 students, then each student might adopt more than one song. Besides listening to the whole album, the student would REALLY study his/her adopted song(s) in great detail. This may involve producing diagrams showing volume, tune, narrative, instruments used, flow, intensity, emotional tone, etc, so that the student is fully familiar with the anatomy of the song.

Meanwhile… we all go on an excursion to one of the coops maintained by a local enthusiast member of the Homing Pigeon Society. Field recordings are made of the birds, the environment, their keepers etc. These field recordings form the basis of the work-to-be. Other things may emerge in the process (carrier pigeons as message-delivery systems etc) which may inform the direction of the work.

Using the field recordings, each student “reconstitutes” their adopted song from Pet Sounds. The new version does not have to “sound like” the old version. Rather, it should follow or borrow the formal structure of the original, to make a brand new work from the pigeon recordings. The result will sit somewhere between experimental sound art and pop song.

A limited array of other field recordings will be permitted – recordings of “pet sounds” only (ie, animals!).

After an intensive period of development and collaborative critique, the new songs will be re-assembled into the original order, and we will have another listening session.

We will have re-created the entire Pet Sounds album anew.

If it’s good enough, we’d try to put it out as a CD or LP, or at the very least as an iTunes album.

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