The Atlas of Feathers

Project Outline

David Worrall
[possibly in collaboration with various others] (2010++)

(all sections should be considered incomplete)


The Atlas of Feathers is a seven-part multi-movement composition based on Australian birds in their environments. It incorporates multi-sensorial realisations of their gestures and calls, their temporal and spatial distributions and phenomenal worlds. In cultural terms, birds are embodied spirits with real voices of return and renewal, and as messengers from other worlds. As such, they serve to remind us, if we take the care to listen, that dynamically engaging in the phenomenal world is rich and encompassing; It is not to be taken for granted, as modern humans seem so want to do, by externalising responsibility for it to the universe, to a world from nowhere.

The Atlas is a very large-scale work, some parts of which are purely instrumental music; others employ immersive polymedia, that is, poly-layered multiple media such as music performance, abstract sound ambience, static image and animation, dance, sculpture etc - including touring events in the composer's portable Polymedia Event Theatre (PET). A contiguous performance would total many hours, however its parts are designed to stand as individual events.

The Atlas also represents a rethinking of the composer's musical language; a reformation of his gestural and harmonic materials in-keeping with those of the distinctive sounds of Australian birds. This process includes the analysis, notational transcription simplified re-synthesis of the sounds of large corpora of bird recordings. Also important in this process is his re-evaluation of the relationship between live performers and computer technologies.

The Atlas of Feathers can be thought of on three levels:

  • As combining the metaphorical and allegorical, in keeping with the historical reference to birds as omenic and ritual creatures,
  • As empirically-based data perceptualisation, in which features of birds and their environments are 'realised' using sonification and visualisation techniques, and
  • As a study of existing-as-embodied beings in phenomenal worlds of motion and motility.

The Atlas of Feathers

  • PART I – Dreaming Water
  • PART II – The Zone of Other Beings
  • PART III – Pushing Back the Silence
  • PART IV – The Zone of Non-Being
  • PART V – Zombieland
  • PART VI – Neti Neti
  • PART VII – The Enfolding

PART I – Dreaming Water

Dreaming Water dynamically maps the movement of Australian continental birds and water. It begins with the sonification of continental distribution data (in collaboration with The Atlas of Australian Birds, which is then used as as 'ground-bass' over which is incorporated site-specific material contributed by local communities throughout the country.

Dreaming Water explores relationships between the birds and people of Australia through their mutual dependence on a diminishing resource: water. An important aspect of the work is the manner in which it seeks to psychically reposition the desert regions as the 'red heart' not the dreaded 'dead heart' of Australia; a move away from the necro-colonialism of much of Australian art-making of the past, as explored in Michael Cathcart's The Water Dreamers [1].

PART II – The Zone of Other Beings

The Zone of Other Beings is collection of individual bird compositions for solo instruments accompanied by photographs of related material. With the piano performing a central role, compositional techniques employed include the transcription and musical transformation of individual bird calls and their reciprocities, from a library of recorded sound directly to traditional musical notation.

PART III – Pushing Back the Silence

Pushing Back the Silence introduces the sounds of human beings, their speech gestures and of their technologies employed in the process of inhabiting, mastering and owning the worlds of birds.

PART IV – The Zone of Non-Being

The Zone of Non-being is a series of metaphorical soundscapes of empirically investigated land- sea- air-and astral- scapes; an atlas of the non-phenomenal.

PART V – Zombieland

Zombieland is an allegory, in the manner of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, of a mental (intellectualist) world of artificial intelligence - a view from nowhere in which perceptual idealism and Cartesian vie for the minds their ancestors created.

PART VI – Neti Neti

Neti Neti is allegorical exposition of attempts to resolve the conflicts explored in Parts IV and V: How could an object, distinguished by its presence, call forth an act of attention, since consciousness includes all objects? Where empiricism was deficient was in any internal connection between the object and the act which it triggers off. What intellectualism lacks is contingency in the occasions of thought. In the first case consciousness is too poor, in the second too rich for any phenomenology to appeal compellingly to it. Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism fails top see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching. They are in agreement in that neither can grasp consciousness "in the act of learning", and that neither attaches to the circumscribed ignorance, that still empty but already [determinate/determinable] [intention/neediness] which is attention itself. [2]

PART VII – The Enfolding

The Enfolding is a phenomenal phoenix, rising from the antinomic ashes of Part VI. Epigenetic [3] in form, it begins by celebrating the richly provisioned worldhood-of-the-world [4] where birds and human beings live in their worlds, in which perceiving bodies are not foreign, in which perceiving is tissue. And this flesh of 'being in the world existingly' [5] is delivered over to a field of the sensible, structured in terms of the "difference between things", in which perceivers are not transcendental egos but beings who are themselves of the sensible, who "know it before knowing it" [6]. Pre-linguistic languages of speech, of music, of gesture have bodies that are more gossamer, but bodies nonetheless, which are capable of sedimentation, of forming a world which 'houses the speaker', in which stillness is not to contrary to gesture, just as silence is not contrary to sound. The flesh is the means by which the sensate and the sensible intertwine and become reversible and this reversibility moves the field from having objects and intentional acts, to having folds in the Body by which the sensible reveal themselves. The unheard, the idea, is not the contrary of the heard, it is the unheard of the heard.


1. Cathcart, M. 2009. The Water Dreamers. Melbourne: Text Publishing.
2. Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962. The phenomenology of perception. Oxford: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Translated by C. Smith from Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Gallimard, 1945.
3. The unfolding of an organism. The term is used here in both its pre-modern genetics meaning to describe the differentiation of cells from their initial totipotent state (i.e. having the potential to divide and produce all the differentiated cells in an organism) in embryonic development, and in its narrower contemporary usage which implies particular chemical processes undertaken in the semi-permiable cell-wall (the Tissue) in response to a cell's environment. Epigenetic changes have been observed to occur in response to emotional and physical environmental exposure and are credited (Lamarckian-like) with the means by which organisms can adapt to changes in their environment more rapidly than can be accounted for by random genetic mutation. See
4. Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row. Translated by J. Macquarie and E. Robinson of Sein und zeit, Seventh edition, Täbingen: Neomarius Verlag, 1927.
5. ibid. The is Heidegger's definition of Dasein, that special type of being that is aware of its own existence, including humans, but also potentially other animals such as certain cetacea, birds, etc.
6. Merleau-Ponty, M. 1964. Le Visible et L'Invisible, Paris: Gallimard, page 133.