Birdsong surrounds everyone. I've noticed the sound of birds around me constantly since the Coronavirus has reduced car travel. I started recording the songs of birds every morning after learning that billions of birds have vanished from north America since 1970 and a mass die-off was reported this year in the southwestern US. Like most of us, I’ve been haunted by the implications. In response, I designed an installation where a person can simply pause to listen to birdsong.
Birdsong Room and park: an installation for one viewer; a large room with gentle lighting, a padded bench, and the sound of local birdsongs issuing from various locations. It’s subtle and dynamic, as if the viewer were in the middle of a meadow.
The room lights slightly rise and lower over 15 minutes when one of the walls becomes a video projection depicting a rolling meadow. We see a figure at a distance—the camera moves across the landscape toward it. As the camera gets closer, we hear it begin to sing in a high voice: it sings a song of lament to a once-real bird which has become extinct (the Santa Barbara Song Sparrow). The camera spirals around the singer: a realistic-looking computer-generated mouse standing on its hind legs. Other creatures may join in: a tree or some worms.
The music is being written by the accomplished American composer Garry Eister and it will be sung without accompaniment by soprano Risa Larsen. The song will be very simple and touching, as well as arch and a bit goofy because of the animal performer(s). The video will be a fabrication of the natural, a re-creation; since there are no recordings or surviving photographs of this extinct sparrow, it seems fitting that the “natural” here would be entirely artificial.
The Birdsong Room will offer a respite from the small screens of Zoom sessions—this projection would be the scale of a movie theater’s with an image space that envelopes the body. Return to the body is needed: the body is tired, the eyes are tired, the mind is tired. There are so many demands on people these days; it’s vital that we refresh ourselves in order to sustain the work necessary for recovery. To pause. To stop and to simply listen.
Outside in the park, the viewer will have a chance to hear the sound of the extinct Santa Barbara Song Sparrow. I am working with ornithologists at the Cornell Ornithology Lab to create a fabricated version of what the sparrow might have sounded like using recordings of other Channel Island song sparrows and measurements of bill morphology from old documents. I will then "teach" the mockingbirds in Barnsdall Park the song of the Santa Barbara Song Sparrow by playing the fabrication until they mimic it in their own calls. Hence, the extinct bird will be resurrected—brought back to life.