R E Q U I E M, in memoriam twelve recently extinct species

Requiem, in memoriam twelve recently extinct species (2018) is a sound installation by Steve Norton. Its topic is human-driven extinction. The installation consists of a four-channel electronic music composition which plays on speakers in an empty and preferably darkened space. This serves to focus attention on the sounds of the piece. An accompanying booklet is provided which contextualizes the work for the listener.

The composition uses the sounds of twelve species which have gone extinct during the era of recorded sound. Although they are gone, Requiem enables us to hear these creatures once again, ad aeternum. The booklet describes the intention of the piece, and lists each of the animals heard therein by their common and scientific names. Data is provided on their ranges and the ‘when’ and ‘why’ of their extinction. Beside the booklet, there is no other visual material.

Following is the first paragraph of the booklet, which provides all of the information the listener needs: “The sounds in this composition will never again be heard in the wild. All of the species audible in this piece—ten birds and two frogs—are now extinct. You are able to hear these sounds because the creatures that made them went extinct during the era of recorded sound; this is a unique moment in the history of human-driven extinction.” (You may download a copy of a recent booklet at this page.)

Although Requiem’s formal structure is perceptually indeterminate,[1] mimicking the processes of nature, the reality it presents is fictional, juxtaposing species most of whom never coexisted in time and space. This play of reality and irreality mirrors the nether state of the recently extinct, where, in many cases, humanity is unsure whether the species is actually gone for good or if a tiny population is holding out somewhere, undetected. In the words of technology and society researcher Joeri Bruyninckx, they are “suspended between survival and extinction.” [2]

A recording of the premier installation of Requiem, in Orono, Maine in May of 2018, is linked below. This is a ten-minute excerpt; the piece would run forever, theoretically, if it were allowed to do so.

 
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S

I would like to thank the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Laboratory for Ornithology and The Amphibian Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia for providing the sound files for this piece, and the International Union of the Conservation of Nature for their Red List of Threatened Species from which much of the data on the animals in Requiem were gathered.

Thanks are also due to N.B. Aldrich and my colleagues at the University of Maine’s Intermedia MFA program for their thoughtful feedback and critique; to Michael Rosenstein for his generous and attentive assistance with the Boston-area installations, and to Gordon Hanson-Grodsky for continuing to push the issue.

Also, I owe much gratitude to the gracious hosts and supporters of this project over the years: Stephanie Lee and Ellen Shakespear at Spaceus.co; Gordon and Polly Hanson-Grodsky; Leslie Ross at The Cannery; Adam Leiterman at the Massachusetts Audubon Boston Nature Center; Melissa Kim and David Lamon of Maine Audubon; Sally Brown; Malaysia Marshall and Veronica Klucik at Museum of Design, Atlanta; Margo Ann Crutchfield, Meggin Hicklin, Doug Whitney, Rob Gainer and Matt Hudson at Moss Arts Center; Susanna Bolle and Kevin Micka at Non-Event and Annette Klein at Goethe-Institut Boston.

 
N O T E S

1.^ For the curious, Requiem is built using the computer programming framework Max/MSP. The program plays the twelve voices on virtual “tape loops,” whereby the sound file containing each voice plays through and then a long silence occurs (approximately three to four times the length of the voice), after which the voice is heard again. Because the length of each of the voices’s sound files are different, the temporal relationship among the sounding of the voices is entirely unpredictable.

2.^ Joeri Bruyninckx, Listening in the Field, Recording and the Science of Birdsong (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018), 3.