Music As A Gateway To Nature | @GrrlScientist
How can a person connect with endangered species that they’ve never seen nor experienced? One man’s idea is to create modern music featuring these animals’ sounds, calls and songs
Ever since Ben Mirin can remember, he was captivated by sound, and birds were his first teachers.
“I’ve been a birder all my life and working with their songs opened up the entire world of sound for further research as well as creative work,” said Mr Mirin, who moved from Boston to New York City to pursue beatboxing.
“As a beatboxer, I have found myself in very good company among my fellow noisemakers here — the New York beatboxing scene is one of the best in the world.”
And yet, although he loved New York City, Mr Mirin began to feel cut off from birds and from the natural world “in a profound way.”
“I think a lot of people who come to New York experience that feeling,” said Mr Mirin. “I wanted to reconnect with nature through what I was doing on an everyday basis.”
To recapture his relationship with birds, Mr. Mirin began experimenting by incorporating short “sampler” recordings of birdsongs into his beatboxing performances. The enthusiastic audience response surprised and inspired him to continue developing his musical ideas. Not content to use “samplers” of other people’s recordings, he participated in a week long nature sounds recording workshop offered by the Macaulay Library so he could learn how to record, produce and share all the wildlife sounds that he includes in his music.
Eventually, Mr. Mirin’s passions merged into his unique profession as a popular “wildlife DJ.”
“The urge to reconnect with nature is what got me into this work, and I’m thrilled that my audiences share the same feeling!”
But combining beatboxing and birdcalls isn’t only about creating new music.
“I create music from animal sounds to inspire conservation and introduce new audiences to the natural world,” Mr. Mirin explained in email.
Not only does Mr. Mirin record natural sounds, but the sounds in his recordings are unchanged from what you might hear whilst visiting a park or wilderness area.
“I don’t add any digital effects to change the sounds,” said Mr. Mirin. “There’s no autotune involved.”
But does Mr. Mirin have a favorite animal sound?
“No animal sounds are any more interesting than others,” Mr. Mirin replied in email.
“[T]he beauty and the challenge of working with animal vocalizations is that every species — and indeed every habitat — is uniquely tuned to work in certain ways,” Mr Mirin explained.
Not only do different species produce sounds that are designed to work best in different sorts of habitats, but even animals of the same species will change the tone and structure of their calls as their habitat changes. For example, a study of satin bowerbirds found that individuals living in denser habitats, such as rainforest, produce lower frequency sounds with less frequency modulation, whereas bowerbirds living in more open habitats, such as eucalypt forests, create higher frequency sounds with more frequency modulation (ref). Other studies have found that city-dwelling songbirds sing louder than their country cousins so they can be heard over the constant cacaphony (for example, ref & ref).
“The more deeply you dig into the soundscape, the more you can learn about the ecology and behavior of different habitats around the world.”
But birds aren’t the only animals who produce sounds to communicate. Soon, Mr. Mirin was incorporating frog calls into his music. Then, whilst attending the 2014 Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, he met primatologist Patricia Wright, a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University who has researched lemurs and other primates for her entire career. Thanks to Professor Wright’s exhaustive digital library of lemur sounds along with lemur sounds from the Macaulay Library, Mr. Mirin began to incorporate the calls of wild lemurs into his music.
As he used ever more exotic sounds in his music, Mr. Mirin began to travel farther afield so he could use his new skills to record these sounds for himself.
“I think my vision for being a wildlife DJ very quickly codified around the idea of travelling around the world, recording animals sounds, and making music from them. And that’s now my whole process: capturing as much of a place as I can though sound, and then transforming my personal experience into a musical narrative. It’s rewarding to be involved in every stage of the process.”
This passion has led Mr. Mirin to Madagascar, where he is currently leading a birding and audio recording expedition. His team plans to record “anything that makes noise” — with a special emphasis on lemurs. Lemurs are a very vocal group of endangered primates that are found only on the island of Madagascar.
“In each location, I’ll be composing new music made from the local soundscape and performing for resident people to help celebrate their natural heritage,” Mr. Mirin said.
“And the best part is, we’ll be working with local artists and musicians to make the music a collaborative local effort,” Mr. Mirin explained. “This gives the music a layer of creative vitality I could never achieve on my own, and makes the music a shared endeavor that belongs to those who live on the front lines of conservation in Madagascar.”
This performance features the haunting calls of several lemur species that Mr. Mirin will be seeking on this expedition:
But Mr. Mirin doesn’t always travel to exotic locales halfway across the world to find animal sounds to inspire his music. Some of the natural sounds he uses in his music can be found in New York City.
“I do a lot of work in New York City, where many people haven’t been given the opportunity to experience nature firsthand. It’s my hope that music can open the door to getting everyone to explore the world we originally came from.”
One of his National Geographic Kids compositions features the sounds of ordinary barnyard animals:
Mr Mirin’s remarkable globe-trotting profession all started with his love of birds and their songs.
“Birds were my gateway drug to the rest of nature.”
James A. Nicholls and Anne W. Goldizen (2006). Habitat type and density influence vocal signal design in satin bowerbirds, Journal of Animal Ecology, 75(2):549–58 doi:10.1111/j.1365–2656.2006.01075.x
David A. Luthe and Elizabeth P. Derryberry (2012). Birdsongs keep pace with city life: changes in song over time in an urban songbird affects communication, Animal Behaviour, 83(4):1059–1066 doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.01.034
Nicholas Per Huffeldt and Torben Dabelsteen (2013). Impact of a noise-polluted urban environment on the song frequencies of a cosmopolitan songbird, the Great Tit (Parus major), in Denmark, Ornis Fennica, 90:94–102.
You might also enjoy reading this piece about Ben Mirin.
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Originally published at Forbes on 21 September 2016.