Faced with the exciting task of composing for the “Living Worlds” gallery of Manchester Museum, I started by listening. My ears drew me to the vivarium nearby, with the noisy ‘strawberry’ and blue poisoned dart frogs. Next to their case I found another vivarium, this one with harlequin toads and an inspiring story of regeneration: during Covid lockdown the museum succeeded in breeding this near-extinct species! These toads were silent, but I recorded the voices of the dart frogs (with a contact microphone on the glass).
I then focused on the exhibit I found most moving, namely a glass case containing a stuffed crane, from which hundreds of origami cranes are escaping. As the museum explains in the
information panel, the cranes are part of the story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who died of leukaemia aged twelve, ten years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She made paper cranes in the hope that they would help her recover. After her sad death, a local campaign led to the establishment of the Children’s Peace Movement and Peace Monument to Sadako in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Millions of paper cranes are offered there as peace offerings, every year.
The Living Worlds Gallery is overhung by a symbol of mass extinction – a dinosaur skeleton. This contrasted sharply with the hope provided by the frogs and the cranes, giving me a creative tension to develop in the piece.
Scientific research into the vocalisations of dinosaurs is sparse, but the Jurassic Park sounds we know are implausible, given dinosaur physiognomy. Some, at least, most likely had voices like birds. I decided to create my own imaginary dinosaur sounds, while I resourced available recordings of Japanese cranes, adding all these to my archive.
While exploring the exhibits I also watched and listened to other museum visitors. Children were rushing around, the space allows for plenty of participation and playfulness despite the very serious topics presented. I decided to develop humour and playfulness in my own piece as a further layer of response, and even to aim for some participation. I asked myself how I could capture the need for us all to recognise what we can do with our own hands to mitigate the climate crisis.
In order to respond to the museum’s concern with participation, I experimented with a small motion sensor (Mugic Motion) for audience use. I created a Max patch for it that triggered sampled sounds from the composition when the accelerometer and gyroscope reach certain levels. The sounds I chose were the mating calls of frogs, and the calls of cranes and imaginary dinosaurs. Purchasing various soft toy globes, I found one that could accommodate the motion sensor, enabling visitors to throw the planet around – or to turn it gently. In an installation setting the toy would be available for the audience to play with, before and after a performance. On 10 May 2023 this worked well in the second performance. There was sufficient time and space for the main group of listeners to play with the planet around for twenty seconds before the piece; and then they played with it throughout the last ninety seconds, the ‘regeneration’ phase of the composition.
Playing with the planet seems to symbolise the strange world we live in. We are juggling with life, juggling with death (fiddling while Rome burns!)
Juggling with Extinction will be released early in 2024.