Listening to Steve Norton’s soundscape composition Requiem is both peaceful and unsettling at the same time. Unusual bird songs mix with frog croaks here and there, sounds come together, then pause. “A lot of people think it’s relaxing and beautiful,” says Norton, “but some people tear up and cry.”
The tears come when listeners read Norton’s introduction to the show, which explains that “the sounds you are hearing will never be heard again in the wild. All of the species—ten birds and two frogs—are now extinct.”
Requiem will be installed at Maine Audubon’s Fields Pond Audubon Center, 216 Fields Pond Road, Holden, Maine, from January 13 – February 13, 2020. Steve Norton will give an opening talk on Thursday, January 16, at 7 pm, about the making of Requiem, his artistic research, the work’s context, and the technology involved. The talk is free and open to the public.
Norton, who has been a birder since third grade, is an accomplished jazz musician who has played woodwinds and other instruments in avant-garde jazz and improvisation communities for 30 years. Now, with Requiem, many strands of his life have been pulled together.
In 2015, in Maine for an improvisation festival, he heard about Intermedia, an interdisciplinary program at the University of Maine Orono that focused on hybrid forms of art. Within a year, he had quit his corporate job, moved up from Massachusetts, and enrolled in the MFA program. As part of the program, he had to create a sound installation and extinction was on his mind.
He started researching species that had gone extinct since around 1950, when tape recorders became generally available. He was open to all animals but in the end settled on ten bird species and two species of frogs, from the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, last confirmed seen in 1944, to the Rabbs’ Fringe-limbed Tree Frog, considered extinct since 2016. He took the sound files and worked with them, pulling excerpts, cleaning the files, making loops, adding silences, and creating a mix of rising and falling density. The result, he says, “is completely unpredictable.”
Norton says, “My hope for Requiem is that people hear it and realize that 100 percent of the extinctions that are happening are essentially due to human activity. I want people to wake up and see that we can’t proceed with business as usual. If we do, we’re pretty well doomed.”