The Architecture of Sound—Last Calls, Why Save That Simple Brown Bird? by Alice Hargrave


The sound wave patterns of bird vocalizations are cryptic yet poetic, with beautiful hieroglyphic-like patterns. This graphic language of sound, when strung together into longer verses, becomes an architecture of sound. 

Upon placing these patterns literally into architecture in the form of patterns on glass, bird lives are saved. Scientists estimate that at least 600 million birds die every year in the United States from colliding with window glass. My art project not only celebrates and amplifies bird vocalizations, giving loud, colorful voice to these species in peril, I want to put the work to work, visually, on glass, to save avian life. It is both poetic and powerful to use the voices of the birds themselves to shout out to other birds—DO NOT FLY HERE!

Not only are we losing birds in these strikes against architecture, the accelerating pace of climate change and habitat loss threatens birds as well. For this reason, the calls of extinct or threatened bird species are being housed in library archives to avoid their loss as well. Our ways of interacting and experiencing wildlife is therefore now mediated through the use of technology.

I heard archival recordings stored at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, NY of the very last mating calls of now extinct male birds in their attempt to summon already non-existent females. The incredible sense of loss I felt, and the poignancy of such a library holding this evidence of past biodiversity, deeply moved me, inspired this project, and led me to collaborate with The Cornell Lab.  

I create abstract patterned “portraits” of these calls using Spectrogram recordings: sound files with their attendant sound wave patterns of bird calls. I photograph and layer the sound waves and then tone them using the surprising colors of the eyes, talons, plumage, or skin of each particular species, belying the idea that some birds are drab and uninteresting and helping to answer the ubiquitous argument “why save that simple brown bird?” These avian vocalizations speak to grave environmental concerns and the fragility of life.

Can you imagine a world devoid of the beautiful early morning conversations of our avian neighbors—waking up to empty, silent skies?

On Any Given Night, Migration along the Mississippi Flyway, sound editing by Alex Drosen, all bird call recordings courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Alice Hargrave, a photo based artist in Chicago, incorporates sound, video, and photographic imagery within layered site specific installations. Her work addresses impermanence: environmental insecurity, habitat loss, and species extinctions. Hargrave collaborated with The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to create her project Last Calls/Pink Noise, portraits of threatened birds using sound waves of their last calls in the wild. This project has been widely exhibited, most recently in Lianzhou, China, winning a 2020 Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist Grant, as well as the finalist award in 2019. She was a semifinalist in both the 2019 and 2020 International Awards of The Print Center, Philadelphia, PA. The bird call patterns are also translated into “Haute Couture” garments by Dovima Paris where profits directly benefit the birds.

Paradise Wavering, Hargrave’s monograph (Daylight Books 2016) and extensive solo exhibition, traveled to multiple venues across the United States.

Hargrave, is included in several permanent collections such as The Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Art Institute of Chicago Artist Book Collection, The Ruttenberg Collection, Nuveen, and Hyatt. She has exhibited internationally and has been reviewed in journals such as Huffington Post, BBC News, and ARTNET. Her research has led her to Artist Residencies in The Florida Keys, Montana, Northern Wisconsin, and a Ragdale Fellowship award, Lake Forest, IL. Formerly Hargrave taught full time at Columbia College Chicago, and currently she has decided to teach part time while pursuing commissions, and conservation work.

Discover more work by Alice Hargrave.
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