Joshua Dumas on 'Night Songs for the Birds of North America'


Joshua Dumas' new Florasonic installation Night Songs for the Birds of North America opens this Sunday, January 22nd in the Fern Room at Lincoln Park Conservatory with an artist reception from 3-5pm. On the occasion of the opening, ESS Co-director Olivia Junell interviewed Dumas about his approach to the commission.

What drew you to using the calls of endangered, threatened, or extinct bird calls in Night Songs for the Birds of North America?

I’m deeply concerned about human made climate change, deforestation, and our encroachment on natural habitats. But I also think global climate catastrophe is hard to comprehend. It is overwhelming, the science can be difficult to understand and the timescale makes it challenging to hold in our minds in a tangible way. For this piece I wanted to provide an accessible pathway into these ideas; we can understand birds, we can understand the idea of North America, and we can almost understand the never-again that extinction represents.

What do you hope the experience will be for people visiting the Fern Room? What do you hope to achieve through a highly public work like this—is there an element of activism?

I hope that piece is able to make material, understandable, and emotional the loss that mass extinction represents. I hesitate to call the work activism but it is certainly political. I think we, as a species, have to confront the fundamental long term effects of our behavior on the environment, and I think there is an ethical imperative to help affect change. I hope the piece inspires visitors to consider our responsibility as individuals, and as participants in larger societal systems, to our local and global ecosystems.

There are bird songs represented in the piece that no one will ever hear again. So there also is an aspect of elegy to the whole thing. I hope that perhaps Night Songs can create a kind of public space to mourn, a memorial to these lost and fading songs. A space of stillness from which we then dust ourselves off and turn our grief into action.

Lastly, In light of the willful misinformation being perpetuated by the incoming presidential administration, I want the piece to offer resistance, I want this music to insist that climate change is real, is human made, and there are costs.

I've noticed several themes in your work, including a connection to elements of the natural world—I'm thinking of Sound Bath for Bloch and your Chicago Avenue Moon project in particular. I'm interested in hearing more about the relationship between your work and nature.

I hadn’t thought much about it until you asked, but yeah, there is something here about recontextualizing nature in hopes of inspiring new engagement. Sound Bath for Bloch was a piece for a huge ancient tree inside a warehouse in Queens. Chicago Avenue Moon generates music that responds to the phase of the moon and the listener’s GPS location. And Night Songs presents these melodic memories of bird song installed in a constructed natural environment.

I suppose if the process is recontextualizing, the intent is awe. I think I will endlessly strive to create music that has the depth and quietude and awe we find in natural places.

What do you hope the life of this work will be beyond the Fern Room?

Speaking of context, I’d love to hear the piece installed in other situations. I’m curious how it would feel in a built environment like a gallery or subway station. Or alternately how it would feel broadcast in a canyon in the Badlands!

What else are you working on right now?

Recently released a new cassette and a new video for a project with Kate Adams called Mending. I’m collaborating on a flim and performance work with Sarah Cameron Sunde that will show in April. Her 36.5 project is so amazing. Whitney Johnson who played strings on Night Songs is performing at the Empty Bottle on January 30th with her project Matchess. Josh Bell, who played horns on Night Songs is helping organize and performing in a new monthly variety show at Steppenwolf that begins January 23rd.

Lastly, I want to express my deep gratitude to Alex Inglizian who has contributed so much to the realization of the project. And to everyone at ESS for providing resources, being flexible, thoughtful, supportive, and kind.

Night Songs for the Birds of North America will be open daily from 9-5pm at the Fern Room of Lincoln Park Conservatory from January 23 to March 26, 2017. Admission is free. Join us for a reception with the artist this Sunday in the Fern Room from 3-5pm.