‘The Lost Birds’ memorializes extinct species
At one point in time, the skies over North America were full of birds, and the songs of the lark, the nightingale and countless other bird species were known to all. The ravages of overhunting, industrialization, pollution and trading have silenced many of those species forever. Now American composer Christopher Tin wonders if the extinction of so many birds and other animals around the world could spell our own demise.
Tin has memorialized the world’s extinct birds in The Lost Birds: An Extinction Elegy. A recording of the work was recently released on the Decca Classics label by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and VOCES8, Tin himself conducting.
Tin’s initial inspiration for The Lost Birds came from The Lost Bird Project, a documentary film about artist Todd McGrain’s bronze sculptures commemorating extinct species of birds and placed in locations around the U.S. where each species was last seen in the wild. McGrain’s series includes sculptures of the Great Auck, the Heath Hen, the Carolina Parakeet, the Labrador Duck. McGrain’s sculpture of the Passenger Pigeon, once North America’s most populous bird, is located at Columbus’ Grange Audubon Center.
The Passenger Pigeon’s extinction story especially haunted Tin.
“(In the 19th century), their flocks were so enormous that when they flew overhead, day turned to night, and there was the sound of thunder of millions of wings flapping over your head. And within a few short decades, because we needed a cheap supply of food, we actually hunted them to extinction using nothing but crude 19th-century technology,” Tin said. “Here we are in the 21st century, and we have pesticides, we have deforestation, we have global warming, we have all of these other things to eradicate animal species around us. What horrible damage can we do now?”
In The Lost Birds, Tin explores the emotional implications of that question for other animal species and also for human beings.
“These bird extinctions are a foreshadowing of our own potential extinction, unless we find a way to change course,” Tin said.
Comprising the bulk of The Lost Birds are Tin’s settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale, poets whose work shows profound reverence for the natural world in a time of increasing industrialization. His settings are poignant expressions of the beauty of birds and sorrow at the loss of that beauty, and he spares no calories in his rich late-Romantic musical language and opulent scoring.
“I wanted to impart this sort of pastoral beauty that was really appreciated in the 19th century into the music itself,” Tin said.
Today our once bird-filled skies are home to skyscrapers and airplanes, and we have replaced the otherworldly clamor of wings flapping over North America with the mechanized din of car horns, factories and ring tones. Tin says The Lost Birds really stands as a warning to embrace nature alongside technology in the course of modernization.
“In a sense, I wanted to create something of beauty that would remind us that that beauty is in danger of being lost, should we not act.”