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A Jaw-Dropping Animal Orchestra

A new art exhibit uses endangered animals and their guttural cries to mix art with science

The alligator skull's jaw drops open and a creepy, guttural, ominous growl emerges. It's haunting, like something out of a horror movie.

A fox follows suit. And a bear, and a sheep, and a deer. Each skull is propped on the end of a long, straight rod, with wires attached to control a moving jaw. Each emits a computer-generated howl. Some are high-pitched and shrill, others low-pitched and gruff.

But timbre aside, there's a whole lot of howlin' in "The Very Loud Chamber Orchestra of Endangered Species," a performance of music, art and science created by two Duke doctoral students.

The music comes from Jamie Keesecker, who is earning his Ph.D. in music at Duke. The art comes from Pinar Yoldas, an architect with a Master's in Fine Arts from UCLA who is now earning her Ph.D. from Duke's Art, Art History and Visual Studies department.

The symphony is Yoldas' vision: each of the 13 animal skulls that "perform" in this symphony represents a threatened or endangered species. The bear skull represents the endangered polar bear, for example, and the orca skull represents a type of endangered killer whale.

It's a catchy visual and one that Yoldas hopes gets some attention. It was unveiled at Duke earlier this year, and will be featured at the upcoming Duke Arts Festival, which runs from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3. Yoldas and Keesecker have been in talks with museums in the hope that it will one day be publicly displayed.

The symphony was created to shine a light on issues related to both endangered species and the environment. Keesecker used a technique called "data sonification" to create part of the musical accompaniment. He gathered data on the carbon emissions output of various countries, creating a specific digital sound for each data point. The more dramatic the polluting country's data point, the more dramatic the sound -- a damning crescendo of sorts.

"There isn't enough artistic expression around issues like this," said Yoldas. "Art is a powerful way to change how we think and behave. We really wanted to create an artistic experience that is layered and will push people to think in a new way."

Yoldas bought most of the 10 real animal skulls and three manufactured ones from various Internet vendors. The symphony was to have included a 14th animal, an African lion. Alas, it fell from a shelf and broke.

The very loud chamber orchestra of endangered species from pinar yoldas on Vimeo.