Chris Mercer: "The Audible Phylogeny of Lemurs (2008-12)"

I will present the 8-channel sound composition The Audible Phylogeny of Lemurs and discuss the underlying research on animal communication that the composition attempts to demonstrate.  It is the product of six years of research on prosimian primate vocalization, including work in residence at the Duke University Lemur Center, where I have had the privilege to observe and record semi-free range lemurs and to conduct a set of playback studies. The Duke Lemur Center is the world's largest lemur reserve outside of Madagascar, housing 250 or so highly charismatic animals, many of them in generous, forested natural habitat enclosures.  This work would not be possible without the DLC and its knowledgeable staff and care technicians.

The piece is largely based on a 1994 study by Joseph Macedonia and Katherin Stanger, in which the authors evaluated communication evidence—primarily vocal signal information—to produce a lemur phylogeny (cladistic analysis of species relationships).  Comparing the Macedonia-Stanger study to a more recent molecular phylogeny, I was struck by how well the earlier communication-based analysis held up—excellent news for an artist interested in animal communication.  It suggests that, with proper context, the evolutionary story encoded in the vocalizations of modern animals is audible.

About 14 different species and subspecies are represented, although Lemur catta (the familiar ring-tailed lemur) and the closely related Hapalemur griseus are the most prominently featured.  My goal is to preserve and enhance the calls' natural characteristics and to group and combine them so as to reveal relationships between calls of different species, making the phylogeny audible and the beauty and complexity of the calls accessible.  You cannot simply pull up a chair at the Duke Lemur Center and hear these relationships unfold!  The piece is assembled from many hours of recordings—a grunt here, a mew or wail there, occasionally a "scene."  The vocalizations were documented for context of emission; cross-referenced with the scientific literature; and meticulously cleaned, edited, processed, and spatialized to reveal their acoustic structures and phylogenetic relationships.  In several cases, I have used my own observations to augment the literature, resulting (hopefully) in original insights on the relationships between calls.

I am deeply indebted to biologist Joseph Macedonia for his guidance and input throughout this project; his authoritative work on lemur vocalization is the basis for this piece.

Explanatory notes on Part 1 of the piece here.

More on the research here.

Chris Mercer received a B.M. in Composition at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1995 and a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of California, San Diego in 2003.  His principal teachers were Chaya Czernowin and Chinary Ung, instrumental music, and Peter Otto and Roger Reynolds, electronic music.  He has held artist residencies at Experimentalstudio SWR, Künstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf, and Sound Traffic Control in San Francisco; his music has been performed by The Nonsense Company, Ensemble SurPlus, SONOR Ensemble, and Schlagquartett Köln.  His most recent electroacoustic music and research have focused on animal communication, especially nonhuman primate vocalization, including research residencies at the Duke University Lemur Center, the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, and the Brookfield Zoo.  His instrumental music involves modified conventional instruments, found objects, and instruments of the composer’s own design, in combination with amplification, live electronics, and spatialization.  He has taught electronic music at UC San Diego, UC Irvine, and CalArts; he currently teaches music technology in the composition program at Northwestern University.