Science, Tech & Environment

Artist Maya Lin's Sound Ring immerses listeners in a world of endangered species


Maya Lin speaks at the unveiling of the Sound Ring at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Jason Koski/Cornell University

Artist Maya Lin wants the world to know about endangered species. And she's created Sound Ring to do just that.

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Lin says the Sound Ring is really a sound sculpture. "There's an array of eight hidden speakers within a sustainably harvested wood sculptural ring — and it allows you, as you approach it, to almost begin to hear a landscape of sound that has depth. So what you're hearing is individual species that are endangered, threatened or, at times, extinct." 

The sounds, including field recordings and ambient recordings, come from the extensive Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive.

Lin identifies one sound you might hear if you listen really closely. "It's an underwater recording made of Weddell Seals in the waters of Antarctica. It's unbelievable." Other sounds include soundscapes or ambient recordings of "places that we’re losing — like the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest that has incredible biodiversity, but it also has underneath huge oil reserves. ... Ecuador’s beginning to talk about drilling underneath these extremely sensitive areas." 

John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, described a few of the sound recordings as "the intriguing echoes of a huge singing ring. Woodcocks twitter as they fly from east to west, common nighthawks 'peent' from overhead, and olive-sided flycatchers ring out 'quick, three-beers!' from distant limbs off to the south. Haunting wails of a lonely loon carry us to a moonlit Adirondack lake. Then, hearing a chorus of clarinet-like notes overhead, we are standing beneath a family group of Indri lemurs in a Madagascar rainforest. The sounds surround us with stories of beauty, fragility, vulnerability and loss. They cry to us for help, lest they disappear forever."

The Sound Ring is part of Maya Lin's multimedia, and multi-location "What is Missing?" memorial, dedicated to extinct, endangered, or threatened species and habitats and to the possibility of conservation. "I call it a memorial because I have been known in the past to work on pieces that have dealt with loss and history — whether it's war, the Vietnam War, or the Civil Rights Memorial."  She says she has always cared about the environment and has been acutely aware since her childhood of the fact that "one species, mankind, is responsible for the loss of so many other species."

At one point in her artistic career, she asked herself "could I create a memorial that could jump form — that could be not just one singular monumental object, but it could be sculptural pieces that convey information? As an artist, I like to get you to rethink what you're looking at so if I can arrest and focus your attention on sound, of course it's really important to us, but we tend to focus on what we see first. So the Common Loon was one of the first species I heard that made me realize how critically important it was to hear and bring these incredibly, at times, haunting sounds to life. There are things that I want you to almost get to know in a more intimate, personal way and I think sound is our way in these species and places."