ASU graduate student receives honorary mention at the 2015 Ars Electronica Festival

ASU student Courtney Brown demonstrates her project "Rawr! A Study in Sonic Skulls."

Photo by Sharif Razzaque

On a road trip to start graduate school at Arizona State University, East Coast native Courtney Brown stopped at a dinosaur museum in Tucumcari, New Mexico, where she pressed a button at a sound exhibit to hear the simulated call of Parasaurolophus, a type of duck-billed dinosaur.

“That was my favorite part of the exhibit,” Brown recalls. “But I also thought that the experience could be improved upon in a lot of ways.”

Not long after that, at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, the candidate for an Interdisciplinary Media and Performance Doctorate of Musical Arts did what any intellectually curious sound artist would do. Working with her advisor, Garth Paine, who holds a joint appointment as associate professor in the School of Arts, Media + Engineering and the School of Music, she set about improving on the concept of a sonified dinosaur skull.

“I’d been doing new musical interfaces for a while, since 2006-07,” Brown explains. She’d earned her master’s degree in electroacoustic music at Dartmouth College. “I immediately thought of how that would go into my research. I wanted to have the feeling of being a dinosaur, I guess, and have it be this physical sensation… like being the dinosaur’s lungs.”

Brown set to work with Paine, and later, Sharif Razzaque, her peer from the graduate computer science program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, creating the prototype for the skull of Corythosaurus, another type of lambeosaurine hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) – a cousin to the Parasaurolophus she’d encountered in New Mexico. The duck-billed dinosaurs were known for their head crests, through which they made their trumpet-like calls.

With her dual background in music and computer science, particularly with her experience in software development, Brown found the Herberger Institute the ideal ground for exploring her developing interests, and it was in the School of Arts, Media + Engineering that she was able to build on her varied experience and hone her talent. The Corythosaurus 3D models from CT scans sent by Lawrence Witmer (Witmer Labs, Ohio University) provided the base for the skull, which was constructed with foam, coated in polyurea, and pieced together with epoxy. The nasal passages were 3D-printed, along with the resonant passages of the interior of the dinosaur’s skull. Brown designed and built the larynx first, and then she and Razzaque used a Shopbot, a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machine, to fabricate the skull.

Interestingly, the dinosaur skull crafted by Brown is an acoustic instrument. “That was a really important aesthetic point for me,” Brown says, noting that she could have taken a hybrid/digital approach, but she was “interested in the poetry of the physical.” She adds, “I say this as somebody deeply involved in writing software, and I’ve been doing computer music for a really long time. But sometimes, as an engineer, you have to think, ‘What’s the best solution?’ And honestly, the easiest solution might have been having some kind of sensor that people blow into to create the noise, or somehow creating this larynx. I just wasn’t interested in that. I felt like it had to be physical.”

In her research, Brown passionately pursued the integrity of the Corythosaurus’ physical vocal mechanism. The obvious challenge, after 77 million years, was the lack of soft tissue remains. From only the CT scan of the skull and dedicated yet peripheral research into the dinosaur’s cranial structural features, Brown had to wrest an idea of the dinosaur’s physical larynges.

“I did all this research. I was talking to Lawrence Witmer, and I asked, ‘So what do we know about Corythosaurus larynges?’ And he said, ‘We know nothing!’ That was a big blow. I couldn’t absorb it. I kept thinking, ‘Maybe there’s something!’ Because I wanted it to be exact. It was about accepting the role of the imagination, which, in fact, is what makes it beautiful, in a way.”

Brown continues: “When you blow into the skull, you can feel it in your lungs coming back to you, so there’s this physical sensation that’s just there. The whole point of the project is to give this physicality to the dinosaur sound. It becomes really important, I think.”

Garth Paine emphasizes this point, as well. “You can kind of embody the dinosaur by blowing into it, and then you can change the pitch by tightening and loosening the larynx,” he explains. “Then those chambers all resonate like they would have done in the dinosaur.”

In August, the research project landed Brown an honorary mention in the 2015 Prix Ars Electronica competition, one of the most prestigious awards for media arts in the world. “Rawr! A Study in Sonic Skulls” was shown at the Ars Electronica festival, drawing more than a thousand visitors eager to make the skull sing by breathing into it. The Corythosaurus skull prototype was displayed as an interactive sound exhibit.

Paine notes, “Only a small number of people who got honorable mentions was selected to come to Ars Electronica and exhibit their work at the Ars Electronica museum in Linz, Austria, a very prestigious venue.” Brown was flown to the festival and hosted for two weeks while she exhibited the dinosaur in the Ars Electronica museum.

“She also did a concert,” says Paine. “That’s extraordinary exposure for her on the international stage at the highest possible level.” 

Brown says that without the transdisciplinary opportunities available to her in AME’s facilities, the project never would have happened.

“I immediately thought, ‘Oh! There’s a fabrication lab here!’ Whereas if I was in a computer music department, that wouldn’t be something I’d think about. I saw the variety of activities going on here in AME, and we thought, ‘Okay, we can do this!’ I learned a lot about digital fabrication. It’s not magic. It’s a lot of work.”

All of that work resulted in the recognition Brown received at the Ars Electronica festival.

Paine concurs.

“It’s a really good kind of transdisciplinary point at which these things come together. So nobody in the music school could do this… probably nobody else in AME would think about doing it… but when you get somebody who brings those things together, then you come up with these points of exploration that are kind of unique that people in those individual disciplines wouldn’t come up with.”

Brown’s work has already generated interest from academics, musicians and even from dinosaur scientists and natural history museums.

“Her work opens up all this outreach potential,” Paine says, “and the potential for the artists to lead the scientific inquiry, to lead the engagement and really improvise.”

“Rawr! A Study in Sonic Skulls” was supported by a grant from the Graduate and Professional Student Association of Arizona State University.

Media Contact:
Kristi Garboushian
School of Arts, Media + Engineering