Courtney Brown
Recovering what we have not yet found
Courtney Brown is a sound artist, researcher, and tango dancer. She is an assistant professor at the Center for Creative Computation at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX. Her work has been featured and performed in the United States, Asia, and Europe, including Ars Electronica (Austria), Diapason Gallery (Brooklyn), International Computer Music Conference (Korea), Jepson Center, Telfair Museums (Savannah), New Interfaces for Musical Expression/BEAM Festival (London), Frequency Festival (Chicago), Vox Novus' 60X60, Itinerant Festival (NYC), Juddertone Dance (Boston), and Modified Arts Gallery (Phoenix). Her interactive sound installation and musical instrument, 'Rawr! A Study in Sonic Skulls' received an Honorary Mention from the 2015 Prix Ars Electronica. She also received Fulbright Fellowship to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she worked on her project, 'Interactive Tango Milonga', creating interactive Argentine tango dance. She holds degrees in Interdisciplinary Digital Media and Performance (DMA) from Arizona State University, in Electroacoustic Music (MA) from Dartmouth College, and in Music and Computer Science (BS) from Loyola University New Orleans.



Brown is a musician, sound artist, tango dancer and computer scientist. She creates works in which the physical act of creating sound is transformative. People become dinosaurs by blowing into a hadrosaur skull, creating their own roar. Social dancers become musical ensembles. In my experience, sound is entrenched in movement and vice versa. Brown's research examines the subjective associations between sound and bodily gesture. The artist explores the ways musical response engenders or disrupts feelings of musical agency. Her recent work engages with participatory music, that is, music as a social act. By creating sound or moving in a way that is essential to the musical and movement outcome, participants are contributing and engaging in an on-going tradition and community. Brown investigates and seeks to induce trance, social flow states, and intersubjectivity in these contexts through musical interface. The artist's work also upsets traditional power structures in these communities by shifting and changing previously static and established musical relationships and agencies, allowing critical social engagement.
Recovering what we have not yet found is a musical work imagining the sounds and interactions of an arctic past, drawing sound material and inspiration from the Pleistocene era. The work is loosely site specific, drawing on the presence of woolly mammoths in Yakutia, including the remarkably preserved remains of a juvenile mammoth, Yuka, found in the area (Boeskorov, et. al., 2021).


Sound recordings from Asian elephants, the closest living relatives of mammoths, have been incorporated into the work. Asian elephants are one of the few animals other than humans and some birds that have been scientifically demonstrated to have the ability to detect, move, and drum to a musical beat (Patel & Iversen, 2006). For instance, Asian elephants also have played in orchestras with human-made instruments, such as the Thailand Elephant Orchestra (Gupfinger & Kaltenbrunner, 2018), and they have independently shown interest in human music, for instance, stopping to sing along with a pianist playing 'Greensleeves' (Barton, 2018). One Asian elephant named Koshik even taught himself to speak five Korean words by inserting his trunk inside his mouth to get the necessary inflections (Stoeger, et. al., 2012).


Elephants are capable of a wide range of sounds and they are also known for vocal imitation, including the sounds of vehicles, such as trucks (Poole, n.d.). They speak to each other over long distances using subsonic frequencies (12-13Hz for adults to 22Hz for a juvenile) (Ibid). They also communicate within the human hearing range as well, creating both closed and open mouth vocalizations that include growls, trumpets, high squeaks, and warbles. Their voices can emanate both nasally through their long trunks as well as through their mouths (Ibid).


In Recovering what we have not yet found, I speculate that woolly mammoths retained the vocal flexibility and rhythmic capabilities of their Asian elephant relatives. Scientists believe that mammoths followed the same social structures of matriarchal herds as their elephant relatives due to both fossil assemblages and ancient drawings of mammoth herds by ancient humans (Lister & Bahn, 2007). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that they would have benefited from vocal communication in similar ways as well, suggesting that their vocalizations would also share similarities. I imagine a duet between my own soprano voice and mammoth voices and I create rhythms from the environment that could have surrounded them. I make a world where humans and mammoths could have made music together.


In my work, there is a tension between what can be known and what cannot. Our knowledge of extinct animals and their ecosystems is limited. Even if scientists bring the woolly mammoth to life again via genetic engineering to create "mammoth-like" elephants, they will necessarily be changed both by the process and by our current environment (Zimmer, 2021). For me, this irretrievable loss of mammoths means that when I call out to them, it is one-sided. But, similarly, when we make music with another self-aware being, animal or human, we are calling across an infinite chasm. We cannot get inside another's subjective experience. We can only move and make sound together.


Barton, Paul. (2018, December 11). Elephants "singing" with piano in their own way. YouTube.
Retrieved January 12, 2022, from video
Boeskorov, Protopopov, A. V., Maschenko, E. N., Potapova, O. R., Plotnikov, V. V., Shchelchkova, M.
V., Pavlov, I. S., Klimovsky, A. I., Kolesov, S. D., & Gorokhov, G. V. (2021). History of Studies of the Female Woolly Mammoth Mummy Yuka (Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799)). Paleontological Journal, 55(11), 1215–1223
Gupfinger, R., & Kaltenbrunner, M. (2018). Animals make music: A look at non-human musical expression. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction, 2(3), 51.
Lister, A., & Bahn, P. (2007). Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age (revised edition). London, UK: Frances Lincoln.
Patel, A., & Iversen, J. (2006). A non-human animal can drum a steady beat on a musical instrument. In
Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Music Perception & Cognition (Vol. 477).
Poole, J. (n.d.). Acoustic communication. Elephantvoices. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from
Rudaya, N., Protopopov, A., Trofimova, S., Plotnikov, V., & Zhilich, S. (2015). Landscapes of the 'Yuka' mammoth habitat: A palaeobotanical approach. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 214, 1-8.
Stoeger, A. S., Mietchen, D., Oh, S., de Silva, S., Herbst, C. T., Kwon, S., & Fitch, W. T. (2012). An Asian elephant imitates human speech. Current Biology, 22(22), 2144-2148.
Zimmer, C. (2021, September 13). A new company with a wild mission: Bring back the woolly mammoth. The New York Times. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from