ASU Digital Culture Gallery

Rwar! A Study in Sonic SkullsCourtney Brown

What did dinosaurs sound like? This question did not occur me until my experience with the simulated calls of a Parasaurolophus hadrosaur in a New Mexico museum exhibit I encountered during a long road trip to my new home in the desert. In the exhibit, all the calls were computer-generated and disembodied. I became fascinated by the idea of bringing the body into this experience. What if I could have blown into the larynx of a long extinct dinosaur, thereby giving voice to the creature?

My work, Rwar! A Study in Sonic Skulls allows just such an action. Users blow into a tube extending slightly from the back of a dinosaur skull, which activates a mechanical larynx. Then, the crest and nasal passages of the sculpture act as resonating chambers for the sound. The work uses scientific research as a starting point to create this means of sound production by using a model of the lambeosaurine hadrosaur Corythosaurus' skull and larynx. Lambeosaurine hadrosaurs are duck-billed dinosaurs known for their large head crests, which scientists hypothesize are used as resonators for their vocal calls.

The skull is reconstructed from CT scans and endocasts of a hadrosaur fossil, and then 3D printed and machined from the resulting model. The 3D model of the skull and nasal passages were provided by Dr. Lawrence Witmer, from Witmer Labs, Ohio University. Carlos Sammaro, formerly of Arizona State University, worked on and assisted with 3D model preparation and printing of the nasal passages. Dr. Sharif Razzaque, from InnerOptic Technology, Inc, worked on and assisted with 3D model of the skull as well as printing of the initial prototype of the foam skull, with invaluable assistance from Dr. Sallye Coyle from Good Harbor Bay Studio. Gordon Benfers, from ShopBot, Inc., helped prepare the final skull for CNC routing and printed the final skull using ShopBot CNC routers. I am eternally grateful for all their help and contributions.

It is not just a question of a new musical interface, but also a new way of interacting with the past that we must use a great deal of imagination to reconstruct. Further, if breath and voice are an integral part of identity, how does this sense of physical self transform when interacting with such an artefact? In this way, my project directly engages with the theme of “life, but not as we know it”, as it both extends human perception, and creates a dinosaur based on fossils and calculated data, with the cracks filled in with imagination and speculation.

Additionally, I am working on a series of compositions for this hadrosaur instrument and tuba called How to Speak Dinosaur, exploring the timbres and its use as an musical instrument. I am collaborating with tubist David Earll, and we are exploring the common ground that lies between these sonic worlds of these instruments. During this process, I am developing a taxonomy of sounds that I can create using the hadrosaur skull instrument, including extended techniques with different mouthpieces.

The Digital Culture Gallery is located in the B-Wing of Stauffer Hall, Room #B102, on the ASU Tempe campus.


Gallery days/hours - Monday through Thursday 12pm - 2pm.