Played on Ivory Keys, This Is What Elephant Extinction Sounds Like

“Music for Elephants” translates poaching data into a song of mourning.

Antique 1921 player piano with ivory keys and custom die-cut vellum score based on the artist's predictive algorithm

Jenny Kendler

Elephants are extinct.

If that sentence became fact, how would you feel? Artist Jenny Kendler’s “Music for Elephants: A Eulogy for the Future” attempts to evoke the grief of such a loss through a seamless combination of piano music, data, and symbolism.

The 10-minute song is a translation of projected elephant population numbers over time into a musical score. The notes emanate from an unmanned player piano, adding a ghostly presence to the already haunting tones. The restored 1920s instrument has keys made of ivory—the very substance for which poachers slaughter these animals each year by the tens of thousands. If and when the piano falls silent, the elephant has disappeared from the earth forever.

Kendler has been striving to combine her two great loves, art and the natural world, her entire life. As a baby, her parents have told her, one of her first words was picture. Kendler grew up in a solar-powered home, and “it was only as I got older that I realized other people didn’t talk about global warming at the dinner table in the ’80s,” she says. Her efforts to synthesize creativity and conservation are epitomized by her current role as NRDC’s first-ever artist-in-residence.

Kendler says she’s been thinking for years about elephants’ similarities to humans, with their well-established social structures and emotional complexity. The severity of the poaching crisis inspired her to take creative action. The piano—an instrument with emotional range and keys historically made from elephant tusks—felt like the perfect medium.

With help from wildlife experts at NRDC, Kendler spent months researching elephant birth and death rates and poaching statistics. Along with her husband, a software developer, she used the data to create a predictive model.

Detail of the perforated player piano roll

Jenny Kendler

Each note of “Music for Elephants” represents one month, and its pitch the number of elephants that have died in those four weeks. Higher notes correspond to fewer poaching incidents, while lower notes mean more elephants are dying. “Nothing is random,” Kendler says. “Everything in the way that the score is played is completely derived from the numerical set itself.” Her algorithm assumes that poaching will continue to increase at a rate of 1.5 percent each year, culminating in extinction 25 years from now.

Recent hopeful events may make that timeline less likely. In December, China promised to shut down its ivory trade by the end of 2017. An estimated 70 percent of all illegal ivory goes through China, which is why Kendler sees the announcement as “straight-up good news.”

But the situation for elephants is still dire. Illegal channels for ivory will likely persist, and consumer education is key. At the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which exhibited “Music for Elephants” in November, Kendler says, “People would say to me, ‘Oh, people are still killing elephants for ivory? I didn’t know that.’”

Take a listen to her work below.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Join Us