Ben Mirin’s music is for the birds.
Mirin calls himself a “wildlife DJ.” He makes music combining his voice with the warbles of birds as a conservation tool to teach people to listen actively to the music in their backyards, learn about birds and other animal species and ultimately protect them.
He’s the star of a children’s show called “Wild Beats,” during which he focuses on the sounds of nature in a specific place in the world. In addition to making music with birdsongs, Mirin has used the sounds of whales, frogs, insects and more. The episodes air on the National Geographic Kids YouTube channel and are televised on Saturday mornings on Nat Geo Wild as part of the Wild Kids Block.
Mirin is traveling to Madagascar later this year with Stony Brook University anthropology professor Patricia Wright to study lemur vocalizations. “What we’re doing is traveling to different rain forests to record the biodiversity of each place,” he says.
Mirin, 28, is bringing his music to the Quogue Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, April 2, for a family program called “Making Music From Nature.” Newsday talked to Mirin about his work in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights.
You’ve said becoming a “wildlife DJ” was born of your love for music — specifically beatboxing — and your love of the natural world, especially birds. What exactly is beatboxing?
Beatboxing is music made entirely with your mouth. It starts off with a few fundamental drumlike sounds but can expand from there. You make percussive sounds with your lips and your mouth and your tongue. This is a musical style that goes with you wherever you go because it uses yourself as the instrument. It’s a very young art form. Traditional beat boxing came from hip-hop. It was from kids mostly in the Bronx who couldn’t afford to buy stereo systems and so made the music with their mouths.
You call yourself a “birder.” How is that different from a bird-watcher?
A bird-watcher is somebody who enjoys looking at birds but doesn’t necessarily seek them out. A birder is somebody who chases them, often around the world. When I say you chase them, I mean you go to the places where they live. You’re looking for the best opportunity to see them, observe them, understand more about their behavior. I’ve been all over the U.S., not every state but a lot of them. I’ve been to South America, I’ve been to Africa, I’ve been to Southeast Asia. I’ve done songbird research in Eastern Europe. I’ve been birding in New Zealand most recently. I went on an expedition with National Geographic to India last fall.
So what is a wildlife DJ? And why do you call yourself “DJ Ecotone”?
I make music out of sounds of animals that I gather from different ecosystems around the world and then I combine it with my own voice as a beatboxer. Many people think that this is me imitating animal sounds. It’s not. I use the actual field recordings from the animals themselves, and I don’t use any . . . digital effects. I just combine their musicality with my own sense of musicality in order to create original pieces. I’d say a typical piece, a finished piece, is four minutes or so. Ecotone is a biological term to describe the overlap of two different ecosystems. I have always thought of my life as kind of an ecotone. Now my career has become the combination of my two deepest passions — music and the natural world. It’s my name onstage.
Why do you want to do this?
It seems that music has become a really effective tool in engaging people with the natural world. I’m really excited to keep pushing the boundaries on that as a tool for conservation to kind of get new audiences invested in the natural world and understanding how they can be a part of its protection.
What will your presentation at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge entail?
It’s going to be focusing on New York wildlife with a special focus on birds. [The audience is] going to listen to my music. I’m going to teach them a bit about how natural communication and song works in the animal world because that’s becoming my specialty. Then I’m going to have a few people up on stage; some lucky volunteers will get a chance to make music with me. Then I’m going to go take everybody on a nature walk and we’re going to go listen for the birds. You’ve got a lot of red-winged blackbirds, a lot of your standard backyard birds like robins and blue jays, grackles are coming in, white-throated sparrows.