Renowned natural history sound recordist and 2014 Handel Foundling Fellow Chris Watson worked with young care-leavers recording the sounds of the dawn chorus on the site of the original Foundling Hospital

Dawn Chorus is a beautiful sound installation that links past and present through a poetic meditation on the spirit of place. It was made for the Foundling Museum by one of our Foundling Fellows, the renowned wildlife sound recordist, Chris Watson, and a group of young care-leavers from London.

Inspired by the genetic link between today’s birds and the birds who sang for the eighteenth and nineteenth-century foundlings, Dawn Chorus was recorded in the early hours on the site of the original Foundling Hospital, on Sunday 4 May 2014, International Dawn Chorus Day. This piece can be heard on the Foundling Museum’s magnificent oak staircase, which was salvaged from the boys’ wing of the original eighteenth-century Foundling Hospital building. It’s smoothed bannisters and softly creaking treads, speak to the many thousands of children who climbed the stairs.

Around 3am on the morning of 4 May 2014 a group of young care leavers and myself gathered outside the Foundling Museum armed with an array of sound recording equipment. At first we recorded the sound of the city asleep, a stillness rarely experienced in the heart of London. We moved slowly and quietly, waiting and listening for the first birdsong and shortly after 3.30am it began.

The dawn chorus starts with a solo and this morning it was a blackbird. A distant stream of notes ringing out from the darkness within a small patch of bushes and brambles behind the museum. Within moments several robins joined, higher in pitch than the blackbird and with a more rapid delivery. The powerful trilling notes of a wren blur the background before a song thrush sang directly into our microphones, it’s twice repeated song phrases identifying a bird lost behind the street lights orange glow. By now uncountable, this gathering of birds well before sunrise was the dawn chorus. A great tit sang it’s classic phrases “teacher teacher”.

Late entries and surprise appearances were from two migrant warblers. A blackcap sings with rapid rambling notes and finally a chiff chaff which may have arrived overnight after flying from West Africa sings where the blackbird began in the small garden, powerful and uplifting songs of life above the ground where so many young foundlings lay. – Chris Watson