Commissioned The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Opus number 86
Category Orchestral music
Year 2023
Duration 19
Orchestration 3333-4331- Timp -3perc – pno/cel – strings
Publisher Gehrmans Musikförlag

Program note

As we stand on the verge of the sixth mass extinction, the Holocene Extinction, I find myself reflecting on the profound history of our planet and the earlier five major extinction events that have shaped life on Earth. The piece explores the creation of life on earth, it’s evolutions and extinctions through different sound worlds.

Life is believed to have emerged about 3.7 billion years ago. There are several different theories about how life originated, and I have chosen to base my work on the theory that it arose through immense pressure. The first entities that emerged were single-celled bacteria, which we can hear in the strings with the pizzicato and col legno tones of D, soon to be heard also dividing  into two-celled organisms. During the Cambrian and Ordovician periods (around 541 to 444 million year ago), there was the first explosion of life with forms including worms (fast runs in the clarinets), jellyfish (slow clusters in the trumpets) and trilobites (the bass clarinet). The Ordovician-Silurian extinction around 443 million years ago, which probably happened due to global cooling as well as volcanism, wiped out around 85% of all life forms.

During the Silurian and Devonian period (442-359 million years ago) the first fish with jaws appeared (to be heard in the bassoons making mirroring movements) as well as the first forests (to be heard as growing whole tone scales in the strings). The Late Devonian Extinction is believed to have happened due to plants and algae overgrowing, algae using up too much oxygen and suffocating up to 75% of all species (to be heard as a cluster in the strings filling the whole spectrum).

During the Carboniferous Period (359-299 million years ago) the amphibians (like for instance frogs, represented by the clarinets) were dominant and the first reptiles (bass clarinet together with contrabassoon) and insects (violas) appear. These life forms continued to spread during the Permian Period (299-252 million years ago) up until the Permian-Triassic Extinction also called  “the Great Dying” around 252 million years ago, which wiped out up to 96% of all life forms. It is believed to have been caused by volcanic activity in Siberia causing the oceans and rain to become acidic and hence evolving to a highly toxic environment for life.

The Triassic Period (252–201 million years ago) was a relatively brief period between two major extinctions with the lowest number of different species since after the Cambrian explosion. Hence the music is scarce and soon followed by the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction caused by volcanic activity, wiping out up to 80% of all species.

Finally (at around 13 minutes) we have arrived at the period everyone has been waiting for: the Jurassic Period (201–145 million years ago) with dinosaurs dominating the field (chords or fourth in the trombones and tuba as well as chords of fifths in the trumpets and rubber ball rubbed on the bass drum for added dinosaur sounds). During the Cretaceous Period archaic mammals and birds begin to replace dinosaurs already before the famous asteroid hits earth and causing enormous amount of debris to rise into the atmosphere and tsunamis to cause the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction around 66 million years ago, wiping out up to 75% of all life on earth.

This is followed by the Cenozoic Age, the age of the mammals, forests and flowers, which we are currently living in. During the past 66 million years the number of species existing has expanded very rapidly to the largest amount in history, an estimated 8.7 million species of which only around 1.5 million have been identified. During our current Holocene Epoch, the past 11700 years we have entered into a new mass extinction. According to the species-area theory, the present rate of extinction may be up to 140,000 species per year. On the time scale of this piece, the Holocene Epoch is approximately 0,02 seconds, hence the piece ends where we stand today: at a peak of biodiversity and an open question to all of us: where will we go from here?


Cecilia Damström: Extinctions, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Chloé Dufresne – Watch on Yle Areena

Skiss  of "Extinctions" by Cecilia Damström
Skiss of “Extinctions” by Cecilia Damström, photo taken 27.1.2023




A gorgeous rendition from the orchestra and Dufresne, Extinctions was given a flying start upon its premiere. Regarding the overall organic form, Damström’s orchestral designs bear some family relationships with those by Anna Thorvaldsdottir – without imitation – whereas her way of leading each instrument their own sonic narratives is something quite unique. Figurative without resorting to mere Mickey Mousing, Damström’s scoring serves as story-teller par excellence, as resoundingly demonstrated by the inspired accounts of the FRSO players. Shaped and balanced with keen attention and organic sensitivity by Dufresne, Extinctions was received with rousing enthusiasm by the sold-out hall.

Jari Kallio, Adventures in Music 27.1.2024


Damström as an uncompromising ecological sound painter

Cecilia Damström’s work on the mass extinction of species is fascinating and imaginative.


Damström has created a fascinating score, to say the least, full of exciting sounds, captivating colors, and evocative orchestral effects. “Extinctions” represents Damström at her most modernist, simultaneously maintaining a highly expressive approach that is by no means devoid of dramatic pauses or tonal landmarks. The lion’s share consists, in fact, of meditatively charged, almost mysteriously vibrating, and quietly probing passages, lending the few discharges all the more effective relief.


This is a relatively rare case of imaginative tonal painting in domestic contexts, emphasizing the stark but dramatically resilient rather than the sensually inviting.

Mats Liljeroos, Hufvudstadsbladet 28.1.2024

Damström’s music is like a spontaneously ignited and rich soundscape of life. If her Teosto Award-winning composition “ICE” in 2022 reflects the ethereal soundscape of icebergs, “Extinctions” is characterized by the earth’s resonant rumble.


The composition cleverly utilizes different instrumental groups and colors in depicting evolution, from dense strings in the forest to the clarinets’ erratic frogs and the Jurassic brass. Pressure waves and dust clouds come to life in the percussion section.


The music is colorful and visual but never merely illustrative. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra performed the piece excellently under the confident direction of Chloé Dufresne

Nuppu Koivisto, Helsingin Sanomat 28.1.2024


Cecilia Damström gives a sounding shape to the questions of our time


Cecilia Damström (b. 1988) is one of today’s most prominent Finnish composers, whose success in her home country as well as abroad has grown year by year. In early 2024, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra gave perhaps the most significant premiere of her career to date, with the 20-minute work Extinctions. It is a magnificent orchestral fresco about the birth of life on Earth. The structure of the composition follows the geological timeline of our planet, highlighting the vanishingly short span of human time. 


All of Damström’s works are in different ways firmly rooted in the pressing issues of the moment, most importantly the equality of humans and species and the impact of humans on the planet. These themes are not superficial slogan stickers, but an integral part of the composition at all levels, from the internal structures to the sounding textures and the images they evoke. Hopefully in the near future, Damström’s recent orchestral works will be released on an album. 


Damström’s imagination seems to be limitless. Although the themes of her works are extremely serious, she often deals with them through beauty, joy and humor. The musical language is detailed and complex, but there is an abundance of things you can hang on to. The approaches are surprising: Extinctions, for example, makes you think about the natural world, but instead of devastating extinctions, it carves poignant images of the uniqueness of life forms: percussion instruments buzz like protozoa in volcanic springs, the fanfare in the brass curves like sauropod necks. 


It is the figures, shapes and contours that are central to Damström’s music, although there are plenty of lush timbres. She makes wordless music show things through holistic gestures. So is music somehow subordinate to external content? The 20th century modernist tradition has typically abhorred what is known as ‘outer music’, preferring music that is purely abstract, independent of anything external. Today, it is very difficult for such an ivory-towerish approach in art to justify its own existence. Damström is one of many contemporary Finnish composers for whom musical expression and, more broadly, communicative meaning are inseparable. Through sounds, structures and textures, the things in our lives can be made audible, and in this way they can be brought under our skin in a completely different way from the images and texts we have become numb to. Music activates our minds and whole bodies and can open up our inner locks.

Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen, Levyhyllyt 21.5.2024


Interviews and articles


Cecilia Damström talking (in Finnish) about Extinctions on National TV  – Watch on Yle Areena

Hufvudstadsbladet: Cecilia Damström skriver musik inspirerad av smältande polarisar och arternas massdöd

Rondo: Cecilia Damström ekologisten kysymysten äärellä

If you prefer watching the presentation as videos (in English) please visit my Instagram here (part 12345 and 6)


2024 January 26 – World premiere by the Finnish Radio Symphony conducted by Chloé DufresneMore info