Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg specializes in interspecies communication. Currently sailing as part of the Arctic Circle project, here he answers some questions on the nature of process and inspiration.
Likestarlings: As a jazz musician and composer you were obviously familiar with making ensemble sounds. But what first alerted you to the possibility and potential of communication/ collaboration with species other than our own?
David Rothenberg: You know I think it started in high school when I heard that Paul Winter was playing with whale and wolf sounds. He had a lot of influence on me back then. After a while I started to think that he would bend natural sounds into his own very sweet and beautiful music, while I wanted my music to be more changed by the encounters with other species’ worlds of sound.
Ls: What was the feeling (if you can articulate such a thing in words) when you first KNEW you had a response, a musical response?
DR: I write about this in the beginning of Why Birds Sing and the end of Thousand Mile Song. At these rare moments, with some birds and some whales (though not MOST of them!), I feel as if I reach beyond my species’ lines, to communicate where words cannot. I don’t KNOW if it is happening, and don’t want to make myself the hero of any kind of grand story, but there are these humbling moments when it is possible reach just a tiny bit the edges of human understanding to make music with other creatures.
Ls: These sorts of communications of course require a special kind of listening. To those interested in jamming with whales you say: ‘One piece of advice I would offer is: listen more than you play. If you can’t hear the whale, you’re playin’ too much.’ How does listening with a view to forming your own response inform the way you listen?
DR: It’s always important not to play too much, especially as an improviser. I imagine I’ve entered into a world of musical interaction where each of us is trying to contribute something…
Ls: And have there been any times when you’ve been silenced?
DR: Sure. By the moment. By people complaining. By the sheer fact that nature’s music is fine as it is, that it doesn’t need us!
Ls: The Peruvian singer Yma Sumac is, perhaps fancifully, supposed to have learnt to sing in response to the birds. What have you learnt musically from these sorts of collaborations?
DR: Well, Yma Sumac could do anything! Plenty of human musicians have learned from birds, and in my book I argue that as the human sense of music becomes more open to new rhythms, tones, and scales, it is better able to make musical sense of nature.
Ls: It’s great to read you on English poet John Clare and his close listening to and interpretation of birdsong. Have any of your own compositions been directly inspired by your unusual interlocutors?
DR: So many of them! Both Why Birds Sing and Whale Music are my CDs most inspired by encounters with these creatures.
Ls: There seems to be something profound about the fractal nature of some birdsong and of whalesong, its seeming endlessness, with minute and infinite variations. It’s both ephemeral and enduring…
DR: I’m glad you think so! How much fractals can help explain music is an open question, but they may help. I’ll have to ask Mandelbrot about it next time I see him at the Cornelia St. Café…
Ls: Finally, what’s blossoming in your brain as the next possible collaborative project?
DR: My next book BEAUTY SECRET: How Art Informs Evolution, begins with the puzzle of why is it that if you speed up a humpback whale song it sounds like a nightingale. Are there certain patterns in nature that have been produced by evolution to be simply beautiful, with no real adaptive purpose? Darwin thought so, and that’s how he came up with idea of sexual selection. But are sexually selected traits RANDOM, arbitrary, or might they reveal certain rhythms at the root of nature itself? More of a big concept book.
After that I think I’ll do something with the music of insects, their trance-like qualities, the way different species listen to each other in some great hive-mind kind of way…
David Rothenberg [felicitously pictured there with a starling] is the author of Why Birds Sing, also published in Italy, Spain, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany. It was turned into a feature length BBC TV documentary. Rothenberg has also written Sudden Music, Blue Cliff Record, Hand’s End, and Always the Mountains. His articles have appeared in Parabola, Orion, The Nation, Wired, Dwell, Kyoto Journal, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail and Sierra. Rothenberg is also a composer and jazz clarinetist, and he has seven CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by Jazziz Magazine in 1995. His latest book is Thousand Mile Song, about making music with whales. His first CD on ECM Records, with pianist Marilyn Crispell, will be released in 2010. Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.