Music in Nature: Meet David Rothenberg

Music in Nature: Meet David Rothenberg

David in the fields of Slovenia. Courtesy of David Rothenberg

In 2005, philosopher and musician David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing was published, a book that posed the question, among others – do birds sing just because they can? We caught up with him to talk about the relationships between nature, humanity, and music, and whether science now agrees that his question all those years ago was onto something.

Bird records

David Rothenberg explores the world of animals and music with fervor, surrounding himself with like-minded souls who seek to explore the aesthetic sides of sound in nature, both in function and form. To begin, I mention composer So Wylie, a music producer in New York, who was inspired by the Northern saw-whet owl trapped in the Rockefeller Christmas Tree. Having never considered bird song before, when she saw the story and heard the owl’s call for the first time, she was enthralled, creating her first Bird Beats track, and sought out other bird calls and songs to record, struck by their obvious musicality.

Courtesy of David Rothenberg

Rothenberg continues, drawing attention to the December 2021 album, Songs of Disappearance, created by Birdlife International Australia featuring songs of the continent’s most threatened species, recordings made over 30 years by wildlife sound recordist David Stewart; charting in the top five, it surpassed the likes of Abba and Christmas stalwarts Bublé and Carey. He also tells me about Simmerdim: Curlew Sounds, a May 2022 double album containing new works by various artists, including Rothenberg, supported by the UK’s RSPB and compiled by Orkney-born musician, producer and nature enthusiast Merlyn Driver. “Simmerdim'' refers to the night-long twilight one can experience in the Northern Isles around Midsummer, and the title track was inspired by Driver’s memories of the haunting yet uplifting calls of curlews heard across the waters during this precious time of year.

Rothenberg then tells me about another project he has contributed to, one that focuses on raising awareness of the environmental catastrophes that potentially await us all, as well as celebrating the beauty and joy of birds. Also borne out of the (re)discovery of nature during lockdowns, For the Birds: The Birdsong Project is an upcoming December 2022 release of a multi-album set of original recordings celebrating birds'', a huge box set assembled by Grammy award-winning cinematic music supervisor Randall Poster.

Hundreds of people are involved, “the biggest names in entertainment” such as musicians Nick Cave, Beck, Yoko Ono; actors Natasha Lyonne, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton; and many noteworthy poets, playwrights, visual artists and other creatives are there. The first few albums of the projected twenty are already online.

Courtesy of David Rothenberg

This connection with birdsong and other nature sounds has shaped the course of Rothenberg’s life and taken him all over the world. I ask if he remembers where this came from.

“When I was a kid my family moved from New York to Connecticut, to the countryside, and I was this shy, somewhat introverted character. I’d go out and listen to birds and walk around. Later I heard there was a musician named Paul Winter who played music with whales, eagles and wolves, and he lived close to me. So, I got to meet him and learn what was going on. But I didn't do much with it for years, until I went to a conference for the 60th Birthday of [R.] Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer, who did a lot of music with nature. I met many people there who were doing this, so I put their works together in a book called The Book of Music and Nature, [published 2001] – here was this world of people from all over, interested in music and nature in different ways. It really sent me on a different path.”

Sing on, sweet bird!

One path that Rothenberg has trodden well over the years is that of his love of playing along with nightingales. His 2019 film Nightingales in Berlin has fantastic footage of him playing his jazz clarinet aside fellow musicians, vocalists and poets, all seeking out the nightingales that famously inhabit the parks and gardens across the city. Nightingale males sing for hours, their multi-phrased song bringing joy to the residents and visitors alike during the early summer evenings, well into the night. He explains the origins of his fascination with this small flycatcher.

“It’s the whole myth of the nightingale. Like anybody in America, I first heard about these birds by reading about them in folk and fairy tales. This bird was like, beyond the beyond, a mythical creature because they don't live here, just something in stories. When I actually heard one, I was surprised: I thought it would be very melodious, but this is like electronic music, heard hundreds of years before there were electronic instruments.

People really must have thought this was strange, but they celebrated it, appreciated the beauty of it, even though it was so different from human music. And that really fascinated me. The reason the nightingale is the best bird to play along with is because they keep going, and after every phrase there’s a space where you could do something. Mostly they're waiting to hear another nightingale fill the space but if not, it could be a human.”

Hear bird sound as music and there is always some mystique to enjoy. Hear the whole world as music and you’ll find we live inside a plethora of beautiful sounds. How many other creatures are out there waiting for the chance to jam? – David Rothenberg, Why Birds Sing, 2005

I mention the recent, long-time-coming, admission from the BBC that the 1924 live broadcast of Beatrice Harrison duetting with a nightingale was faked using a birdsong impersonator – and I am schooled in the pointlessness of naysaying.

“Maria Popova posted on her famous internet newsletter about culture, The Marginalia, saying this is the first example of fake news: there was no nightingale, it was an impersonator! But everyone knows this. I wrote to her, I said, ‘Listen, as long as I've played along with birds, there's always one person in England who comes up and says, you know, it was my great uncle or my grandfather's best friend, who was the bird impersonator who came out and saved the day for the BBC’. And that is the fake news story. There's nothing that people like more than being against something. There was a second shooter, the election was stolen.

We love to be against people, we love that more than anything else. It's so stupid, because Beatrice Harrison played with this bird all the time. The important thing is, this was the world's first outdoor radio broadcast, and millions of people heard it, this is what introduced the real song of the nightingale to the world. It was amazing radio, a great moment in interspecies music. Beatrice Harrison, this famous cellist, was a total star for doing this, and she wrote a wonderful autobiography about it.

But someone will always criticize, it's more fun to be negative than positive. That's human nature. Daniel Kahneman who wrote “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, the one non-economist to win a Nobel Prize in Economics for the following insight: People are most sure about things they know the least about.

More information doesn't lead us to change our view. You're not going to convince me to vote against Donald Trump, because if I know he's the greatest thing that ever happened, no matter how much evidence otherwise, I don't want any more information. People are convinced by experiences: take people out to hear nightingales and play music with them. One of the things we tried to show in the film is what happens when someone goes outside their comfort zone and expands their sense of music, plays along with these birds for the first time.

If you want to be a naysayer, you can say the birds don't care about you, they're just listening for other birds. And yeah, maybe, but nightingales actually like sound, they choose places where there's other sounds going on. And the latest science shows that birds are interested in all kinds of other sounds besides that of their own species. They live in a world of sound. And that's kind of where we're going now, realizing how little we know.”

Natural voices

Rothenberg’s quest to explore the aesthetic world of birdsong is relayed in the opening chapter to the book Why Birds Sing. Joining fellow avian artist Michael Pestel, the pair entered Pittsburgh’s National Aviary at 6am, one day in March 2000, to have a jam with the birds. Having played jazz for years, Rothenberg is familiar with phrase improvisation and mixing up the repertoire. He encounters a white-crested laughingthrush, and the rest is history. The pair share an excited, rambunctious time swapping barks and bursts of sounds, two wind instruments, the syrinx and the clarinet, bouncing off each other.

The 2007 BBC Four film of the same name also shows this scene, but the end result of the film doesn’t sit well with Rothenberg. He feels the whole premise behind it was to provoke conflict; watching it back to research for this interview, I agree. Made by the same company that produced the Big Brother series, a very uncomfortable part of the film has Rothenberg sitting at a table with three scientists who flatly disregard his stance. I ask how things have gone since then, has anyone from that same sphere said anything to him since, that maybe he had a point?

Courtesy of David Rothenberg

“Some scientists were a little angry with me for being hard on science in the book, and in the TV show, they pushed that conflict. But most interesting was that Ofer Tchernichovski, who was in the film, said, ‘Oh, I liked the questions you're asking. Let's investigate your questions’. And the questions I was asking was, why don't you study more complicated bird songs? Why don't you investigate what's musical about them, and imagine nobody knows anything about the structure of sound? So, he said, okay, let's use your approach. We spent five years doing that and published several papers. And since then, I did this detailed study of mockingbird song with two different kinds of scientists.

Dave Gammon is a field biologist who just knows everything about mockingbirds, and Tina Roeske, she's more of a computational neuroscientist. People say mockingbirds copy other bird sounds, car alarms and so on, but it's actually not what they do. They compose very specific songs out of the sounds of other birds in their environment, following very specific rules. That's how you can tell it's a mockingbird. We wanted to articulate that: can we prove it to make scientists happy? This paper is very involved and detailed and scientific. The reason I bring this up is after people perceived me as criticizing scientists, decades later, I'm finding it much more gratifying to work with scientists with the insight that can come from music.”

I wonder aloud if perhaps, by acknowledging that birdsong is a musical art form that exists in and of itself, scientists then have to acknowledge that birds are therefore sentient beings, which could have far-reaching implications vis-à-vis moral issues like invasive experimentation, for example.

Courtesy of David Rothenberg

“Some if it is, but a lot of it's motivated by simple ignorance of music, knowing what it is. Musicians interested in birdsong say, ‘why is it that these scientists say they're interested in birdsong, and they call it song, but they don't understand music?’ Scientists are thinking that it's somehow more subjective than what they're doing; which is totally subjective! That numbers matter. You think numbers matter to birds, to nature? That’s human subjectivity, we're good at counting stuff. It's not like nature's counting.

One thing that's not in that program, Donald Kroodsma, this incredibly brilliant ornithologist, he's written so many great books on birds, one on birdsong too called The Singing Life of Birds. Back then we would do these debates on the radio, and I'm saying birds sing because they must, it fulfills their emotional needs, they’re born to sing, and he goes, ‘I don't know, David, I think it's more like a business transaction’. And I said, ‘come on Don! Nature is not a business. No way is nature business’. And then over the years, when I've talked to him, he said, ‘I learned a lot from these debates with you, there really is so much beauty’. And if you look at what Kroodsma is writing now, it's totally different.

Much of human music has developed evolving in a sonic landscape of other creatures, an incredible orchestra of sounds that's been going on for millions of years, and has learned a lot from such sounds over the generations. We now accept all kinds of very strange sounds and structures as being able to be called Music. We went out on boats [for the paper Whale Music, Anatomy of an Interspecies Duet,] and broadcast the clarinet underwater and listened to the whales. Humpbacks have the longest, most involved song in the animal world. But if you speed it up, it sounds very much like a nightingale. I have a video showing that on YouTube. Nightingales and humpback whales have inexplicably extensive and complicated songs. But there's no reason for that to exist: evolution didn't require this. Another book I wrote called Survival of the Beautiful is about that. Art-making exists in nature.”

I ask if he means, what would the reason be for that, if it wasn't for enjoyment?

“No, that's what people trivialize. A scientist can measure pleasure by the release of dopamine, you can measure these things. It's not that it doesn't have a practical function, but the practical function is quite simple. A chaffinch has a song that goes “sis sis sis sis sisiyou” to defend its territory, and that's enough for the chaffinch. The nightingale has to sing all night to do the same thing. So, if you pick the function as the answer for why these birds sing, it's a very boring answer which doesn’t explain why the nightingale sings all night, and the chaffinch sings one phrase, it avoids that question.

That's the question I thought scientists should spend more time on. Where does the evolution of beauty come from? Richard Prum wrote a book of that title, and he wrote that because I spent so much time interviewing him for my book. So, I'm happy to help make these things happen. I also know him from college when we were both 18, and we were kind of these obnoxious, little twerps interested in birds. So, it’s good to see what happens to people over time.”

A common tongue

I ask to what extent can there be communication between species who perceive the world in such a different way, due to their different sensory inputs? Does he think sound and music bridge that gulf in any way?

“Yeah, absolutely. I can sit down and play with a musician from Japan or New Guinea, we might not be able to talk to one another, but musically, we could probably play music together because nobody knows what music means for humans. If it doesn't have words, we have no idea, but it touches us very deeply, it's important to us but it's very hard to explain why. Birdsong is somewhat similar. You get together with them, you share this mystery that cannot be so specifically explained. It's natural to make music with birds. The Persian poet, Saadi, said how can I be silent when birds chant praises? He's not saying you’ve got to sing along with birds, but rather, how can I be silent when this wonder is out there, this beauty, this magic.”

Our conversation is punctuated by the arrival of a flock of starlings above the cherry tree in my yard and I mention that I must pay more attention to them this year when they come to strip the fruit, because the sound of their excited chattering they make is extraordinary, one that I love. This admission is welcomed; David says he doesn’t know of many people who would say they love the sound of starlings, and then recalls, rather mirthfully, the fact that starlings have proven linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky wrong.

Intrigued, I wait for the explanation. In linguistics, recursion means ‘phrase embedding’; Chomsky says recursion is the cornerstone of every spoken language in the world, enabling speakers to express views by embedding meaningful phrases into sentences, but not changing the intended outcome of the original sentence.

Courtesy of David Rothenberg

“It’s all about the way starlings use imitations. The starling has a one-minute-long song which Peter Marler, the late great bird song scientist, said ‘Ah! The song of the starling, barely one minute in length, at the very limits of human comprehension’. But, in the middle of that one-minute song, they pause and include random sounds that they like, then go on with their song, and that's their particular species aesthetic. That's what Noam Chomsky said no animal can do, use parentheses, which turned out to be wrong.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt had a pet starling and wrote a book called Mozart's Starling, and everyone who has had a pet starling notices the sounds they like are those like refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, creaking doors; they collect them and use them. Darwin said, birds have a natural aesthetic sense. They appreciate beautiful colors, beautiful sounds. That's why these things have evolved in them. It's a sense of appreciation, and that's really important.

The key thing is to just listen, sit back and take it in and be a little humble. Pay attention to the sounds around you. If you want to join in, do it very tentatively, but if your music doesn't change in this process, you're not doing it right. I've taken people out, and if they want to play Bach, they'll just play Bach out there with the birds. You have to listen to what's going on. Some people say we have better tools than ever before, we have these apps now and recording devices that you can play around with that give us access to so much more. But others say we've forgotten the value of paying attention.

Consider the work of Margaret Morse Nice who studied song sparrows. The level of complexity there, each male knows between eight and 25 songs, and they share them with each other, compete with each other. She spent ten years studying what the song sparrows in her suburban neighborhood did, writing two volumes of 600-page studies on their life history. Nobody, before or since, has spent that much attention to studying birds outside just by watching, listening, paying attention.

What people do now, they say, ‘give me your ten years of starling data, I’ll throw it into a computer, and that’s going to tell you what's going on’. But back then one person was patient enough to listen for ten years to what's going on, and write about it. People aren't encouraged to do that anymore. Now we're encouraged to collect data and feed it into machines; but it's unclear if the machine is going to be better than the very detailed work that she did. That's really worth thinking about.

People believe that having more data analysis is going to solve our problems, but it's really just one particular faith, faith-based knowledge, the belief that data is everything. But you can experience birdsong in so many different ways. As I write in the book, poets hear one thing, composers and musicians hear something else, scientists hear something else. None of these methods is better than the other. We can understand something from many different points of view, and that's an amazing thing that we've got. Surely, we should use that ability to save the planet and not destroy it.”

Sounds of the future

Rothenberg has just celebrated his 60th birthday somewhere in the Pyrenees. “I saw a huge vulture that was completely white under the wing… nothing like that in the bird books,” he recounts. In September he’ll put on a 60th birthday festival in New York City. Thoughts of retirement from teaching are there but still distant (although hetongue-in-cheek jokes that he “has always been retired, since the age of twelve”). And of course, he will continue making music with nature. I finish by asking him what the rest of the day holds.

“We're going to take a walk to the marsh, it's very beautiful. I’ll probably listen underwater and see what the marsh creatures sound like.”

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