David Rothenberg

Dec 30, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

Casey R. Schulke Interviews musician David Rothenberg

CRS: David, I’m thrilled you’ve agreed to be a part of Sea Stories!  In fact, you’re the first musician we’ve interviewed.  That being said, what role has music has played in your life, specifically in regards to your connection with nature?

DR: Music has always allowed people to communicate more than we can possibly explain, to get beyond the logic of words and into the raw patterns of emotion.  Nature is both ordered and unplanned, random and exact, logical and mysterious. Music is a human kind of communication that can evoke what nature means, and communicate sometimes with the other beings and intelligences that live there.  We can sing with birds, whales, and insects, while we cannot talk with them.

CRS: In your past interviews as well as on your website, you talk about the connection humans have with nature.  How do you see music and art facilitating that connection?

DR: Music communicates important things that are very difficult to explain.  Sometimes they cross species lines.  Music seems utterly and perfectly human, but ordered patterns of sound are sung by animals as well.  They need music as much as we do.

CRS: Speaking of animal songs, tell me about the first time you heard a whale sing.  Did you immediately reach for your clarinet?


DR: The first time I heard a recording of a whale song must have been in elementary school in the seventies, just after humpback whale songs were first released on recordings and when schools thought such newly found mysteries were worthy of class time. I’m sure I listened with wonder and surprise, but didn’t think much about it until I heard Paul Winter’s Common Ground record when I was sixteen.  Then I thought I might like to make music together with nature, but I didn’t get around to doing it seriously for twenty years.  It is easy enough to play with birds, they are singing all around us, but later I became intrigued with the possibility of playing music live with whales, which involves reaching from the human world above the sea down into the depths below.  In my book THOUSAND MILE SONG I tell the whole story of my quest to play such interspecies music, and on the CD  WHALE MUSIC you can hear the results.  They are somewhere in between human music and whale music, a new world of sound where such different species can musically meet.  The results are a bit unusual, and maybe you have to be part-human and part-whale to like them.  And maybe listening to a track like “Never Satisfied,” live with clarinet and humpback whale from the waters off the coast of Maui, will help you become just a bit more like a whale.  You’ll listen at a slower pace, knowing your place in the world, knowing why you need to sing a single, repeating, long but simple song that changes ever so slightly from week to week, month to month, and year to year.

CRS: Along that note, what does it feel like to play music with a whale?

DR: I’ve been asked this question many times in interviews all over the world, and it’s the one question my answer never seems to satisfy.  I clam up and don’t know what to say, retreating into cautious defense.  “Of course I don’t know what the whale is feeling, so how can I know what I feel…”  I’m immediately suspicious of people who claim a deep connection with whales the minute they look into the giant animal’s eye, or feel his deep chant reverberate through sound waves under the sea.  “I knew,” they say, “the animal had something deeply important to say to me,” and they sigh with reverence.

When I’m playing with whales I’m never sure of anything, being so wrapped up in the music and trying to play in a unique way halfway between human and cetacean.  First of all it’s a strange technological process.  I’m playing my clarinet on board a boat into a microphone that’s plugged into an underwater speaker, so the notes I play are being broadcast out into the sound world of the whales.  Then I’m wearing headphones which are attached to an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, which is listening live to the underwater sound environment, which includes the singing whale and my deep sea burbling clarinet, altogether.  [see attached picture]  It’s kind of like a recording studio where each player is isolated in a separate booth, except one booth is the whole ocean with a forty foot whale in it, singing the one song he needs to know.

CRS: David, why even try something like this?

DR: To make music that can be made no other way. As a jazz musician I know how exciting it is to jam with a musician who can’t speak my language, but can make sense of my music as I play along with theirs.  It’s astonishing to realize this can also work with other species—from birds, to bugs, and even to humpback whales, the animal with the longest, most moving music in the natural world, a sound that can be heard underwater from ten miles away, a song with clear melodies, phrases, rhythms and parts that takes the whale twenty minutes to sing before he starts the cycle over again, in performances that last up to twenty three hours.

Playing along with a whale, wearing headphones and listening to the strange reverberations of underwater sound where you can’t tell where any sound is coming from because there is no sense of stereo space, is a kind of out-of-body experience, thrusting the human sound of a clarinet into a world where it doesn’t really belong, because there’s no way a clarinet could be blown underwater.  What use is a whale song in our human world?  It reminds us that we are not the only musicians on Earth, and that if we want to understand the natural world beyond our narrow human concerns, we have to listen to and appreciate the full range of animal musics that have been on this planet for millions of years before humans ever got here.  It’s a very humbling feeling.

So I don’t jam along with whales to make me feel special, but to make music that is special.  Half-human and half-whale?  Perhaps no one’s gonna like it!

Maybe not at first.  Most of the time the whales are not interested.  But every once in a while, when the sea is calm and one great beast is right under the boat, so close that his moans can be felt right through the hull, then sometimes he changes his song when he hears what I play.  At those moments I feel a true sense of awe, that music is something really big. Bigger than our whole species, something written right into the fabric of all life whose beauty is far beyond our ability to explain, or even feel its purpose.  Touching a piece of the melody of the universe, it’s no longer about me at all, but something I feel privileged to be a tiny part of.

CRS: So, what’s next for you on your musical journey with nature?

DR: Bugs of course. How insects taught us to dance. They’re the original sources of rhythm…

CRS: David, again, thank you for speaking with me.  It was a pleasure getting to know you.

DR: You’re welcome and thank you.

To hear the music of David Rothenberg, click here.

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David Rothenberg, professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, was recently given that institution’s President and Trustees Research Medal for his unusual kind of research—making music with birds and whales.  Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing, published in six languages and turned into a feature length BBC TV documentary.   His latest book is Thousand Mile Song, about making music with whales.  It is being developed into three feature-length TV documentaries.  His first CD on ECM Records, with pianist Marilyn Crispell, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House was released in June 2010. Check out his website, www.davidrothenberg.net.  For more information about his friends who broadcast humpback whales songs live from Hawaii, visit www.whalesong.net

Hibernal 2011, Hinterland

About the Editors

Casey R. Schulke grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and is married to a wonderful man.
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