Most of us spend our days listening to the hum of computers and the ring of a telephone. The sounds of nature usually fade into the background. But musician David Rothenberg believes people need to pay attention to natural sounds. So, he’s found a way to work them into his music. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly has the story:
Most of us spend our days listening to the hum of computers and the ring of a telephone.
The sounds of nature usually fade into the background. But musician David Rothenberg believes
people need to pay attention to natural sounds. So, he’s found a way to work them into his music.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly has the story:
(sound of nature)
David Rothenberg is playing a recording of crows on his stereo. As he listens, he rummages through
a pile of wind instruments on a bookshelf. His home office in Cold Spring, New York doubles as a
music studio. Finally, he chooses a plastic u-shaped pipe.
(sound of music)
It’s a cellyafloyta, a Norwegian flute. Rothenberg cups one hand over a hole in the end and
blows into the top.
“In jazz, you’re often improvising upon chord changes, but you can also improvise according to
sound changes. There’s a certain living quality that you find in natural sounds and that’s why I’ve
been working on performances where natural sounds are played as an instrument.. .to make something
that really seems to live.”
(sound of song)
In a piece called Toothwalking, Rothenberg plays clarinet over the sound of walruses clacking their
teeth on rocks. A friend of his collected the sound on a trip to the Alaska Sea.
“I like the shape of what he put together. It really had a form. I love the vision of walruses
propelling themselves on their teeth. They sort of stick them on the rocks and pull themselves up
and bang the teeth against each other.”
Rothenberg has played with the sounds of screaming seals. He’s played with buzzing rainforests and
beluga whales. But he’s not interested in created your typical nature CD.
“You know, there’s a whole world of standard, calm pieces of music with loons or wolves and stuff
or the ocean just mixed in. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I think it’s just a
place to begin. To make music that really responds to those sounds is more difficult and will be
unfamiliar and less popular and hopefully, if it’s of any value, will teach you something new.”
Rothenberg’s daytime gig is at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He’s a professor who
lectures on philosophy and the environment. And while he enjoys teaching, he finds his music does
something his teaching can’t. It reaches people on a deeper level.
In the piece Antarctica melting, Rothenberg plays the flute over the crackling of a melting
“You hear the sound of global warming, you’ll remember it. You know, newspaper articles, there’s
many of them. Every week, there’s a new bit of terrible news released and people become numb to
that. People become numb to a lot of things but sound I think is something that people should open
up to and then we won’t be able to have this same kind of separation that enables us to destroy the
environment so much.”
Rothenberg doesn’t consider himself an activist. He just wants to help people to get back in touch
with the natural world. Author Evan Eisenberg says Rothenberg delivers a message that isn’t present
in most nature CDs.
“I think for him, nature is something much more ambiguous and not always so pretty and something
that’s constantly changing and can’t be pinned down so his music and engagement with natural sounds
These days, Rothenberg is working on a new CD, called Before the War. It’ll be out this summer on
the Earthear label. He’s also performing live, improvising with natural sounds recorded by
colleagues in the field. Rothenberg says he’s not sure people will even like his music. But he
hopes it’ll convince them to start listening.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Cold Spring, New York.