Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg participated in the project “The Sad Truth” in Bodø. He is the author of Why Birds Sing (Basic Books and Penguin UK), also published in Italy, Spain, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany. In 2006 it was turned into a feature-length TV documentary by the BBC. Rothenberg has also written Sudden Music, Blue Cliff Record, Hand’s End, and Always the Mountains. His writings have appeared in at least eleven languages. His book Thousand Mile Song (Basic Books), about making music with whales, has been the subject of several documentary films in French and German. He is now working on a big sound installation with whalesongs together with Trond Lossius and Bjarne Kvinnsland at Natural History Museum in Bergen Norway.
As a musician, Rothenberg has performed and recorded with Jan Bang, Scanner, Glen Velez, Suzanne Vega, Peter Gabriel, Ray Phiri, Pauline Oliveros, Benedicte Maurseth, and the Karnataka College of Percussion. His latest major label music CD, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, a duet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, came out on ECM in 2010. Rothenberg’s book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution were published in 2011. Bug Music, came out 2013, along with a CD of the same name featuring music made out of encounters with the entomological world. His latest book, CD, and the film is Nightingales in Berlin, published in 2019. Rothenberg has been profiled on Radiolab and in the New Yorker. He has more than twenty CDs out under his own name.
Rothenberg is a distinguished professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
The festival theme is «truth?». Can music be “true”?
Music is true if we feel a sense of necessity as we play it or hear it.
I think bird songs and whale songs are true, they have been sung consistently for millions of years longer than humans have been on the planet, thus there must be something right about them. Our own many kinds of human music are all much more tenuous.
Is this something you are struggling with in your compositions?
All the time. I doubt that my music is necessary, but I wish it were!
Sometimes when it brings pleasure and thoughtfulness to an audience, then I think—I might be getting somewhere.
You have a strong relationship with several Nordic countries, can you please tell us how this began and developed.
I came to Norway originally because I loved the mountains, the music (folk and jazz), and learned about this intriguing philosopher Arne Naess, who chained himself to the rocks to protest the damming of a waterfall. He turned philosophy into activism, and later I thought I might do something like that. I worked with Naess in Oslo for several years. In the nineties I assembled a book of writings by Norwegian ecophilosophers called WISDOM IN THE OPEN AIR, and also assembled a book-length interview with Arne Naess, entitled IS IT PAINFUL TO THINK?
As a musician, writer and a composer you have brought attention to the sounds of whales, birds and insects. You even play with them. What can we learn as musicians and composers from these sounds?
As I mentioned earlier, they have been around for so much longer than humans have been on this planet, so we ought to take them seriously. Each musical species has its own sense of aesthetics and particular rules for assembling sounds. As we learn these codes by participating with the animals’ music, we expand our sense of what music can be and how it might transport us across species lines.
You participated in the project «The sad truth», tell us about your experience at Fleinvær.
What a beautiful place, and a tough challenge—To make music and video fully and quickly and present it online to the world without having months or years to obsess over it. I do believe in improvisation and play and work in nature, so it was not a completely unfamiliar experience for me.
You just released a book about Nightingales, and you even play with Nightingales. How did the nightingales respond to you clarinet?
NIGHTINGALES IN BERLIN, a book, a film, a series of recordings documents my five-year attempts to bring many musicians together to play along live with this most amazing singing bird. Since the nightingale always leaves space between his phrases, there is a built-in structure in which we may join in.
Some birds are interested in what we do, while others are indifferent. Like human musicians and audiences!
In many of your texts, you describe these nature sounds like really cool and beautiful songs. How can we listen to these songs?
By being quiet out in nature, and letting the sounds around seep into us. If you are inspired, you can find a way to collaborate with this music, and this should be done gently, carefully, and with respect. Let the music of nature change you, and only then might you find a way to fit in.
Like the challenge of the human species today… we must make music with nature, not use it up or destroy it. Only then will our species earn an opportunity to hold our place on this planet.
On May 20th the project “Sad Truth” gets underway, where six artists are gathered for a week on the small island of Fleinvær, outside Bodø. There they will collect sounds, pictures, and films, and collaborate on digital artworks.
“Human beings are perhaps the first beings on Earth who can and must make a choice about whether to live in equilibrium with nature as a whole or take care of their diversity. Why then do we choose not to do that which is obviously correct and important? We are the first generation to have both the knowledge and tools to take action – if we had the will. So, when the words that form the social debate are drained of their power, perhaps space opens up for art and music to meaningfully contribute.” Works by Gyrid Kaldestad, Tine Surel Lange, Håvard Lund, Leif Haglund, Espen Tversland & David Rothenberg