David Rothenberg, jazz musician, author of Why Birds Sing and professor of Philosophy and Music at New Jersey Institute for Technology, believes that birdsong is more than just a way for a bird to establish a territory or attract a mate; he thinks that it has a spiritual, creative aspect – that birds maybe aren’t so unlike humans, and sing just for the pure pleasure of it. In his book, Rothenberg explores the interweaving of birdsong and human culture, dissecting the structures of birdsong through sonograms as well as noting the influence of avian melodies on famous composers and their parallels with music.
But it’s his jamming with the birds themselves that’s perhaps most remarkable. The disc that accompanies his book includes performances of himself on Norwegian bass overtone flute and clarinet and other musicians playing to the music of thrushes, whistling ducks, catbirds, kookaburras and warblers, as well as insects, frogs and a single wave lapping on the Maine coast. The nature sounds are in many cases slowed down or otherwise electronically altered, expanding the sound universe. Spare, resonant, textured, his compositions blur the boundaries of music and sound, suggesting a mysterious language – not quite bird, not quite human.
Rothenberg will be talking about his ideas about nature and bird song in a conversation with environmentalist John Cronin at the Beacon Institute’s Center for Environmental Innovation and Education at Denning’s Point on Thursday, June 21 at 7 p.m. Admission to the event is free, though advance registration is requested; visit https://www.bire.org/events. For more information, call (845) 765-2721.
Why Birds Sing, which Rothenberg notes raised the ire of scientists and the support of musicologists, was published in eight different countries and adapted as a featurelength documentary by the BBC. “Why do birds have such an interesting compositional strategy? If you want to do the research, you bring the scientists and musicologists together,” he said.
The talk is part of the Beacon Institute’s Third Thursday Series, which explores timely topics involving water and environmental issues. It’ll be followed on July 19 with “Spirituality and the Environment: A Native American Perspective,” featuring spiritual leader James W. Ransom, former tribal chief for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.