Music Inter-species Collaboration

Among the Nightingales in Berlin

David Rothenberg is a distinguished professor of humanities and music at The New Jersey Institute of Technology and has studied music for over four decades. He is acclaimed for his career contributions in the fields of philosophy, art, and conservation science. Most of his work has an environmental theme and involves the sounds of nature, live and in the studio. As an internationally known composer and jazz clarinetist, his releases, on ECM Records and other labels, feature unique clarinet performances, often live field recordings incorporating the music of whales, birds and insects.

David’s latest recording projects are focused on collaborations with nightingales. As part of the work, Rothenberg and an international band of musicians perform music in concert with nightingales in Berlin’s public parks. His project is documented in several music releases, most notably, Berlin Bülbül (bülbül is turkish for nightingale) and Nightingale Cities.  The project has also given rise to a film, Nightingales In Berlin, and a newly released book Nightingales In Berlin Searching for the Perfect Sound. David very kindly sent Kosmos this update from the very heart of the project, Berlin.

– Kari Auerbach, for Kosmos Journal

Nightingales in Berlin Trailer | Footage and Ethos of the Project

This film tells the story of David Rothenberg’s efforts to gather together an international band of musicians to cross the species line and make music live with nightingales. Because of its spacious parks and the large number of enthusiastically singing birds, Berlin is the best city to make music with nightingales. (pull out quote: “Almost everything one plays to a nightingale will encourage him to sing more. These encounters becomes a direct window into the unknown, a touch of communication with a being with whom we cannot speak. The play of pure tones jarring against click and buzz, it all becomes not a code but a groove, an amphitheater of rhythms in which we strive to find a place.”

It’s been five years since I began playing music live with the nightingales in Berlin. In 2013, I moved to the city for one year to steep myself in its refreshing range of artistic possibility and mix of world cultures, something like the New York of an era before my time, where one could live well on moderate means, and art is produced together simply because it can be, not because it might make some people known while others remain unknown.

I was also buoyed by the knowledge that Berlin offers glimmers of environmental success. Citizens had reclaimed its first airport, turned it into a giant open air park where you can bicycle the runways and listen to skylarks, who have been given part of the giant airfield as a sanctuary. Other sections contain community gardens, and whenever the city threatens to plonk down a housing development, the people fight back and it doesn’t happen.

I knew the city was home to a thriving population of several thousand nightingales, whose intense midnight songs were the terrestrial equivalent of the twenty-four hour arias of humpback whales. These were the birds of myth and literature, and, living in the New World, I had never heard one in person. As an interspecies musician, I dreamed of a music that could only be made by humans and nightingales together.

Half a decade later, I am happy to say we have a book, a film, and several recorded versions of the music, all to be explored at I can hardly believe everything got ready at the same time.

Last Friday, the film had just been wrapped up by director Ville Tanttu in Helsinki as he flew to Germany, heading straight for the BUFA Film Studios where we would hold the world premiere. This facility, one of Germany’s earliest movie production facilities, is currently being transformed into a center for sustainable culture by the people behind the wonderful retreat centers in the UK, Apparently, when the facility was first built, movies were only made with natural light, so the buildings were like giant greenhouses, and it is to that form that they may soon be restored.

An excerpt from the documentary Nightingales in Berlin

Still, right now it’s an idea, not a reality, so our crew had to turn the black box movie studio into a screening space, and more and more people kept signing up for the show, so we ran all over the campus, finding every possible couch and chair we could, carrying them all to the floor with the help of a great team of Iranian and Syrian students and refugees. Lima Vafadar organized the whole process, Yassi Pishvai decided where every seat would go. Ville and I and two stagehands put up the giant screen four times before we got it right.

Lima and Ehsan Tavakoli prepared food that was a work of art in itself. Binta Wasgeschah tended the bar put together out of old crates. The lights were adjusted, the public filed in. I saw my film for the very first time.

My initial reaction was a bit like Pee Wee Herman in his Great Adventure: “I don’t have to see the movie because I lived it.” But I was soon lured in to a visual poem about my recent past. It was dark, beautiful, made mostly at night. There is a lot of me talking, which I don’t like to hear, preferring instead the actual music of this amazing bird, and these fine musicians joining in: Cymin Samawatie on voice, Sanna Salmenkallio and Benedicte Maurseth on violins, Korhan Erel on electronics, and Wassim Mukdad on oud. Pioneers of nightingale science Dietmar Todt, Tina Roeske, Silke Voigt-Huecke and even Sarah Darwin, great-great-grandaughter of Charles, explain a few things.

Under the nightingale’s song

Everyone is gone except you and I

The night is cold but we are warm

As warm as long as the nightingale sings—


Yet there is much of the story we cannot explain. Why do these birds sing all night, as few other species need to do? The function of territory and attraction are not enough to presage all this beauty. We have scanned their brains, we know they love and enjoy their own music even more than we do.

“How can I be silent,” says the Farsi poet Saadi, in the thirteenth century, “while birds chant praises?” That is my motto for why I dare to join in. The nightingale needs not my own tentative, feeble human music. Or any human music. After all, he has sung the way he does for millions of years, we have only got a few hundred thousand cycles down thus far. He goes to Africa in winter, and flies back to exactly the same tree or lamppost in Berlin many years in a row—that much we do know.

After the show, some of us walk together toward the edge of the Tempelhof Field where nightingales trade fours in the underbrush. I play along for half an hour or so, then we listen reverentially for another hour to our bird. He has a few hundred phrases to work with, and somehow neither he nor we ever get bored. People file away into the night. Just a few of us are left, huddled together in the cold as this beautiful ancient music goes on and on, reminder that at least something is still right with the world, right at the border between nature and culture where the most important contact is found. We may never crack the nightingale’s code, as Dylan and Merwin well knew. I don’t even need to record it anymore, it’s wound itself up into my own songs, as I remember this moment always and will keep coming back.

David Presents for 25 minutes on the process of collaborating with whales, insects and birds. He concludes with comparing, contrasting, slowing down, speeding up and combining animal sounds and as a finale.

In this same edition of Kosmos Quarterly, read about another artist who collaborates with nightingales! Sam Lee: Birdsong Hits the Charts.

About David Rothenberg

Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg wrote Why Birds Sing, Bug Music, Survival of the Beautiful and many other books, published in at least eleven languages. He has more than twenty CDs out, including One Dark Night I Left My Silent House which came out on ECM, and most recently Berlin Bülbul and Cool Spring. He has performed or recorded with Pauline Oliveros, Peter Gabriel, Ray Phiri, Suzanne Vega, Scanner, Elliot Sharp, Iva Bittová, and the Karnataka College of Percussion. Nightingales in Berlin is his latest book, CD, and film. Rothenberg is Distinguished Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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