David Rothenberg (born 1962) is a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, with a special interest in animal sounds as music. He is also a composer and jazz musician whose books and recordings reflect a longtime interest in understanding other species such as singing insects by making music with them.
Life and work
Looking back at his high school years in the 1970s, Rothenberg told Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times, "I was influenced by saxophonist Paul Winter's Common Ground album, which had his own compositions with whale and bird sounds mixed in. That got me interested in using music to learn more about the natural world."
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Rothenberg created his own major to combine music with communication. He traveled in Europe after graduation, playing jazz clarinet. Listening to the recorded song of a hermit thrush, he heard structure that reminded him of a Miles Davis solo.
Because of Rothenberg's study of animal song and his experimental interactions with animal music, he is often called an "interspecies musician." According to Andrew Revkin, he "explores the sounds of all manner of living things as both an environmental philosopher and jazz musician."
Rothenberg's book Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song (Basic Books, 2005) was inspired by an impromptu duet in March 2000 with a laughingthrush at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. In the wild, male and female laughingthrushes sing complex duets, so "jamming" with a human clarinet player was closely related to the bird's natural behavior. A CD accompanying the book also featured Rothenberg's duet with an Australian lyrebird. The book served as the basis for a 2006 BBC documentary of the same name.
Rothenberg's book Thousand Mile Song (Basic Books, 2008) reflects similar curiosity about whale sounds considered as music. He seeks out both scientific and artistic insights into the phenomenon. Philip Hoare said of the book, "..while Rothenberg's madcap mission to play jazz to the whales seems as crazy as Captain Ahab's demented hunt for the great White Whale, it is sometimes such obsessions that reveal inner truths...I find myself more than a little sympathetic to the author's faintly bonkers but undoubtedly stimulating intent: to push at the barriers between human history and natural history."
His book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution (Bloomsbury Press, 2011) was described by the journal Nature in this way: "Rothenberg covers topics such as camouflage, abstraction, the profound impact of art on science and much more to explore his theme [that beauty is not random but is intrinsic to life—and that evolution proceeds by sumptuousness, not by utility alone]." Roald Hoffmann said of the book, "David Rothenberg is a brilliantly fun guide on a journey that takes us from bower birds to the neuroesthetics of Semir Zeki. Survival of the Beautiful is just about the best travel literature of the mind out there. With wit by turns gentle and sharp, Rothenberg shows us how art is shaped by animals, and by us." Peter Forbes, writing in The Guardian, calls the book "immensely fertile", bringing together ideas from Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, and D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Forbes praises Rothenberg's "innocent eye for the telling image", enjoying his treatment of the bowerbirds.
Bug Music, a book about insects and music, was published by St Martins Press in 2013. He began this project at the 2006 International Arts Pestival in London. During the 2011 emergence of Brood XIX periodical cicadas, Rothenberg was the subject of a YouTube video as he played saxophone to accompany the mating calls of Magicicada tredecassini.
Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sounds, was published by The University of Chicago Press in 2019. The book follows the urban landscape of Berlin—longtime home to nightingale colonies where the birds sing ever louder in order to be heard—and invites the reader to listen in on their remarkable collaboration as birds and instruments riff off of each other’s sounds.
Rothenberg has recorded at least 9 albums in his own name, and has performed or recorded music with Peter Gabriel and other jazz musicians. "David Rothenberg has been releasing music under the Terra Nova imprint for more than a decade."
- 1992 Nobody Could Explain It (Accurate 4004)
- 1995: On the Cliffs of the Heart (Newtone 6744) with Marilyn Crispell, Robi Droli; named one of the top ten releases of the year by JAZZIZ Magazine
- 2005: Why Birds Sing (Terra Nova), released the same year as his book of the same name
- 2006: Sudden Music (Terra Nova), released with the book of the same title, eleven compositions by Rothenberg, including White Crested Laugh[ing], featured on Why Birds Sing
- 2008: Whale Music (Terra Nova), released with the book Thousand Mile Song; features Robert Jurgendal and Nils Okland
- 2009: Whale Music Remixed (Terra Nova), with contributions from Scanner, DJ Spooky, Lukas Ligeti, Mira Calix, Ben Neill, and Robert Rich
- 2010: One Dark Night I Left My Silent House (ECM Records), with Marilyn Crispell on piano.
- 2011: Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (Terra Nova), with pianist Lewis Porter
- 2011: You Can’t Get There From Here (monotype 038), with Scanner
- 2011: Fifty Bucks and I'll Show You (Berger Platters), by the band Painted Betty: "friends in Cold Spring"
- 2013: Bug Music (Terra Nova), released with the book of the same name, features cicadas, crickets, katydids, leafhoppers, and water bugs as well as Jürjendal, Hill, and Umru Rothenberg
- 2014: Cicada Dream Band (Terra Nova), featuring composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros, overtone singer Timothy Hill (of the Harmonic Choir), and cicadas in New York
- 2015: Berlin Bülbül (Terra Nova), with Korhan Erel and nightingales in Berlin ("Bülbül" is Turkish for "nightingale")
- 2016: And Vex the Nightingale (Terra Nova), with accordionist Lucie Vítková and a nightingale in Berlin
Reviewing One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, Svenska Dagbladet wrote that Rothenberg and Crispell, "create a moment of beauty," with, "a searching minimalism," and awarded the maximum six stars.
- "Experts Guide: David B Rothenburg". New Jersey Institute of Technology. Retrieved 23 May 2013.
- Dreifus, Claudia (20 September 2005). "A conversation with David Rothenberg; Ode With a Nightingale, and a Thrush, and a Lyrebird". New York Times. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
- Reich, Ronni (15 October 2010). "NJIT professor finds nothing cuckoo in serenading our feathered friends". Star Ledger. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
- Revkin, Andrew (17 June 2011). "Sax and Cicadas – An Interspecies Jam". New York Times. Retrieved 18 June 2011.
- Rothenberg, David (2011). Survival of the Beautiful. Bloomsbury. p. 312.
- "Invertebrate Sound and Vibration 13th International Meeting" (PDF). University of Missouri. p. xiii. Retrieved 18 June 2011.
- Hoare, Philip (25 July 2008). "Whale music in a sea of sound". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
- "Amazon entry for Survival of the Beautiful". Retrieved 18 April 2012.
- Forbes, Peter (10 February 2012). "The Guardian". Survival of the Beautiful by David Rothenberg - review. London. Retrieved 7 December 2012.
- Rothenberg, David. "Bug Music". Terrain.org. Archived from the original on 11 June 2011. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
- Nightingales in Berlin.
- "About", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "David Rothenberg Nobody Could Explain It". AllMusic. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
- "Other Rothenberg Releases", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN0503 Why Birds Sing", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN0601 Sudden Music", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN0804 Whale Music", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN0906 Whale Music Remixed", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN1107 Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN1309 Bug Music", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN1410 Cicada Dream Band", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN1511 Berlin Bülbül", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- "TN1512 And Vex the Nightingale", TerraNovaMusic.net. Retrieved 2018-02-11.
- Eriksson, Magnus (5 May 2010). "Jazz: Marilyn Crispell & David Rothenberg - One dark night I left my silent house". Svenska Dagbladet. Retrieved 23 May 2013.
- Official website
- TerraNovaMusic.net (record label)
- NJIT faculty page
- Website for Why Birds Sing book
- OpEd in NYT about whale song, "Speak Whale to Me" (2007) and "How to Make Music With a Whale" (2014)
- on YouTube (2011), saxophone performance with Brood XIX Magicicada tredecassini cicadas, or on YouTube (Brood II), PBSNewshour (Jun 19, 2013) and on YouTube, NYTimes (Jun 4, 2013).