David Rothenberg (b. 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 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."
- Why Birds Sing
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.
- Thousand Mile Song
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."
- Survival of the Beautiful
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.
- Other works
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.
- 1995: On the Cliffs of the Heart with Marilyn Crispell
- Why Birds Sing, cdbaby
- Sudden Music, cdbaby
- Whale Music, cdbaby
- Whale Music Remixed (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, cdbaby
- --- You Can’t Get There From Here, with Scanner
- --- Painted Betty, cdbaby, "with friends in Cold Spring"
- 2013: Bug Music
- "Experts Guide: David B Rothenburg". New Jersey Institute of Technology. Retrieved 2013-05-23.
- 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. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
- "David Rothenberg". Retrieved 2013-05-23.
- Eriksson, Magnus (2010-05-05). "Jazz: Marilyn Crispell & David Rothenberg - One dark night I left my silent house". Svenska Dagbladet. Retrieved 2013-05-23.