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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Natural Jazz

Air Date: Week of

Musician David Rothenberg thinks that one way to keep in touch with the natural world is to listen to nature’s sounds. And what he really likes is jamming with these sounds. Karen Kelly of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium brings us this portrait.


CURWOOD: The sounds of nature are usually buried in the noise of modern life. But musician David Rothenberg says people need to pay attention to those natural sounds. And he's found a way to work them into his passion, jazz. Karen Kelly of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports.

(Bird calls)

KELLY: David Rothenberg is playing a recording of crows on his stereo. As he listens, he rummages through a pile of wind instruments on a bookshelf. His home office in Cold Spring, New York, doubles as a music studio. Finally, he chooses a plastic, U-shaped pipe.

(Pipe plays)

KELLY: It's a cellyaflota, a Norwegian flute. Rothenberg cups one hand over a hole in the end and blows into the top.

(Pipe continues)

ROTHENBERG: In jazz, you're often improvising upon chord changes, the form of the song and the harmony. But you can also improvise according to sound changes. There's a certain living organic kind of quality that you can find in natural sounds, and that's why I've been working on performances where natural sounds are played as an instrument to make something that seems to live.

(Music mixes with natural sounds)

KELLY: In a piece called "Tooth Walking," Rothenberg plays clarinet over the sound of walruses clacking their teeth on rocks. A friend of his collected the sound on a trip to the Alaska Sea.

(Music continues)

ROTHENBERG: I liked the shape of what he had put together, that it really had a kind of form. I love the vision of walruses sort of propelling themselves on their teeth. They sort of stick them on the rocks and pull themselves up and bang the teeth against each other.

KELLY: Rothenberg has played with the sounds of screaming seals. He's played with buzzing rainforests and beluga whales. But he's not interested in creating your typical nature CD.

ROTHENBERG: You know, there's a whole world of just, you know, standard calm pieces of music with loons or wolves and stuff. Or the ocean just mixed in, you know. People buy a lot of these. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that, except I think that's just a place to begin. It's sort of too easy, to mix the old kind of music with the standard environmental sounds. To make music that really responds to those sounds is much more difficult and harder to figure out, and will be unfamiliar and strange and less popular. And hopefully, if it's of any value, will teach you something new.

KELLY: Rothenberg's daytime gig is at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He's a professor who lectures on philosophy and the environment. And while he enjoys teaching, he finds his music does something his teaching can't. It reaches people on a deeper level.

(Flute music)

KELLY: In this piece, Rothenberg plays the flute over the crackling of a melting iceberg.

(Flute and crackling)

KELLY: You hear the sound of global warming, you'll remember it. In newspaper articles, there are many of them, every week there's some new bit of terrible news released., And I think people become numb to that. You can become numb to a lot of things, but sound, I think, is something that people should open up to. And then, you know, we won't be able to have this same kind of separation that enables us to destroy the environment so much.

(Music and crackling continue)

KELLY: Rothenberg doesn't consider himself an activist. He just wants to help people to get back in touch with the natural world. Evan Eisenberg, author of The Ecology of Eden, says Rothenberg delivers a message that isn't present in most nature CDs.

EISENBERG: For him, nature is something much more ambiguous and not always so pretty. So I think his music reflects that.

(Oboe and bird calls)

KELLY: These days Rothenberg is working on a new CD, called Before the War. It'll be out this summer on the Earthear label. He also performs live, improvising with natural sounds recorded by colleagues in the field. Rothenberg says he's not sure people will even like his music. But he hopes it will convince them to start listening.

(Music continues)

KELLY: For Living on Earth, I'm Karen Kelly in Cold Spring, New York.



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