Nightingale Cities | David Rothenberg


Nightingale Cities | David Rothenberg
Gruen 189 | Double CD > [order]


Five years in the making, David Rothenberg’s Nightingales in Berlin project includes a book, a film, many live concerts, and this double CD, including a 20 page color booklet of stills from the film and music not available in any form online. Here’s what Rothenberg says about the project:


“I used to make interspecies music largely on my own, seeing myself as some kind of individual explorer seeking out musical ideas with creatures we can’t even talk to. But in recent years I’ve decided that the point of musical contact with another species is to convince other people to join me. Over five years, from 2014 through 2019, I invited the best and most adventurous musicians I know to connect in musical collaboration—humans with nightingales, in Berlin and Helsinki.


The nightingales have helped me find the perfect sound. By assembling just the right group of kindred spirits, together we dream of a way that humans and nature might live closer together. Our species is warming the planet beyond recognition, and this could mean the end of our reign over this place. Yet there are still these moments during which humans can touch nature through sound happening all around us, as we make music along with the nightingales of Helsinki and Berlin. The paths to animal music sit right before us.


I love to listen to different musicians respond to the song of the nightingale for the very first time. I have played with these birds for several years now, and sometimes I wonder why I keep trying to make music with musicians with whom I cannot speak, who live as birds—such different lives than people who may join the band. Some human critics think it’s all delusion, that I intrude upon the birds’ ancient world of perfect sound and struggle, but whenever I bring a new musician along to play with nightingales, I realize why I began this process in the first place. We all feel such joy and hope when music can carry meaning from one species to another. The planet becomes a more harmonious place.”



Nightingale Cities


Emil Buchholz, bass
Korhan Erel, iPad
Wouter Jaspers, Field Kit
Lembe Lokk, voice
Benedicte Maurseth, Hardanger fiddle
Wassim Mukdad, oud
Jay Nicholas, electric bass in remix
Volker Lankow, frame drum
David Rothenberg, clarinet, bass clarinet, seljefløyte, iPad
Sanna Salmenkallio, violin
Cymin Samawatie, voice
Ines Theileis, voice


Disc One, Berlin (72 minutes)


1. The Boori Sound
2. Dreaming Slow
3. While Birds Chant Praises
4. O Bülbul, Your Love
5. The Nightingales Are Drunk
6. Viktoria’s Dream
7. Nightingale Cities
8. Addicted to Birds
9. She’s Finally Here
10. At Midnight We All Waited
11. I Cannot Go Home
12. Exit Music
13. Nightingale, You Are the One


Disc Two, Helsinki (69 minutes)


1. Elektro Repeet
2. Sharawaji Blues
3. Willow Wind
4. No One Sings at Dawn Alone
5. Ballad with Nightingale and Mosquitoes
6. Sisichak
7. Sisichak Remix [for Emu]
8. Alien Beauty
9. The Morning Electric
10. Sotavalta’s Satakieli
11. NeoNachtigall


24 Tracks (141′00″)
Double CD (500 copies)
20 page color booklet


In the green midnight by the nightingale’s northern limit. Heavy leaves hang in trance, the deaf cars race toward the neon-line. The nightingale’s voice does not step aside, it’s as piercing as a cock-crow, beautiful without conceit. I was in prison and it visited me. I was sick and it visited me. I didn’t know it then, but I do now. Time streams down from the sun and the moon into all the tick-tock-thankful clocks. Right here there is no time. Only the nightingale’s voice, the raw ringing tones that whet the night sky’s gleaming scythe. – Tomas Tranströmer, „The Nightingale at Badelunda“




Photos by Ville Tanttu,
stills from his film Nightingales in Berlin


Produced by David Rothenberg together with his book,
Nightingales in Berlin (University of Chicago Press, 2019)


Recorded live on location in Germany and Finland 2014-2018
by David Rothenberg, Ville Tanttu, and Reelika Ramot
Mixed and mastered by David Rothenberg
at B Street, Cold Spring and NOTAM, Oslo.


© & ℗ 2019
All titles published by Mysterious Mountain Music (BMI)
All rights reserved.
Terra Nova Music – TN1920


Sound Art Series by Gruenrekorder
Germany / 2019 / Gruen 189 / LC 09488





On Nightingale Cities, clarinetist David Rothenberg expands on the duet approach of his earlier ‘interspecies‘ recordings by including others. To that end, he and like-minded musicians collaborated with nightingales in Berlin and Helsinki over a five-year period, the results documented in this double-CD release (a companion to the recording is Rothenberg’s 2019 book Nightingales in Berlin). One of the best things about this unusual project is that it’s not field recordings-based in the usual sense: a recording of that kind typically sees the artist collecting sounds from the environment and merging them with material, musical or otherwise, generated at a different place and time; in Rothenberg’s case, interactions with nature, in this case nightingales, happen live and are recorded in real-time. (His music projects involving non-human species haven’t centered on birds exclusively, by the way, but also have included ones with whales and bugs.)


Along with Hardanger fiddler Benedicte Maurseth, bassist Emil Buchholz, frame drummer Volker Lankow, oud player Wassim Mukdad, and violinist Sanna Salmenkallio, singers appear (Lembe Lokk, Cymin Samawatie, Ines Theileis) while Rothenberg (in addition to clarinets) and Korhan Erel are credited with iPad and Wouter Jaspers Field Kit. Complementing the two CDs (one documenting the Berlin recordings, the other Helsinki’s) is a twenty-page booklet containing photos plus track listings accompanied by details about personnel, dates, and locations. Groupings of three, four, and five participants perform (nightingale included) on most of the Berlin tracks, whereas eight of the eleven Helsinki pieces are Rothenberg duets. That set also supplements the sounds of the Thrush nightingale with those of the sedge warbler, blackbird, reed warbler, and mosquito, and two album tracks present the nightingale unaccompanied.


A typical setting presents the leader on clarinet accompanied by two or three others and a nightingale interacting with all of them. The performances unfold in an unhurried, methodical manner, the humans receptive and responsive to the expressions arising from all concerned. The amazing to-and-fro that occurs between Lokk and the nightingale during “Dreaming Slow” should lay to rest any doubt that the bird’s expressions are not in some way responses to the singer’s. Much the same might be said of the title track, which sees the birds reacting to Samawatie’s musings, Erel’s eerie textures, and Rothenberg’s explorations.


The sound design has the potential to expand limitlessly beyond acoustic borders when the iPad’s involved. With the leader generating warbling synthesizer-like noises, “Alien Beauty,” for instance, is hardly like something one would imagine originating out of a Helsinki park. The ear otherwise perks up when the sweetly rustic sound of the Hardanger fiddle surfaces alongside the clarinet and nightingale during “She’s Finally Here.” With frame drum prodding the music along, the ensemble becomes a folk-tinged septet for “At Midnight We All Waited,” and then takes on a bluesy Eastern character when oud and frame drum appear in “I Cannot Go Home.” One particularly amusing moment arises during “Exit Music” when at one in the morning the musicians are asked to leave a Berlin park and thereafter play no later than ten o’clock at night.


On disc two, Rothenberg’s wail on the duet “Sharawaji Blues” sounds like he might have been imagining himself playing at a jazz club as opposed to a Helsinki park. In “No One Sings at Dawn Alone,” the Thrush nightingale turns particularly animated and talkative when paired with the leader’s bass clarinet, after which Rothenberg comes close to matching the musical chirp of the Blyth’s reed warblers during “Sisichak” when he plays a Bulgarian double whistle called the furulya. In terms of outliers, Nightingale Cities ends on a rather bizarre note when the insistent throb of Jay Nicholas’s bass powers a grooving dance pulse through the nightingale-punctuated “NeoNachtigall.”


At twenty-four tracks and 141 minutes, the question invariably arises: wouldn’t a single CD of, say, one-hour-long duration suffice? Yes, it would, but there’s also something undeniably engrossing about the result, even in its unabridged form. If anything, as the recording advances one’s affection for the project grows, especially when the ‘music‘ produced by the birds is so mesmerizing and the normal barriers separating the species seem to dissolve. As the recording nears its end, you’ll likely find yourself having been won over by Rothenberg’s contention that when humans create music with another species “(t)he planet becomes a more harmonious place.”


Rigobert Dittmann | Bad Alchemy Magazin (102)
DAVID ROTHENBERG ist Klarinettist, erprobt im Spiel mit Scanner, Pauline Oliveros, Iva Bittová, Marilyn Crispell, er ist Professor of Philosophy and Music und er ist der Autor von „Sudden Music: Improvisation, Sound, Nature“ (2002), „Why Birds Sing“ (2005), „Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound“ (2008), „Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution“ (2011) oder „Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise“ (2013). Lauter Bücher mit Musik. Zu seinem neuesten, „Nightingales in Berlin“, gehört Nightingale Cities: Berlin / Helsinki (Terra Nova, TN 1920 / Gruen 189, 2 x CD), aber auch schon „Berlin Bülbül“ (TN 1511 / Gruen 159). Beides mit Electronics von Korhan Erel, Rothenberg mit auch noch Bassklarinette, Seljefløyte, Furulya oder iPad, sowie nun auch noch den Sängerinnen Lembe Lokk & Cymin Samawatie, der Geigerin Sanna Salmenkallio und weiteren Berliner Bülbüllauschern, die sich die Nächte um die Ohren schlugen, um mit Nachtigallen zu musizieren. Deren Musik der Dichter John Clare schon 1832 bewundernd einfing mit ‘Chew-chew chew-chew’ & higher still / ‘Cheer-cheer cheer-cheer’ more loud & shrill / ‘Cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up’—& dropt / Low ‘Tweet tweet jug jug jug’ & stopt / One moment just to drink the sound / Her music made. So suchte Rothenberg, meist allein, im Mai 2016 in Helsinki auch den Zusammenklang mit Sprossern, Busch- & Schilfrohrsängern (mit Amsel oder Wachtelkönig als akustischem Beifang). In der Überzeugung, dabei nicht einem ‚Anderen‘ als ‚Alien Beauty‘ zu begegnen, vielmehr einem Widerhall menschgemachter Klänge, hard machinery ebenso wie soft melody. Natur und Kultur verklammert durch Schönheit als evolutionärem Plus? Mit anfänglichen Finessen- und Verblüffungsvorteilen der Geschnäbelten, denen dennoch ob des unmöglichen Dus die Rolle von Accessoires und Lokalkolorit droht. Am Ich-Du-ähnlichsten ist es, wenn Rothenberg unter finnischem Himmel und unter vier Augen quasi selber zum Vogel wird.


Richard Allen | a closer listen
David Rothenberg is a musician with a calling: to hear, appreciate, and participate in the music of the animal kingdom. A triptych of books on whale music, bird music and bug music has cemented his reputation. In 2019 he returns with a defined focus ~ the music of the nightingale ~ and this time, he’s brought friends, who play everything from frame drum to laptop (playing the birdsong of the nightingales back to the nightingales). Nightingale Cities is the two-disc facet of this release, while Nightingales in Berlin is the title of the book and film, all premiering this spring.


“The biggest thing is to not play ~ just listen.” says Rothenberg. “Listen most of the time.” The opening statement of the trailer sets us at ease. It’s easy to dismiss the thought of interspecies music as fancy or hubris. But if such a thing can happen, it begins with humility. People have conversations with dogs, cats and parrots all the time. So why not music? Some claim that the difference in auditory systems prevents such interactions from happening, or that our music is merely tolerated or ignored by other species. Others show that certain animals demonstrate a preference for certain types of music, or at east an aversion to others. Rothenberg’s “Eleven Paths to Animal Music” elucidates his approach. He thinks that he and his friends are performing duets, while realizing that this might be wishful thinking; yet he also apologizes for his earlier criticism of scientists, who are in fact attempting to prove his theories (while occasionally fighting over a single bird).


So let’s begin with a few basic assumptions: 1) Certain members of the animal kingdom might be willing and able to duet with humans; 2) Listening closely to the sounds of other living creatures increases our overall awareness; and 3) Even if the duets are never proven, the idea of the duet is enough, as Cymin Samawatie extols, to make us feel “connected … maybe even to God.”


The nightingale is capable of producing innumerable vocal phrases, many of which can be heard here. While listening, one begins to anthropomorphize, thinking, “that part sounds like electronic music” or “is this free jazz improv?” It’s not. It’s birdsong. But one may also connect the ability to that of a newborn human infant, whose vocal repertoire seems endless, and virtually impossible to imitate. Different cultures reward different sounds with repetition, losing the ability to mimic what is not reinforced. It’s fun to watch Rothenberg as he attempts to imitate the nightingale’s growl. While clearly in love with the nightingale’s phrases, he calls them “weird,” but also admits that people have had the same reaction to his own music.


The full title of the book is Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound. Such a search is clearly subjective. A favorite sound is another. When Rothenberg chooses one particular utterance as the nightingale’s “best note,” we know he’s winking. In like fashion, he asks, “How can we tell if one soundscape is better than another?” It’s a question we face here all the time, as we do choose to review some soundscapes and not others, then rank them at the end of the year. But we know, as does Rothenberg, that our preferences are sometimes based on measurement (for example, the clarity of the recording ~ this one is pristine) and sometimes arbitrary (preferring dense recordings or sparse).


When listening to nightingales, one gravitates to one sound to another; when listening to a 140-minute collection of interspecies music, one prefers certain segments. The cacophony at the center of “O Bülbül, Your Love” strikes this listener as the album’s best distilled explosion of joy, the beginning of “The Nightingales Are Drunk” the most relatable soundscape, due to the sound of passing cars. On “Sisichak,” Rothenberg and furulya stumble into “a jam session of reed warblers” in Helsinki. Lemke Lokk’s interaction in “Dreaming Slow” is convincing on its own, even devoid of context; and amazingly, it’s been caught on film (see below). An exchange at the end of “Exit Music” humanizes the composer and his project: “Making music?” “No.” Meanwhile, Rothenberg amusingly notes that the nightingale provides no indication of when one song (track) ends and another begins.


But perhaps the most affecting juxtaposition happens offstage. On “Nightingale, You Are the One,” “finally, our bird can sing for himself, alone, no humans to trouble him.” (The same approach holds true for “Sotavalka’s Satakieli” on Disc Two.) At the same time, vocalist Samawatie is not allowed to perform in her home country of Iran. Nightingales may sing loudly in order to drown out their competition; only humans attempt to silence others completely.