Prim Limit
David Rothenberg

BIRD, WHALE, BUG: Music From Nature

David Rothenberg has long been interested in the musicality of sounds made by inhabitants of the animal world. He has jammed live with lyrebirds, broadcast his clarinet underwater for humpback whales, and covered himself in thirteen-year cicadas to wail away inside a wash of white noise.
In this concert he presents a musical trajectory through several of his favorite species, revealing their distinct and evolved aesthetic senses in an attempt to show that music can reach across species lines, from human to animal, and back.

Creatures whose musical worlds we will enter include

1. Nightingale
2. Whale
3. Treehopper
4. Snowy Tree Cricket
5. Seventeen Year Cicada
6. Laughing Thrush
7 Lyrebird
8. Marsh Warbler
9. Pine Bark Beetle

Rothenberg has previously received support from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society to introduce contemplative techniques into his philosophy courses at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and he is pleased to bring his musical interests to this event.


Why did the peacock's tail so trouble Charles Darwin? Natural selection could not explain it, so he had to contrive a whole new theory of sexual selection, which posited that certain astonishingly beautiful traits became preferred even when not exactly useful, simply because they appealed to the opposite sex, and specifically so in each case. And yet the parallels in what gets preferred at different levels of life suggest that nature may in fact favor certain kinds of patterns over others. Visually, the symmetrical; colorwise, the contrasting and gaudy; displaywise, the gallant and extreme. Soundwise, the strong contrast between low note and high, between fast rhythm and the long clear tone. For that matter, plenty of beauty in nature would seem to arise for reasons other than mere sexual selection: for example, the mysterious inscriptions on the backs of seashells, or the compounding geometric symmetries of microscopic diatoms, or the live patterns pulsating across the bodies of octopus and squid.

Humans see such things and find them astonishingly beautiful: are we wrong to experience Nature in such terms? Far greater than our grandest edifices and epic tales, Nature itself nevertheless seems entirely without purposeful self-consciousness or self-awareness. Meanwhile, though we ourselves are as nothing compared to it, we still seem possessed of a parallel need to create. So: can we in fact create our way into better understanding of the role of beauty in the vast natural world?


Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing (Basic Books and Penguin UK), also published in Italy, Spain, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany. In 2006 it was turned into a feature-length TV documentary by the BBC. Rothenberg has also written Sudden Music, Blue Cliff Record, Hand's End, and Always the Mountains. His articles have appeared in Parabola, Orion, The Nation, Wired, Dwell, Kyoto Journal, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail and Sierra, and his writings have appeared in at least eleven languages. His latest book is Thousand Mile Song (Basic Books), about making music with whales, currently being developed into a feature documentary for Canal+ in France.
As a musician Rothenberg has performed and recorded with Jan Bang, Scanner, Glen Velez, Karl Berger, Peter Gabriel, Ray Phiri, and the Karnataka College of Percussion. His latest major label music CD, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, a duet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, came out on ECM in 2010. Rothenberg's next book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution was published by Bloomsbury in 2011.
Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

BBC documentary "Why Birds Sing", after a book by Rothenberg