Histories of Violence: Trans-Species Encounters

THIS IS THE 11th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with David Rothenberg, who is a professor of Philosophy and Music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and a widely acclaimed musician and composer whose work explores the relationship between humanity and nature.


ADRIAN PARR: Human activities are to blame for the sixth great extinction currently underway. The main issue is that evolution cannot keep up with the current rate of extinction. As a species, humans have become the Earth’s number-one predator. Human activities are taking over the world’s resources, habitats, and atmosphere. This is leading to dramatic habitat destruction, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. Previous mass extinctions have taken 10 to 30 million years to bounce back from. In this context, and given that your sound-works emerge through interspecies encounters, would you say that your sound art engages in acts of resistance against the violence that humans are inflicting on other-than-human species?

DAVID ROTHENBERG: Ah, the violence we enact on other species! Part of the general tragedy of being human, I suppose — we have to own up to it. As we develop and evolve, the rest of the world’s species suffer. But it doesn’t entirely have to be that way. We can be more sensitive to them. After all, the music of birds, whales, and bugs is some of the oldest music we know. It is the real classical music, evolved to perfection, essential, necessary, and right for millions of years longer than we have been on this planet. Some respect and investigation of it is due, don’t you think? Everyone who studies music should in part study animal music, and if we dare to interact with this music we connect ourselves to the whole fabric of life in a real, tangible, and yet hard-to-explain way. Music doesn’t specifically save the world in anything but a metaphoric sense — sure, I know that, but the closer we feel to our fellow musicians on this planet, the more we will respect them and will work to live in a way that allows them to flourish as well.

Can you describe how the Why Birds Sing and Whale Music projects came about and how they expand the traditional model of music composition where a composer authors a piece?

For a long time, I was interested in music and the environment separately and I always wondered how to combine them.

In the ’70s, the environment became an important issue of our time and as a teenager I thought I really should do something about this, but I wasn’t sure how to connect this to my own interest in playing and composing jazz. I grew up in Connecticut, where Paul Winter also lives. I met him as a teenager, and he was pretty much the only musician at the time who made environmentalism central to his work. He was doing performances with whale and bird songs. So I learned about that as a teenager but didn’t do very much with it for about 20 years.

Then I came back to the problem of connecting music and the environment when I became interested in a Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. He was interested in both listening to the soundscape of the natural world and what we can do with environmentalism. He was a more traditional composer, not a jazz musician, but his approach was let’s just write pieces to be performed on wilderness lakes, in canoes in the forest, or a bunch of trombones on mountain tops, and he has continued to do this to this day, culminating with a performance that has taken years — the Wolf Project — of performing in the woods outside of Toronto. The project is so vast that they just disappeared into the forest. Who knows if it will ever be completed. At the same time, I realized there was much more to do be done.

One thing people hadn’t done was to take actually playing music together with animals, such as birds, seriously and to learn something from it. The moment of encountering another and taking them seriously musically, not just to learn who they are but to listen to them.

I don’t know if you can hear that sound in the background, but the white-throated sparrows are starting to sing. They are supposed to sing, “boo boo boo dirdir dir dirdir dir … Old Sam peebody peebody peebody,” but they don’t, because they have forgotten how to sing. Spring is just beginning, and they are just playing around. They are trying to figure it out. This week is the week.

You can communicate with other species as a musician if you take them seriously. The music of birds is more like music than language. They are not trying to say something that we can translate. They are making music. They are putting together sounds and patterns whose identity is those sounds and patterns. They don’t stand for anything that can be deciphered.

It strikes me that there are parts of your work that embrace aspects of how John Cage composed, if we think about living in that indeterminate moment of an encounter as the basis for composition — giving up the control of the composer. Would you agree?

Yes, I would. He was very influential for me. He would surprise you. I knew him a bit, and the best thing about John Cage is that he didn’t talk just about himself. He was very interested in everyone else. He worked those stories into his own work. That is rare among people with a singular vision. That is the best thing to learn from him: pay attention to everything, take other things seriously, things you don’t expect, don’t follow the exact straight path. He said he was so interested in chance, but when I watched him assembling things by chance he would also edit them very closely. He was a composer with very precise ideas. Even though he said free yourself from your likes and dislikes, this didn’t mean do anything, it meant look for guidance elsewhere on how to structure things. He was very precise. It was a precise way of learning from something unexpected. I take something from that in learning to play music with birds. You take what they are doing seriously and listen attentively. What can we accomplish here, what is happening? You don’t get too fixated on your sense of function.

So much of how you compose, such as your Whale Music project or Why Birds Sing, maintains a presence with another being, so there is this durational expanse to the work, which prompted me to wonder: At what point do you determine the piece has come to an end?

That’s a great question. A lot of that depends upon what is the actual work.

At the moment, I am playing music with nightingales. Now nightingales are going to sing all night, they are going to keep singing and singing and singing. What counts as a work for these birds is very different from what it is for humans. It is nothing for them to sing all night. They just do it.

If I make a recording of this I want to present it to people at different scales. One part of me says there are several minutes that are really interesting, when it sounds like something is happening. And I offer these moments to people. On the other hand, other people who I have worked with retort that I am breaking this up into little units like human music. They explain that we spent an hour and a half playing with this bird, we need to present that. So we put one record out that is just one 49-minute track that includes me, a singer, an accordion player, and this one nightingale that we know is an amazing singer. I know this because I have performed with him several times; he comes back to the same tree in Berlin every year. This bird is special. I have also performed live with a recording of the same nightingale for a one-hour concert. If you want to hear 10 pieces in this hour you are not going to, you are going to hear this one thing. This is going to change your sense of time.

I have done the same with whale song. Whales have a lot in common, musically, with what nightingales are doing, but their song is slower. We play along with the whale song for 45 minutes. At first people are not going to want that. However, their perception slowly changes.

So what makes the work? If the work is this encounter it almost has no beginning and end but the structures of life dictate things, so you decide how much to bend toward people’s attention span and the sense of what you are doing.

So are you using the affective potential of chance to compose sonic elements in this trans-species exchange is that how you view it?

Many times, things are not going to work. Like the birds are not interested in you and they fly away. Whales are particularly hard to play live with given all the equipment needed, then there is the question of whether it will all work, or if the whale will stick around, or if there too many boats around, or too many people on board who want to swim with the whales. More people want to swim with the whales than listen to them and musically connect with them. So usually there is someone who announces: “Enough music, I am jumping in, go away!” 

In the Whale Music project, you seem to transcend the differential power between human and non-human species by subverting the species boundary through a percussive and melodic weaving of bodies and the sounds bodies emit. So there seems to be an existential consequence whereby the identity of a person as a musician is suspended, or that identity is recomposed and bifurcates in connection with another species. Would you like to speak a little about the experience of this process?

There is something very special about humpback whale song. Nobody knew about it until the 1950s. It was an unknown phenomenon. When people first heard it they would sometimes burst into tears, it seemed so moving. And why is it that the sound of these whales seemed so emotional? It is structured, it is very organized, and strangely it is about the same frequency as the human voice. The lowest to the highest sounds the humpback whale makes cover about the same range as the human voice. The scale of their song is slower than human music, but it is accessible to us. We can slow down into that shape and form.

When I figured out it was possible to play live with them, it filled me with a sense of surprise and possibility. You really can play an instrument on a boat and broadcast down to water and mix it together live with what whales are doing. They are hearing and listening. They sometimes change what they are doing. They acknowledge that the sounds are there, and at the same time you join into this phenomenon. You don’t know what it is. We don’t know what this whale song means. There is no attempt to find a function for it. It is simply the richness of its musical quality. They also change their song together as a group. One day they are going, “Rhoop whoop,” and three months later they are going, “Rhoop whoop whoop.” The pattern changes, and they all seem to change together. So they don’t want to sound different from each other, they want to sound like each other but they change what they are doing, and we have no idea why. That is not very common in the animal world to have this group movement. A nightingale wants to sound different from other nightingales. The whales want to sound the same.

As a being in the midst of this, I forget all these explanations I am telling you. I listen to the overlap of sounds and realize that you too are a sound making being. Who knows what it is all for, but it is just amazing. There is something going on. We can participate in it. We can join in with this mystery. We can make sense of it while having no idea what it is about.

It strikes me as a wonderful moment of commoning, of inclusion, of different voices coming together and resonating with one another. I would like to ask you about this process of sharing. Sharing human and non-human sounds as the basis for music composition, when I listened to your performance in Canada, it really felt like this music expands and deepens the human experience by bringing it into relationship with another species. This music directs our emotional attention to a fundamental relationship of solidarity, where the music is created through an alliance formed across species. In this way it strikes me that it is a minoritarian practice, a micro-political aesthetic that deterritorializes the fixed relations underpinning dominant aesthetic forms if we think about the fixed, organized spatial and temporal configurations arising from harmony, melody, and rhythm. Your pieces appear to break such fixed relations apart.

Say the example of playing along with the hermit thrush. People have always admired the beauty of its song. They have talked about how there is something especially musical and diverse, something continually changing in its song. But if you actually listen closely, it has notes and scales that are very different to the ones humans use. Yet we recognize this as being musical right away even though they are from some other world.

Today we are fortunate of being more open to sounds from nature because we accept so many more sounds as musical. This is because of John Cage, electrified music, noise and feedback, and things like this. We accept the possibility that all kinds of sounds can become musical sounds.

So as much as we are threatening the planet and using up resources and bumping up against everything nature offers, we are more prepared to listen to it and take it seriously than ever before. Today, because we appreciate all these sounds, we take these sounds and join in with them and learn from them. We don’t have to fit them into our systems; we can open up into their systems. You have to train yourself to want to listen to these things and take them seriously and not grab it too easily and put it into your systems.

If you think what animals are doing is musical, it is a lot easier to make sense of it. We value music so much without necessarily knowing what music really means. We know that it is important to us. You can’t translate music or explain it away, no matter how much you analyze it. Music touches us even if we don’t know what is being sung.

You can relate to a culture’s music without having to translate what is being said, and that shows the possibility of reaching across species lines. It is important to learn to care about all these creatures. We are rapidly using up the planet, and the more we value what is going on out there in the world the more we are going to think twice about harming it.

It is well known that environmentalism was not interested in saving the humpback whales until the whale song became famous. When their sounds reached us, people were just so moved. I am doing this because an interesting kind of music can be made that humans couldn’t make alone and that further connects us to the environment. That is so important in an age when the whole civilization is bumping up against nature as a whole. We are really threatening everything. The more we pay attention to it and value it the more we will find new ways to respect what is around us.

The trans-species encounters central to your sound works intervene in the global-scale violence human beings are waging against other-than-human species by challenging the violence permeating contemporary social relations with responsive moments of egalitarian diversification. Put simply, your work seems to rest upon one simple, elegant principle: one species enriching the life world of another. Would you like to comment on this?

I hope it works that way! Just as listening to, appreciating, and joining in with the music of other species is beneficial for us humans, I would like to believe the animals can enjoy it. We know that dopamine is released inside the brains of birds as they sing, they are addicted to singing, they love it, they need it. All of us musical beings share that need. I would like to believe that nightingales enjoy the challenge of singing along with human musicians, that humpback whales would rather hear human music underwater than droning ships or piercing sonar tests. I mean, that’s not hard to believe, is it? Musical creatures should be treated to music, and we might all treat each other better. It’s not a war out there; it’s a booming, buzzing celebration of sound, life, and possibility.


Adrian Parr is an Australian-born philosopher and cultural critic, a professor, and the director of the Taft Research Center at University of Cincinnati. In 2014, she helped bring Louder Than A Bomb, the largest youth poetry slam in the nation, to Cincinnati. Her forthcoming book is Birth Of A New Earth (Columbia University Press).