Speaker: David Rothenberg

An Interspecies Musician Making Nature and Science Come Alive Through Art

David Rothenberg is a writer, philosopher, ecologist, and musician, speaking out for nature in all aspects of his diverse work. He investigates the musicality of animals and the role of nature in philosophy, with a particular interest in understanding other species by making music with them. As a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, he “teaches engineers nonquantifiable things.” He is also an acclaimed composer and jazz clarinetist known for his integration of world music with improvisation and electronics.

Originally intending to be a scientist, music pulled Rothenberg away during his high school years – ultimately becoming the modality through which he would explore nature and deep ecology. Looking back at those high school years of the 1970s, Rothenberg told 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." He is said to "explore the sounds of all manner of living things as both an environmental philosopher and jazz musician."

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. A CD accompanying the book also featured Rothenberg's duet with an Australian lyrebird. The book served as the basis for a 2006 feature-length BBC documentary of the same name.

His next book, Thousand Mile Song (Basic Books 2008), reflects similar curiosity about whale sounds considered as music, from which both scientific and artistic insights emerge. It was turned into a film for French television. Philip Hoare of The London Telegraph 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."

His book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and  Evolution (Bloomsbury Press 2011) was described by the journal Nature as exploring the theme that beauty is not random but is intrinsic to life—and that evolution proceeds by sumptuousness, not by utility alone. 

His remarkable output in books is matched by his creative output in other areas. As a composer and jazz clarinetist, Rothenberg has sixteen CDs out under his own name over the past 30 years. His 2020 releases include In the Wake of Memories and They Say Humans Exist, named best jazz album of the year by Stereo+ Magazine in Norway. He has performed or recorded with Peter Gabriel, Pauline Oliveros, Ray Phiri and Suzanne Vega. As a musician, Rothenberg tries to blend the indigenous energy of the world's primal music with the exploratory spirit of improvisation. He has studied jazz clarinet professionally, as well as Tibetan ritual wind music in Nepal and folk music in Norway.

Since 2014, Rothenberg has been an Ambassador of the international non-governmental humanitarian mission, the Dolphin Embassy, participating in non-invasive research of the possibilities of free dolphins and whales – playing music for them. In 2017, the Dolphin Embassy released the full-length documentary Intraterrestrial, which received awards from international film festivals. The film's soundtrack features music by Rothenberg.

Links to his extensive work, global press coverage, and extended recognition can be found on his website.

Please join us in conversation with this remarkable philosopher and interspecies musician who combines art and science to make nature come alive in remarkable ways!

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