David Rothenberg, familiar to ECM listeners through his fascinating duo album with Marilyn Crispell, has constructed one of the most idiosyncratic vessels in which to sail the waters of improvised music. He excels at expanding his own terms to suit an ever-changing roster of natural musicians. The German field recording label Gruenrekorder is the host for this rather different collaboration, which combines Rothenberg’s clarinets with Turkish sound artist Korhan Erel on computer and iPad, along with nightingales fed live from the parks of Berlin. Anyone who has followed Rothenberg’s career will know of his mythical explorations of bird song in the book Why Birds Sing and its accompanying CD. More recently he has done the same with whales and insects, but the birds have been a regular point of return.
The liner notes of Berlin Bülbül (the second word being Turkish for “nightingale”) riff off these birds’ distinct ways of singing, which mirror jazz tactics in their abilities to lead, respond, and interpolate. The album is peppered with four live tracks, which through varied levels of construction proceed to tie as much as they unravel. This sense of push and pull, most vivid in such illustratively titled pieces as “Dark with Birds and Frogs,” leads to a fleshy palette of interspecies interaction and epitomizes the porosity of music as a communicative act. Rothenberg’s ability to manifest the intangible is perhaps uncanny at first, yet more organic the more one hears it, while the details of Erel’s live samplings, the rustle of human conversation, distant sirens and other errata of the city’s soundscape cinch a cord of continuity around them. As for the birds, chirpy and reaching down to microscopic levels of resonance, they are the champions of cohabitation, each more sagacious—yet whimsical!—than the last.
The magic circle of birds and breaths, looped back in on themselves in digital ellipses, is what this album is all about. And even in the studio, their spells bear fruit. Whether lurking in the John Surman-esque bass clarinet of “A Long Note’s Invisible Beam” and “Nachtigall Imbiss” or the clicks and wing-flutters of “Unearthly Untaught Strain” and “Her Pipe in Growth of Riper Days,” the overall texture is of swamp grass and urban concrete, of trees and asphalt rolled into one gorgeous mess of songs. Erel’s manipulations only enhance this effect by revealing the inner life of Rothenberg’s extroversions, and vice versa. And while these pieces may feel like vignettes, they are lives in miniature—full troves of existence with beginnings, middles, and ends. The granulations of “Omnibus” are just as insightful as the larger brushstrokes of “From That Moonlit Cedar What a Burst,” in which even deeper rhythms externalize. But, like the bluesy reverie of “Interfused Upon the Silentness,” it always ends in the sky, riding a purple cloud of thought into another dawn.