Live Report: David Rothenberg and Friends at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

On 21 June 2016, clarinetist David Rothenberg, cellist Hank Roberts, accordionist Lucie Vítková, and guitarist Charlie Rauh played a concert at an unlikely time (5 a.m.) with (given the hour) a less unlikely orchestra: a dawn chorus of birds at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In the waxing light of a cloud-obscured sunrise, trees vibrated with winged singers: the primary constant among otherwise spontaneous contributions by human accompanists. If the latter’s utterances seemed random and responsive, it was only because the former’s were so ordered and communicative—though if the performance sought anything, it was to ensure these two currents of sound production became as indistinguishable as possible.


The patter on leaves of a passing shower was its own sort of twittering as Rothenberg and friends shed the skins of their respective training in favor of an unencumbered style of play(ing). As the human quartet eased its way into the soundscape, a catbird joined in from a nearby bough. Though the creature’s body was as hidden as its song was naked, a thread of continuity drew itself between Rothenberg’s reed and that rogue throat, enacting a form of nostalgia that must surely have captured our ancestors long before the technology required to tell their stories was conceivable. Of said technology Rothenberg has been an artful proponent, as proven by his tactful use of an iPad preloaded with birdcalls summonable at will.


While each musician was in fullest support of the others, Vítková’s microscopy added much to the feel of the entire event. Whether playing the accordion, a string attached to a can, or a hichiriki (Japanese oboe), her colors meshed particularly well with Rothenberg’s. Roberts meanwhile flitted in and out of frame with his sensitive array of pizzicato and arco textures. The arpeggios by which he opened the second of two improvisations were especially moving, pointing as they did back to the magic already around us. This half of the performance was jazzier in flavor, for it manifested the interspecies blues pumping through the heart of it all. Rauh, for his part, was the most painterly of the ensemble, rendering broader scenes into which the other three might dot in their figures and villages. More than anyone, he fed on the visual aspect of the setting, attuned to the sunlight as it gained sway over fading drizzle.


If music predates us, it also postdates us. It is the proverbial cradle in which our brief existence raises a few melodic cries before returning to eternal slumber. And in the harmony of this experience, at least, one knew that circles of life can and do pop up when least expected, and that such opportunities are to be savored whenever they arise. This music was, therefore, not so much conversation as conservation, a chance to blur the lines between literal and metaphorical flights toward an integrated whole of which those gathered were the smallest particles.

David Rothenberg & Korhan Erel: Berlin Bülbül

Berlin Bülbül

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.

Marilyn Crispell/David Rothenberg: One Dark Night I Left My Silent House (ECM 2089)


One Dark Night I Left My Silent House

Marilyn Crispell piano, soundboard, percussion
David Rothenberg bass clarinet, clarinet
Recorded March 2008 by Chris Andersen at Nevessa Production, Woodstock
Produced by Marilyn Crispell and David Rothenberg

In the dark I the bird can pretend, in light I am overdoing it,
pretending to be what I’m not, like art, like imagination.
–David Rothenberg, Always the Mountains

Having only been familiar with David Rothenberg through my own interest in animal studies, which had already led me to his unique book Why Birds Sing, imagine my delight when his name showed up on the latest release from my favorite label—and alongside one of its most singular talents, no less. His meditative improvisations with Marilyn Crispell have produced one of the most delightful surprises of 2010.

This album is fluid yet abstract, often devoid of melodic traction, but is bound by a certain poignancy that I find utterly engaging. Take, for example, “Stay, Stray,” which begins with airy chords but quickly turns introspective, even regretful, but is nevertheless boldly committed to its indeterminate purpose. Goal-oriented is what this music most certainly is not. Rather, it surrenders to the dynamics of the moment, to the gravity of performance, and to the possibilities of material interaction. In the latter vein, a number of tracks feature Crispell playing an old upright piano soundboard, from which she elicits a playful metallic accompaniment. It is part of her attempt, in Rothenberg’s words, to “get away from the keyboard, more into the realm of pure sound.” In tracks like “Still Life With Woodpeckers,” these sounds are blatantly foregrounded, while in others they linger like ghosts. “The Way Of The Pure Sound (for Joe Maneri)” begins with low-blown notes, sounding almost like a didgeridoo, and walks its line faithfully over Crispell’s exploratory ruminations on the very innards of her chosen instrument. “Tsering” lies somewhere between the two, featuring strings plucked with the fingertips and a few carefully placed notes on the keyboard proper. The unspoken communication between the two musicians is always clear, especially in “What Birds Sing,” “Companion: Silence,” and “Owl Moon.” Even in the more adventurous moments found in “The Hawk And The Mouse,” “Motmot,” “Grosbeak,” and “Snow Suddenly Stopping Without Notice” maintain a mutual delicacy that binds them as a whole. And it’s hard not to be won over by the frailty of “Evocation,” which sets the album adrift on a most dreamlike reverie.

Despite the nocturnal imagery implied by its title and cover art, One Dark Night fills my imagination with summer. The opening “Invocation” in particular drips like molasses in sunlight, evoking a hot and humid environment, somewhere rich in agriculture. The piano is like a planted seed, resting quietly in the soil, and the clarinet its first shoots, caressed by the wind, fed by the rain, and pulled from silence by the unblinking eye of the sun. Rothenberg always seems to be putting on a severe frown, like that of a tragedy mask—which is to say his sound is carefully sculpted and symbolic of a long dramatic history. His approach is rooted in nature and survival and rests comfortably on the organic foundation Crispell so lovingly provides. Both of them seem to grasp every ribbon of sound and to blindly follow wherever it might lead. If anywhere, this is where the darkness comes in, forging through that blindness a light of one’s own making, a certain sense of being that is internally of the night, even as it basks in the nourishing glare of its harvest. This may not be the most versatile music, but I think for the right mood and occasion it captures something that cannot be expressed any other way.