Read an Excerpt from “Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound”

May 23, 2019
By

Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg is an expert in interspecies music. He has a long history of making live music with the sounds of nature, including birds, whales, and bugs. Now, with a new book and CD, Rothenberg turns his attention to the elusive figure of the nightingale. Rather than try to capture a sound not made for humans to understand, Rothenberg seeks these musical creatures out, clarinet in tow, and makes a new sound with them. He takes us to the urban landscape of Berlin—longtime home to nightingale colonies where the birds sing ever louder in order to be heard—and invites us to listen in on their remarkable collaboration as birds and instruments riff off of each other’s sounds.

Rothenberg has released two albums that chronicle his music-making with the nightingales. Listen along while you read for the ultimate moment of zen.

Are you surprised there are nightingales in Berlin? They have flown thousands of miles to get here, up from Africa and over the sea like refugees of the air. They sing from wells of silence, their voices piercing the urban noise. Each has his chosen perch to come back to each year. We know they will return, and yet when they do arrive every song still seems a wonder.

Of all the days to schedule a midnight concert in Berlin’s Treptower Park, we have somehow chosen May 9, the one night people descend upon this park in the thousands. It is the sixty-ninth anniversary of the end of World War II. The park will be full of people when the birds begin to sing. The location itself lends the timing further significance. This is where the great Battle of Berlin is remembered, during which a hundred thousand died in less than two months. Here stands an extravagant war memorial, built by the Soviets to commemorate their victory in what was once East Germany.

Although the weight of history bears down heavily here, it is surrounded by quiet forests, a lake, and a beautiful riding path on the shores of the Spree River. It is the most graceful of any of the city’s parks, with its mix of plantings, grandes allées, and crumbling vestiges of Communism. And it is here that a few dozen male nightingales establish their territory every spring, and we wander in the dark shadows of this concrete history to engage with the most ancient music in the world.

Berlin is the best city in Europe to hear the song of the nightingale, and the right time to hear it is from late April through late May. This is when the male birds return from their migration to Africa to establish their territories, sing for their mates, and nest together with them to raise their young. By early June the song thins out; the birds remain in the trees until August but become much quieter. As the evenings cool once again, they head south, not to be seen until the following year, when they will come back on schedule, often to the exact roosts they established the year before. Nightingales are connoisseurs of sound. Our human clamor doesn’t seem to bother them. In fact, they might like the challenge of our noise. Of all songbirds, nightingales are the two species, Luscinia megarhynchos and Luscinia luscinia, most inclined to sing in darkness as opposed to early morning light. As such, they underscore all those human romances and yearnings of the clandestine, indecorous dark.

These birds are celebrated in myth, song, poem, and story, and I for one had read much about them before I ever heard one. The poet Matthew Arnold, hearing the nightingale as an ancient and omniscient traveler, wrote in 1853:

O wanderer from a Grecian shore,

Still, after many years, in distant lands,

Still nourishing in thy bewilder’d brain

That wild, unquench’d, deep-sunken old-world pain . . .

Arnold heard a shade from an ancient myth before he could admit this was a real bird. Most of us feel the same when we hear our first nightingale. When I finally did encounter my first real one, I could not believe what I was hearing. This song was weird. A series of detached phrases. A mix of rhythmic chirps, spread-out whistles, and funky contrasting noises. It was neither mellifluous nor melodic, like the heavily praised tunes of the hermit thrush in North America or the blackbird in Europe. This was, rather, an unusual rhythmic assault. I had no doubt that it was music, but a foreign music, another species’ groove, a challenge for humans to find a way into. I wanted to know his method, and began to imagine some way to one day join in.

Do nightingales like making music with people? The most rigorous study of nightingale response to playbacks of their own species’ songs, conducted in Berlin in the 1970s by Henrike Hultsch and Dietmar Todt, discovered three ways a nightingale may respond to a strange new music in his midst. First, if he feels his territory is threatened, he will try to interrupt the unfamiliar sound—what the scientists called “jamming the signal”—thereby preventing any foreign message from coming through by getting in the way of it as much as possible. That’s the aggressive response. But he may respond differently. A male nightingale who is confident in his territory, who doesn’t consider you and your clarinet or iPad or voice or cello a threat, will listen to what you play, wait a moment, then respond with his own short song, and then pause again. If you give him some space, play a short phrase, and stop, the whole ex- change is considered a friendly acknowledgment, with each musician trading ideas, leaving space for the next, accepting that we each have our place and our song.

Third, a nightingale who considers himself at the top of his game—the boss bird, the best singer in the whole park—will do whatever he wants, maybe interrupting, maybe leaving space, singing however long it pleases him, because you matter not in the least to him, convinced as he is of his greatness. He sings as if no one is there but himself.

We’ve all met musicians who fit into these three categories. From a musical point of view, distinguishing between interruption and sharing could get quite blurry. What one person hears as jamming the signal could, to another, come across as just plain jamming, trying to make interesting music together. This is because music is far from a simple sign. It depends on what one believes music, in either a human or an avian context, to be all about. Perhaps artistry and form constitute not just an advertisement of territory and skill, but an attempt to work together to create something no one species could make on its own.

It was with this idea in mind that I felt compelled to bring people and nightingales together to make interspecies music in the first place. Through flash messaging and the wiles of social media, somehow at least a hundred people had gathered at the Treptower Park S-Bahn stop by midnight to follow us to the ideal location, one copse away from the river’s edge, where our favorite bird, with whom we had practiced on earlier days, was ready for showtime.

I am ready to play clarinet live with the birds, my first time for an audience of more than one. Playing along with a nightingale becomes a direct window into the unknown, a touch of communication with a being who doesn’t share our language. The game of pure tones jarring against click and buzz becomes not a code but  a groove, an amphitheater of rhythms in which we strive to find a place.

The birds leave space for each other; they are in that back-and- forth state, standing their ground, thus welcoming me perhaps more than usual. Even the occasional human cry in the distance has its place: all sounds are welcome. Finally a screech. Is it some- one blowing against a blade of grass? Will that silence our bird? Absolutely not, nothing will. For he is born to sing.

I want to convey to you something special about jamming with another species, but I don’t know if jamming is the best word. Does that suggest something frivolous to you? Musicking? Playing along with? Finding common ground? Interspecies music, of course, is music that no one species could make on its own. And the whole, if it works, should be greater than the sum of its parts, just as nature is greater than any one species in its midst. We all have our place, and no species is an island. We enhance ourselves by paying more attention to the rest of life.

One song or many: what is that bird up to? Many songs in a row, up to a few hundred in a song “bout,” or one multiplicitous song out of many riffs or phrases? How much space between the riffs? How much listening goes on in those silences? I want to listen as much as the bird does. We don’t fight each other for attention—we strive for mutual comprehension. The music we make together is more than a war.

People always ask me what it feels like, and my answer is never good enough. All I can do is play music attuned to the moment and the presence of the birds, leaving space for their songs and their silences. Treat them as equals with whom I cannot speak. It was uniquely moving to bring a patient audience out into Treptower Park an hour after the Russian victory festivities had subsided and a strange calm descended on the night. Only then did the birds comply, as if they had enjoyed all that noise and human celebration of the war’s end.

They are not afraid of us. They coexist with us, hiding in their nettle fortresses, waiting for the right moment to sing. We honor their sound by calling it a song, by deciding it to be something worth taking seriously as music and finding a way to join in. I say this again and again, a refrain in and of itself. The same simple message, one easy way to make nature matter. Listen to it. Don’t sit passively, but love it enough to want to play along. It’s got room for you.


Nightingales in Berlin is available now! Find it on our website, online at any major booksellers, or at your local bookstore.

David Rothenberg is distinguished professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is the author of many books investigating music in nature, including Why Birds SingSurvival of the Beautiful, and Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise. His writings have been translated into more than eleven languages and among his twenty-one music CDs is One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, on ECM.

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