Review: ‘Nightingales In Berlin – Searching For The Perfect Sound’, David Rothenberg (University of Chicago Press, 2019)

David Rothenberg has carved out a somewhat crooked niche as a celebrated musician-cum-birdsong investigator, and for some time has been an original, expert voice in the field, albeit one with an occasionally challenging bent for digressions and arcana. Here, the author of Why Birds Sing (2005) takes a personal journey through music and birdsong, loosely circling the celebrated nightingales of central Berlin as he pursues the notion of the ‘perfect sound’. For Rothenberg, this sound will not be the product of any one bird; the perfect song he seeks will be a product of the place, the sonic ecosystem, in which its sung. He learns of the wafty concept of ‘sharawaji’ (‘a rare and ancient name for the absolutely perfect sound’) from an intolerably mannered Swedish insect scientist who goes by ‘Mr Fung’: ‘The sharawaji effect,’ he is told, ‘ought to unite our own song with the wind, with our place, with our touch, with a sound that knows exactly where it is in the world.’

It’s an arcane thesis, but Nightingales In Berlin – picking out its own course, rather than tracing any established history – mostly gets away with its knight-moves and abstrusities. The book is memorable chiefly for its deeply-in-the-know exploration of a musical subgenre peopled by sound recordists, experimentalists and jazz improvisers, each working to replicate or manipulate or play counterpoint to the baffling music of the nonhuman world.

The book begins with a great moment as Rothenberg, messing about with an iPad and a clarinet among the nightingales of Berlin’s Treptower Park, is confronted by a furious ornithological researcher: ‘This bird is ruined for us!’ she protests. Rothenberg has played a nightingale’s song back to it, and compromised a research subject. He is apologetic: ‘I want the scientists on my side! The rigor of science is important, and someone should be applying it to the beauty of nightingale songs.’ But at heart he is convinced that the beauty of the nightingale’s song is intrinsically bound up with human sound, human noise – human ‘interference’.

Rothenberg – though fond of a complicated sonogram or three – has ‘an innate sense … to resist the idea that data is beautiful’. He’s something of a musical purist, rejecting the notion that ‘audioscapes’ should help us to relax, or to feel or function better: ‘The best music already makes us feel more alive, and if it comes from nature it should make us love the natural world even more … I just want to be surprised by beauty.’

The book’s ambit is freewheelingly eclectic. Rothenberg explores Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire (and things get a bit headspinning: ‘Time cannot become space, no matter how much reverb you wrap around the sound. My search for ideas echoes in my head, swirls like particles of an unlocatable sound’); he pursues Blyth’s reed warbler with ‘Emu’ Lehtinen, proprietor of Helsinki’s most famous music store; he plunges into subterranean audiovisual installations, always deeply engaged and impressively critical. At times, where he leaves the nightingales alone for a while, his writing recalls the Berlin psychogeography of Paul Scraton. Elsewhere he lectures enlighteningly on the construction of electronic music.

While the reported conversations are (not unusually in this kind of book) rather plodding – and often unintentionally undercut by a tragicomic tendency to negativity among his interlocutors (‘I would like to visit this place’ ‘You can’t’; ‘What are you talking about?’; ‘No, we are not the people for you’; ‘What does that mean?’; ‘I don’t think so’) – it’s not difficult to get caught up in Rothenberg’s vision of a sound-world in which we’re all engaged, all plugged in. Rothenberg’s enthusiasm is infectious, even where he is driven to more-or-less incoherent rhapsody, or runs into dead-ends in a pile-up of rhetorical questions. And if the cynical reader has to stifle a smirk at some of the stylings of the Berlin experimentalist scene (‘[Kohran] Erel calls himself not a nightingale but a “fightingale”’), it’s to the benefit of the book that Rothenberg is always open-minded and insistently interested.

Nightingales In Berlin is a passionate and rather touchingly sincere quest for beauty, human and otherwise. The whole world – not only birds and animals but wind-blown leaves, apartment-block heating systems, cars in the rain – is drawn into Rothenberg’s vision, and yet concrete answers are hard to come by. There’s pathos in Rothenberg’s earnest efforts to square his own musical instincts with the science of animal music (‘What has humanity ever wanted to do but make sense out of the booming confusion of life?’), though at times one might take issue with a somewhat indulgent preference for celebrating the ‘tenacious’ (those nightingales that are thriving) over protecting the vulnerable (those that aren’t).

Introducing eleven thoughtful and collaborative ‘paths to animal music’, Rothenberg writes that he could ‘go on and on’ about what his work (or play) with nightingales does to him ‘as a lone human off on my quixotic quest. But I don’t want to do that any more. I am learning to love bringing other people along with me on the journey.’ The book’s ending tableau is a collaboration between Rothenberg, the Estonian-born singer Lembe Lokk, the Finnish violinist Sanna Salmenkallio and the singing nightingales of Viktoriapark. It’s a showpiece that underlines the centrality of collaboration, of a multiplicity of voices, to Rothenberg’s view of life and sound. In this book, the world is a vast and varied chorus of many mouths; if, as a consequence, precise meaning is blurred, and fine distinctions effaced, this perhaps only brings us closer to an understanding of the ‘perfect sound’.

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