A New Music, with Birds, Whales and Cicadas as Guest Stars

Music should not be heard, but listened to. Everywhere we go, there is music. It’s become such a widespread phenomenon, we hardly notice it any longer. It’s similar to cigarette–smoking in public places: some decades ago, it was such a common occurrence, nobody noticed it—except our eyes, throats, and lungs. Laws have been passed since, and smoking has been banned from public places. At times I wish piped music were banned from public places too. Everywhere we go, we are assailed by music we didn’t ask to hear and we normally don’t care for. It gets in the way both of thinking and of carrying on a conversation. It’s an instance of acoustic pollution. One of its by-products is that we now take music for granted, when music is one of the most marvelous things we humans can produce and/or listen to.

Timothy Hill, Pauline Oliveros, David Rothenberg; photo by Stenie Mina di Sospiro, 2014

Photo by Stenie Mina di Sospiro; from Left to right: Timothy Hill, Pauline Oliveros, David Rothenberg.

Last Friday, at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in New York City, David Rothenberg, Pauline Oliveros and Timothy Hill showed the listeners — I was among them — and, it is hoped, the world, what music can still achieve. Quoting from Mr. Rothenberg’s website: “2013 marked the arrival of millions of periodical cicadas to the New York Metropolitan area. These musical insects appear only once every seventeen years. On the occasion of this auspicious event, David Rothenberg performed a series of concerts together with composer and deep listener Pauline Oliveros, overtone singer Timothy Hill, and live singing insects brought in from the trees. The ensemble of digital accordion, clarinets with electronically enhanced nature sounds, and harmonic singing is certainly a trio unlike anything heard before. The ensemble headed to the famous Dreamland Studios just outside of Woodstock to commit three and a half hours of music to digital memory. For the album they picked their favorite 64 minutes and 32 seconds.”

The concert at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation was to celebrate the release of the CD, Cicada Dream Band.

Should you wonder if this was the umpteenth New York artsy gimmick (admittedly a bad artistic habit of that city), nothing could be farther from the truth. The musicians involved are classically-trained virtuosi of the respective instruments, composers and musicologists who have dedicated their lives to music. Supremely accomplished clarinetist David Rothenberg has, inter alia, studied music-makers from the animal kingdom for decades, and to document his findings, as well as his jamming with unusual musicians, has authored three books: Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Birdsong; Thousand-Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound; and Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise. Pauline Oliveros is a composer and accordionist whose work has been central to the development and refinement of post-war and electronic art music, which is how classical music has become known after WW II. She is also responsible for pioneering the concepts of “Deep Listening” and “sonic awareness.” Last but not least, Timothy Hill is a master of harmonic, or overtone, singing, which results in a way of singing acutely aware of the natural spectrum of harmonics that the vox humana can produce, thus creating a sound at once otherworldly and deeply human. Listening to it borders on the incredible, not in a circus-like way, but rather celestial—as if angels had suddenly alighted in the auditorium.

So, how was the music produced by this avant-garde super group, with the contributions of selected magpies, humpback whales and cicadas? The listeners must set aside conventions that belong to a long time ago, as they will not find melody, or harmony (chord progression), or even rhythm as reference points. And yet, the music is far from abstract—it couldn’t be, as the singing of birds, whales and cicadas could not be more real. There is, indeed, harmony, not in the strict tonal sense, but rather in the very réussi attempt to harmonize with the sounds of nature, as well as with the harmonics within the vox humana; there is melody, albeit of a different sort, perhaps more modal than melodic; and finally, there is the incessant rhythm we all know from summers in the company of cicadas, but not nearly as in-your-face, or rather, in-your-ears. The resulting concert, in the etymological sense of concertare (‘to unite, to cause to agree’), from the Italian concertare ‘to harmonize’), was one of those rare experiences in which we realize that, despite years of acoustic pollution, we are still possessed of discerning ears and that, furthermore, they can be used as antennae. The phrasing of Mr. Rothenberg’s clarinet and bass clarinet (a magnificent old Selmer) has a few distant echoes of Jazz and classical music alike (I detected a little Eric Dolphy and Brahms in it), but is mostly original. Ms Oliveros’s work on the accordion was economical and yet so inspired that soon enough the listeners’ antennae realized that, somehow, she was playing only the right notes at the right times. As for Mr. Hill’s singing, it was a new and superb experience in its own right. And while the three musicians have arrived at this after decades of study, practice, and explorations, the resulting music came off as effortless. And beautiful, so achingly beautiful.

In 1949 Theodor Adorno, one of the Frankfurt school theorists, wrote The Philosophy of Modern Music. In it he attacked beauty itself, since, in his view, it was a contributor to the ideology of advanced capitalist societies, and an ally to the sustainability of capitalism itself, which it rendered “aesthetically pleasing.” Only avant-garde music was capable of preserving the truth by expressing the reality of human suffering. Well, birds, whales and all sorts of insects sing—and not to express the reality of animal suffering. The concert was indeed of avant-garde music, but it was beautiful. Art of such supreme awareness and respect for all creations cannot but aspire to Plato’s World of Forms. And in that world, everything is beautiful. All of us listeners last Friday were lucky to witness something so new and at the same time so ancient. The Cicada Dream Band CD documents the same magic; I could not recommend it more.

 Guido Mina di Sospiro is co-author of the disinformation® book The Forbidden Book, co-authored with Joscelyn Godwin, and The Metaphysics Of Ping-Pong, published by Yellow Jersey Press, Random House, and long-listed for the William Hill Sports Book Award.
Guido Mina di Sospiro

Guido Mina di Sospiro

Guido Mina di Sospiro is an award-winning, internationally published novelist born in Argentina but raised in Italy who lives in the United States.

Mina di Sospiro’s novel The Story of Yew (the memoirs of an age-old tree), published in the UK, is permanently featured on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and has been translated into many languages, as has From the River, the memoirs of a mighty river. Both books have met with critical acclaim. He is the co-author of the disinformation® book The Forbidden Book, co-authored with Joscelyn Godwin, and Publishers Weekly’s recent staff pick The Metaphysics Of Ping-Pong, published by Quest Books.
Guido Mina di Sospiro