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Dispatch from David Rothenberg among the Nightingales in Berlin

By David Rothenberg, Safina Center Fellow

It’s been five years since I began playing music live with the nightingales in Berlin. In 2013 I moved to the city for one year to steep myself in its refreshing range of artistic possibility and mix of world cultures, something like the New York of an era before my time, where one could live well on moderate means and art is produced together simply because it can be, not because it might make some people known while others remain unknown.

Nightingale. Photo courtesy: David Rothenberg

I also buoyed by the knowledge that Berlin offers glimmers of environmental success. Citizens had reclaimed its first airport, turned it into a giant open-air park where you can bicycle the runways and listen to skylarks, who have been given part of the giant airfield as a sanctuary. Other sections contain community gardens, and whenever the city threatens to plonk down a housing development, the people fight back, and it doesn’t happen.

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany. Nightingale. Photo courtesy: David Rothenberg

I knew the city was home to a thriving population of several thousand nightingales, whose intense midnight songs were the terrestrial equivalent of the twenty-four hour arias of humpback whales. These were the birds of myth and literature, and, living in the New World, I had never heard one in person. As an interspecies musician, I dreamed of a music that could only be made by humans and nightingales together.

Playing music with a nightingale in Berlin. Nightingale. Photo courtesy: David Rothenberg

Half a decade later I am happy to say we have a book, a film, and several recorded versions of the music. You can explore it all here. I can hardly believe everything got ready at the same time.

Last Friday the film had just been wrapped up by director Ville Tanttu in Helsinki as he flew to Germany, heading straight for the BUFA Film Studios where we would hold the world premiere. This facility, one of Germany’s earliest movie production facilities, is currently being transformed into a center for sustainable culture by the people behind the wonderful retreat centers in the UK. Apparently when the facility was first built, movies were only made with natural light, so the buildings were like giant greenhouses, and it is to that form that they may soon be restored.

Still, right now it’s an idea, not a reality, so our crew had to turn the black box movie studio into a screening space, and more and more people kept signing up for the show, so we ran all over the campus, finding every possible couch and chair we could, carrying them all to the floor with the help of a great team of Iranian and Syrian students and refugees. Lima Vafadar organized the whole process, Yassi Pishvai decided where every seat would go. Ville and I and two stagehands put up the giant screen four times before we got it right.

Studio scene. Nightingale. Photo courtesy: David Rothenberg

Lima and Ehsan Tavakoli prepared food that was a work of art in itself.  Binta Wasgeschah tended the bar put together out of old crates. The lights were adjusted, the public filed in. I saw my film for the very first time.

My initial reaction was a bit like Pee Wee Herman in his Great Adventure: “I don’t have to see the movie because I lived it” but I was soon lured in to a visual poem about my recent past. It was dark, beautiful, made mostly at night. There is a lot of me talking, which I don’t like to hear, preferring instead the actual music of this amazing bird, and these fine musicians joining in: Cymin Samawatie on voice, Sanna Salmenkallio and Benedicte Maurseth on violins, Korhan Erel on electronics and Wassim Mukdad on oud. Pioneers of nightingale science Dietmar Todt, Tina Roeske, Silke Voigt-Huecke and even Sarah Darwin, great-great-grandaughter of Charles, explain a few things.

Cymin Samawatie. Photo courtesy: David Rothenberg
Benedicte Maurseth. Nightingale. Photo courtesy: David Rothenberg

Yet there is much of the story we cannot explain. Why do these birds sing all night, as few other species need to do? The function of territory and attraction are not enough to presage all this beauty. We have scanned their brains, we know they love and enjoy their own music even more than we do.

“How can I be silent,” asks the Farsi poet Saadi, in the thirteenth century, “while birds chant praises?” That is my motto for why I dare to join in. The nightingale needs not my own tentative, feeble human music. Or any human music. After all, he has sung the way he does for millions of years, we have only got a few hundred thousand cycles down thus far. He goes to Africa in winter, and flies back to exactly the same tree or lamppost in Berlin many years in a row—that much we do know.

After the show some of us walk together toward the edge of the Tempelhof Field where nightingales trade fours in the underbrush. I play along for half an hour or so, then we listen reverentially for another hour to our bird. He has a few hundred phrases to work with, and somehow neither he nor us ever get bored. People file away into the night. Just a few of us are left, huddled together in the cold as this beautiful ancient music goes on and on, reminder that at least something is still right with the world, right at the border between nature and culture where the most important contact is found. We may never crack the nightingale’s code, as Dylan and Merwin well knew. I don’t even need to record it anymore, as I remember this moment always and will keep coming back.

Tempelhof Field, Berlin. Nightingale. Photo courtesy: David Rothenberg

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