This image is of an 18th century engraving found on the Wikipedia site.
WM Why Birds & Saami Sing: Conversation with David Rothenberg
In this blog conversation with David Rothenberg, a connection between birds, the natural world, the Karelian and Saami people are explored. Recently during a radio interview for KSVR-Mount Vernon, Finnish and Saami magical yoiks, and music came into the conversation.
While this topic did not fit into the actual radio interview, I thought that the conversation could continue on this music consciousness blog. If you enjoy this conversation, please tell your friends.
Also the Saami music article on this site has attracted some traffic, so those readers will enjoy this article as well. Life is magic and music can lead us all on that path of enchantment if we choose the right songs, and the right fork in the road. In other words, learn to think outside of the musical box.
WME: When I first listened to your CD Why Birds Sing, I thought of experimental classical and jazz music, then I recalled something even more unusual and that is the Saami and Karelian musical connection to the natural world. Now, you have been to Finland and Estonia, where remnants of the old shamanic culture exists--that is where there was once a musical exchange (magical) with the animal world. So did you encounter any of this?
David Rothenberg: You know, I think we were the ones trying the magical and musical exchange! Most of the Saami I talked to had more to say to reindeer than to whales, but they smiled when I described our project. I did meet one Saami woman, Vigdis Siri, who works at the Norwegian Saami Museum in Varangerbotn, and she said, “talk to whales, oh yes, I do that sometimes.”
WME: Your bird music (I have yet to hear the whale music), reminds me of Saami yoiker-contemporary composers such as Wimme of Finland. You had heard some of Wimme's work before your bird-music CD, so how did this shape the music you produced?
DR: I’ve always been interested in how yoikers insert their subject matter into the wordless syllables of their tunes. On an earlier record, Before the War, with Douglas Quin, I performed along with a Finnish folk musician, Mari Järvinen, who sings in Karelian style and plays the ancient fiddle called the jouhikko. Once I even tried to translate a few yoiks, from a Swedish book, here’s how they came out. I published these in the literary magazine I used to edit, Terra Nova:
YOIKS (By David Rothenberg)
On their travels across the tundra leading herds of reindeer, the Saami are often heard singing their unique kind of rhythmic song, blending in with the beat of the boots on the ground and the patter of the animals’ feet. These songs are called “yoiks,” and they have an affinity with the chants of Native Americans and in particular with the music of the many other reindeer-herding peoples who inhabit the northern parts of Siberia and Kamchatka. (I once heard a concert of singers from all across the circumpolar region. They could not speak to each other, but they could communicate through song.)
The yoik blends syllables that are not words together with the names and qualities of loved ones, or else familiar stories of the roving life on the wide open spaces. Yoiking takes thoughts beyond words, beyond music, somewhere in between. “The yoik,” writes poet Paulus Utsi, “lifts our mind’s sense over the clouds.” I don’t know if they make much sense on paper and in translation, but here goes:
Little Elli, lilla Elli
lollo lo lollo lo
Lilla Elli little Elli
na lolla lollo lo
She’s as sleek as silk
and tasty as a berry
lulullugolullu lullu lo
lollo lo lollo lo.
When he was a child
the poor boy said:
the woodpecker’s belly has many spots,
his feathers many colors.
But the world has more spots
and many more wild colors.
And it’s pretty wild
when one day a cowboy
gets his own reindeer herd!
I watched over the cows
when I was a boy
and now I’m the owner
of a reindeer herd.
Isn’t this an amazing world?
Now it’s time to yoik
the small birches of Jetnejetvivvielg
so fly away home.
I hardly remember how,
but yoik will I still
and run after the reindeer
aya aya aya aa.
Yes so, yes so I’ll yoik
between which the rivers flow
the forests where the water flows oh so
and where you hear the calves grunting
fly, fly away home…
Now fare you well one last time
For I’ll never pass this way again
but generations after me
will come to wander by
aya aya aya oh.
He yoiked the bears… ayya valla ayya valla
The furbearing stares valla vala valla
You terrible old man, you!
“Sure, we scared him all right,” ayya ayya valla
and he went rambling
down Bänu’s hill
with a swagger in his walk
and he yoiked again:
“Takes a strong man
to make a bear run.”
He got them to run, the braggart.
But once he met two bear brothers
on the trail.
They dared him, all right.
He never had a chance to boast.
No, and never will again.
Ayya valla ayya valla
Ayya valla valla valla
All yoiks from: Rolf Kjellström, Gunnar Ternhag, and Håkan Rydving, Om Jojk, (Hedemora: Gidlunds Bokförlag, 1988). Translated from Swedish by David Rothenberg
WME: Many musicians and composers have been inspired by bird songs including the famous French composer and mystic Olivier Messiaen, who you mentioned in a radio interview, but you actually went out in the field and recorded with the birds. Did you feel an energy exchange with the birds when you played your instruments with them?
DR: Absolutely. In the best exchanges, my music was improved by the live interaction with birds. I don’t know what the birds thought of me, though.
WME: If you had to describe the experience of playing with birds to other musicians, where would you begin?
DR: Like improvising along with true masters, singers who really know what they are doing, supremely confident as they have been for millions of years longer than there have even been human beings on the planet.
WME: Do you have any advice for singers or woodwind players who want to do a musical exchange with birds? Which birds would you recommend? And how does a musician best approach birds in the wild? (They can be quite fussy).
DR: Get outside and play! Go quietly, gently, and with respect. Leave plenty of space. Don’t just play your own stuff and expect the birds to care. Get ready to improvise with an open mind and open ear. Leave space for all the sounds of the world around to influence you: wind on leaves, water, moving clouds, screeching cars, thrumming airplanes. They are all part of the grand composition that is this world.
WME: Perhaps, musicians can play for birds at zoos or aviaries like you did at the beginning of your venture….
DR: It should be mandatory! Some zoos call such activities “enrichment” because they improve the lives of their captive animals.
WME: Musicians were once magicians, shamans, messengers rolled into one. The connection to nature was just a given, but now with all of this industrialization and urbanization, we have moved away from nature, except for an occasional retreat or camping trip. So did you feel something primal waking up in you when you found yourself in the middle of an Australian forest playing music with the Albert's Lyrebird?
DR: We should all try to get back to that traditional tribal role.
WME: Do you feel that your projects with birds and whales can help others get in touch with even the nature in their own backyard? You yourself said that if we really take the time to listen to birds, we can get to know them better and hear songs where we once heard noise (well, those are not your exact words)…. Any comments?
DR: Yes, the more seriously you take the sounds around you, the more you will love them and work hard to preserve their presence.
WME: How would you like to conclude this blog conversation?
DR: Thanks for coming up with such good questions. All musicians should take some time out to play along with the rich sonic possibilities of the world around us. Take it seriously, spend time practicing it like any serious music. All music listeners should open our ears to take in the beauty of the way the world is bathed in sound. Nature invites us all to tune in to its beauty. Only when we truly hear it will we realize how important it is, to us, and in itself.
David Rothenberg 9/4/08 Oxford, England
Portions of this interview appear in my book Whole Music