Thursday, September 4, 2008

In Conversation---Why Saami & Birds Sing, Interview with David Rothenberg

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
Seuldotland’s forests
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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

In Review---And Your Bird Can Sing

David Rothenberg
Why Birds Sing
Terra Nova

Birds have inspired musicians, poets and artists of various discipline for centuries. Birds and their joyful songs have enlightened saints, prophets and mystics, not to mention bird watchers and ecologists. Birds have been the subjects of songs, entire music compositions and Alfred Hitchcock's film, but obviously, old Alfred did not quite understand the bird kingdom--he was a product of a paranoid society. (And I don't care much for that film).

However, David Rothenberg, musician, author, professor and philosopher has chosen to befriend the bird kingdom through its musical language. Not only did he write the book, Why Birds Sing (reviewed on this blog), but he also co-produced a remarkable CD of the same title that combines nature with modern technology. While I am not into electronic music myself, (I do not find it healing due to the electromagnetic fields), the music on Why Birds Sing recalls sacred yoiks of the Saami people married to high tech and it recalls magical traditions of indigenous peoples of the world.

A jazz improviser and fan of electronica, Rothenberg certainly appears to be following his passion for birds and for sound design. Some of the bird tunes recall experimental jazz and early 20th century classical music by such composers as John Cage. The birds, such as the Albert's Lyrebird of Australia, the White Crest Laughing Thrush of Asia and other fine avian species have inspired suites (The Lyrebird Suite), and a tune called Sheer Frustration, Really.

You would have to have a sense of humor and wonder, as Rothenberg does to go out into forests and make music with birds. Rothenberg has also made music with whales and all of this has taken him to far corners of this exotic planet earth. Certainly the end result are out-of-the-box even far out recordings that the young and old alike will relish.

While Rothenberg does not solve the mystery of why birds sing, he has provided us with another avenue to enjoy our feathered friends and to strike up a bond between feathered and non-feathered musicians. I gladly accept the invitation.


In Review---Healing Songs from Dine-Land

Louie Gonnie
Songs from the Sacred Circle
Canyon Records

Kevin Yazzie
Canyon Records

I will admit these CDs have been patiently waiting for me to review them. While I find peyote songs relaxing, I do need to be in a certain frame of mind to listen to them. Songs of the Sacred Circle marks the third Louie Gonnie recording that has come my way. A member of the Dine Tribe of the American Southwest, Gonnie pulls his inspiration from the natural world and its healing energies.

In the past, he has shown reverance for the mountains that reside in four cardinal directions. On this CD of peyote songs of the Native American Church, Gonnie again travels deep into the Spirits of the Earth. He provides his listeners with 8 sets of peyote songs, a soldier's lament (since many Native Americans have been sent off to fight in Iraq), and a track, called Rendition, also concerned with battles.

Personally I feel sad, even broken hearted that so many youth are sent off to fight for oil and a way of life (materialism, nothing to do with liberty), that supports a few elite corporations. And this way of life is destroying the planet and that which is sacred. Perhaps these healing songs can mend the wounds the earth and its inhabitants have sustained. But if we truly want peace, then that old warrior attitude either needs to be put to rest or transmuted into healing love. And then there is the need to heal the wounds or darkness in ourselves so we don't manifest wars in the outer realm.

Kevin Yazzie introduces himself in his liner notes for Faith, "I started singing at the age of six through the Great Pow-Wow circle and the Native American Church. At the age of thirteen I grew closer to the Native American Church. The prayers and songs I learned utilized for friends and relatives..."

Pow-Wow songs with their pounding drums and passionate vocals act in contrast to the moody, even hypnotic peyote song vocals which are accompanied by a psychedelic sounding water drum and rattles. Yazzie layers harmonized vocals in his 6 sets of four harmonized songs. He ends with the title track, Faith and the entire experience last under an hour.

Similar to Gonnie, Yazzie also hails from the Dine people, also known as Navajo to the outside world. These two musicians take their tradition seriously and honor it with their heartfelt recordings. And while I do need to be in the right mood to listen to peyote songs, in the end I do find them healing.

Canyon Records