Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound

Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound

by David Rothenberg

Hardcover(First Edition)

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A celebrated figure in myth, song, and story, the nightingale has captivated the imagination for millennia, its complex song evoking a prism of human emotions,—from melancholy to joy, from the fear of death to the immortality of art.
But have you ever listened closely to a nightingale’s song? It’s a strange and unsettling sort of composition—an eclectic assortment of chirps, whirs, trills, clicks, whistles, twitters, and gurgles. At times it is mellifluous, at others downright guttural. It is a rhythmic assault, always eluding capture. What happens if you decide to join in?
As philosopher and musician David Rothenberg shows in this searching and personal new book, the nightingale’s song is so peculiar in part because it reflects our own cacophony back at us. As vocal learners, nightingales acquire their music through the world around them, singing amidst the sounds of humanity in all its contradictions of noise and beauty, hard machinery and soft melody. Rather than try to capture a sound not made for us to understand, Rothenberg seeks these musical creatures out, clarinet in tow, and makes a new sound with them. He takes us to the urban landscape of Berlin—longtime home to nightingale colonies where the birds sing ever louder in order to be heard—and invites us to listen in on their remarkable collaboration as birds and instruments riff off of each other’s sounds. Through dialogue, travel records, sonograms, tours of Berlin’s city parks, and musings on the place animal music occupies in our collective imagination, Rothenberg takes us on a quest for a new sonic alchemy, a music impossible for any one species to make alone. In the tradition of The Hidden Life of Trees and The Invention of Nature, Rothenberg has written a provocative and accessible book to attune us ever closer to the natural environment around us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226467184
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/09/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 545,903
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David Rothenberg is distinguished professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is the author of many books investigating music in nature, including Why Birds Sing, Survival of the Beautiful, and Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise. His writings have been translated into more than eleven languages and among his twenty one music CDs is One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, on ECM.

Read an Excerpt



Are you surprised there are nightingales in Berlin? They have flown thousands of miles to get here, up from Africa and over the sea like refugees of the air. They sing from wells of silence, their voices piercing the urban noise. Each has his chosen perch to come back to each year. We know they will return, and yet when they do arrive every song still seems a wonder.

Of all the days to schedule a midnight concert in Berlin's Treptower Park, we have somehow chosen May 9, the one night people descend upon this park in the thousands. It is the sixty-ninth anniversary of the end of World War II. The park will be full of people when the birds begin to sing. The location itself lends the timing further significance. This is where the great Battle of Berlin is remembered, during which a hundred thousand died in less than two months. Here stands an extravagant war memorial, built by the Soviets to commemorate their victory in what was once East Germany.

Upon entering the memorial grounds, one crosses a jagged abstract Constructivist gate with a menacing hammer and sickle. At the far end, about five hundred feet away, is a ninety-eight-foot-tall bronze Russian soldier in a long war coat holding up a child, as if to reassure the boy that he is safe from all the horrors commemorated around him. Beneath the towering statue are sixteen heavy concrete sarcophagi with realist murals carved into their surfaces, depicting the course of the battle and the courage of its commanders, including more than one image of Stalin himself.

Newly united Germans restored the monument as part of a Soviet agreement, but the explanatory text at the entrance indicates that they seemed embarrassed by the whole thing: "Although the grandiosity of this monument might seem inappropriate to current memorial style, at the time the language of commemoration was quite different. The war memorial at Treptower Park should be considered one of the finest examples of Soviet Socialist Realism and has been restored to the best possible level of authenticity."

Although the weight of history bears down heavily here, it is surrounded by quiet forests, a lake, and a beautiful riding path on the shores of the Spree River. It is the most graceful of any of the city's parks, with its mix of plantings, grandes allées, and crumbling vestiges of Communism. And it is here that a few dozen male nightingales establish their territory every spring, and we wander in the dark shadows of this concrete history to engage with the most ancient music in the world.

Berlin is the best city in Europe to hear the song of the nightingale, and the right time to hear it is from late April through late May. This is when the male birds return from their migration to Africa to establish their territories, sing for their mates, and nest together with them to raise their young. By early June the song thins out; the birds remain in the trees until August but become much quieter. As the evenings cool once again, they head south, not to be seen until the following year, when they will come back on schedule, often to the exact roosts they established the year before.

Nightingales are connoisseurs of sound. Our human clamor doesn't seem to bother them. In fact, they might like the challenge of our noise. Of all songbirds, nightingales are the two species, Luscinia megarhynchos and Luscinia luscinia, most inclined to sing in darkness as opposed to early morning light. As such, they underscore all those human romances and yearnings of the clandestine, indecorous dark.

These birds are celebrated in myth, song, poem, and story, and I for one had read much about them before I ever heard one. The poet Matthew Arnold, hearing the nightingale as an ancient and omniscient traveler, wrote in 1853:
O wanderer from a Grecian shore,
Still, after many years, in distant lands,
Still nourishing in thy bewilder'd brain That wild, unquench'd, deep-sunken old-world pain ...

Arnold heard a shade from an ancient myth before he could admit this was a real bird. Most of us feel the same when we hear our first nightingale. When I finally did encounter my first real one, I could not believe what I was hearing. This song was weird. A series of detached phrases. A mix of rhythmic chirps, spread-out whistles, and funky contrasting noises. It was neither mellifluous nor melodic, like the heavily praised tunes of the hermit thrush in North America or the blackbird in Europe. This was, rather, an unusual rhythmic assault. I had no doubt that it was music, but a foreign music, another species' groove, a challenge for humans to find a way into. I wanted to know his method, and began to imagine some way to one day join in.

So can we take it seriously as music? Transcription into notes and measures does little justice to the song of the nightingale. Sonograms can help, but those images come across as a secret scientific code. Johann Matthäus Bechstein, a forester and pioneer conservationist in Germany, attempted to transcribe the nightingale song into words in 1795 in his Natural History of Cage Birds:

Tiuu tiuu tiuu tiuu,
Spe tui squa,
Tio tio tio tio tio tio tio tix Qutio qutio qutio qutio Zquo zquo zquo zquo Tzü tzü tzü tzü tzü tzü tzü tzü tzü tzi Quorror tiu zqua pipiqui.
Zozozozozozozozozozozozo Zirrhading!
Tsisisi tsisisisisisisisi Zorre zorre zorre zorre hi;
Tzatn tzatn tzatn tzatn tzatn tzatn tzatn zi,
Dlo dlo dlo dlo dlo dlo dlo dlo dlo dlo Quiro tr rrrrrrrr itz Lü lü lü lü ly ly ly ly li li li li Quio didl li lulyli. ...

It does not read or sound like anything human. The real nightingale is nowhere near as melodious as he is often described. The literary scholar John Elder was as surprised as I on his first trip to Europe to hear said bird and concluded that our love of the nightingale's song has as much to do with the range, energy, and ability of the song to carry far through the trees as with anything musical in the song. There is such passion in the tones that it seems as if the bird would die from his music if he had to, as those ancient myths want to imply.

I make music with the sounds of other species and seek them out all over the world, playing my clarinets along with them, living in their habitats, to create music with sounds I might never understand, sounds not sung for me. I try to change my own tones so that between clarinet and nightingale we might produce a sound that neither of us could make on his own.

The fact of being able to do this in Europe's second-largest city, a burg of nearly three million people, gives me a special kind of hope. Even though nightingales no longer sing in Berkeley Square, as a famous London song once intoned, they are everywhere in Treptower Park, this green riverfront oasis where East and West Germany once lay divided.

It's not only in the parks that one comes across nightingales in Berlin: some prefer trees in quiet urban neighborhoods, behind a playground, or in an abandoned lot, where their tones may be enhanced by the amphitheater effect of surrounding buildings. There is one famous bird who alights every night atop a traffic light at the main junction in Alte Treptow, adjacent to the S-Bahn station and the entrance to the park, as if he has specifically chosen the noisiest possible spot in order to prove that his sound can be greater and more tireless than any noise around him.

Today Berlin is an international city where those aching to make culture find a place to call home. You can become a part of any number of scenes or create your own — there is always a new, not-yet-hip neighborhood ready to be colonized by the next group who dares to overhaul a burned-out building or fix up a crumbling factory. Berlin is still the cheapest capital in which to set up shop in Europe. It's a place where people innovate and don't demand to be paid for it. One needn't work two frenzied jobs to pay for the privilege of creating culture, as one might in New York. The city makes the music for you. Maybe the nightingales think that way as well. They too are outliers, with one of the strangest and most complex songs of any bird on the planet. Their song has a definite style and aesthetic, one we humans can't easily pinpoint. H. E. Bates understood this many decades ago:

The song of the nightingale has some kind of electric, suspended quality that has a far deeper beauty than its sweetness. It is a performance made up, very often, more of silence than of utterance. The very silences have a kind of passion in them, a sense of breathlessness and restraint, of restraint about to be magically broken. It can be curiously seductive and maddening, the song beginning very often by a sudden low chucking, a kind of plucking of strings, a sort of tuning up, then flaring out in a moment into a crescendo of fire and honey and then, abruptly, cut off again in the very middle of the phrase. And then comes that long, suspended wait for the phrase to be taken up again, the breathless hushed interval that is so beautiful.

Berlin is home not only to the most urban nightingales in Europe, but also to the most nightingale scientists. They work out of a lab at the Free University in Dahlem founded by Dietmar Todt, now retired. Today the lab is run by Constance Scharff and houses one of the foremost neuroscience research groups in the world. Within it Silke Kipper runs a multi-year study of the nightingales of Treptower Park.

What intrigues these scientists is that nightingales acquire their music; they are not born with songs hardwired into their brains. In the animal world only whales, dolphins, songbirds, and humans can learn through sound. Not chimpanzees or other primates. Not wolves, dogs, or cats. And, most important for science, not rats, which are the animals most analyzed and understood.

Science wants to know how animals evolved what they call "vocal learning." This is most easily studied in birds, and biologists have chosen the Australian zebra finch as a model species for the study of this phenomenon. Thousands of scientists around the world study the brain and song-learning abilities of this colorful bird. Zebra finches have a very simple song. Simple in structure, that is, but not agency. How it is produced and appraised is complicated enough to keep legions of scientists busy for years.

Enter the nightingales. Their song is as different from the zebra finch's as one could imagine. It is loud, long, intricate, structured, and musical — an extreme example of what evolution can produce through sexual selection, as generations of female birds have preferred increasingly refined and nuanced songs. How has this refinement progressed? Is it a matter of balancing noise and tone, whistle and crack, similarity and difference, an aesthetic as elusive as any human style of music? Depends how much you know. What we know depends on the questions we ask.

It's after 11:00 P.M., and the humans are slowly filing out of Treptower Park now that the annual memorial concert is over. I'm wandering around the park, hearing the nightingales tentatively begin to sing. I stop for a beer at a small kiosk, and a guy bumps into me and hears me speaking English. "Hey, you are American? What you doing here? On this night of all possible nights!?" He glares at me from a few inches away, vodka on his breath.

His friend pulls him back. "You must excuse Yuri," says his companion in a heavy Russian accent. "He has had a bit too much to drink."

Yuri spits and rumbles away, staring me down as he turns. His friend is more accommodating. "My name is Oleg. May I ask you a question?"

I take a slow sip of beer. "Sure. Why not?"

"Why do you Americans say you won the war? You lost 25,000 men. Russia lost 25 million. It was not your war to win."

My history was hazy: Weren't we and the Russians on the same side in that war? Far more Russians did indeed die, however. After all, this was their continent. And here we are, drinking together where one of the war's bloodiest battles went down. The fields are green and the trees grow tall.

My thoughts return to nightingales. The BBC recorded Beatrice Harrison playing Elgar and Brahms on her cello to the nightingales in her garden in Kent each spring. It was the first outdoor radio broadcast ever when it was first tried in the 1920s, and the ritual was repeated every year thereafter.

Until the war. Just then, as they started to record the birds, the roar of Allied bombers was heard, and the station went silent so as not to alert the enemy. Only years later was the haunting recording of Royal Air Force bombers humming along with the singing nightingales released, a solemn reproach that nature's music will not be quashed by our need to fight and kill.

These enigmatic songs are in our midst, ever just beyond our power to comprehend. I'm sure they were trying to sing throughout that fateful spring of 1945 even as so many Russian lives were being lost in their attack on Berlin.

Nightingales sing through all wars. One soldier in World War I also heard the most beautiful treetop tunes in battle. In one of the classic books on our bird, The Nightingale: Its Story and Song, Oliver Pike writes that one of the best performances he ever heard from a rossignol was in the middle of a battle in a French forest in 1916:

The wood was lit up with vivid flashes, while overhead a score of star shells floated, flickered a moment or two, and died down. As the time wore on the shells increased in violence, the whole ground seemed to be trembling with the force of the explosions, while suddenly there broke out a glorious melody.

At first the nightingale seemed doubtful, and there were pauses between his bursts of song, but as the bombardment increased he took up the challenge, and if we had searched the world over, it would have been difficult to find a greater contrast between the beautiful harmony of his song and the awful discord of the bursting shells. But as suddenly as the song began it ceased, for a shell burst under the singer, and the tree in which it was perched was blown to matchwood, and the small bird which had entertained the waiting soldiers was killed together with five brave men who were near.

Birdsong in battle stands starkly between beauty and terror. Pike goes on to give practical advice, as far back in 1932, to those who would incite the songs of nightingales:

Time after time I have proved that if you want to get the best efforts out of a nightingale you must provide an opposition entertainment that will almost drown its song. The raucous noise of a klaxon motor-horn will often start a bird singing. I suggest that the next time the BBC attempt to broadcast the song of the nightingale they should provide a battery of big drums within a hundred yards of the singer, then listeners will hear what wonderful music this bird is capable of giving.

After almost an hour discussing the weight of history with Oleg and Yuri, we come to some kind of agreement, if only because I agreed to listen. "Well" (Oleg puts his arm around my shoulder as he tries to steady himself), "at least there is one American here I can trust," he says, before he and his friends wobble off into the night.

Everyone seems to be deserting the park. I can't believe it. It's 11:30 P.M. and the festivities are over. That's just about when Berlin is supposed to wake up! At least the nightingales are waking up. At midnight I will meet my audience and we will all head into the night, seeking the perfect moment in a nightingale song in which there is still room for humans to enter.

A small group of dedicated interspecies musical adventurers arrive at the S-Bahn station at midnight. We are not afraid of rain, or of the few remaining Russian revelers. And we know that nothing scares nightingales. Rosa Luxemburg once noted this, sitting by her prison window:

At six o'clock, as usual, I was locked up. I sat gloomily by the window with a dull sense of oppression in the head, for the weather was sultry. Looking upward I could see at a dizzy height the swallows flying gaily to and fro against a background formed of white, fleecy clouds in a pastel-blue sky; their pointed wings seemed to cut the air like scissors.

Soon the heavens were overcast, everything became blurred; there was a storm with torrents of rain, and two loud peals of thunder which shook the whole place. I shall never forget what followed. The storm had passed on; the sky had turned a thick monotonous grey; a pale, dull, spectral twilight suddenly diffused itself over the landscape, so that it seemed as if the whole prospect were under a thick grey veil. A gentle rain was falling steadily upon the leaves; sheet lightning flamed at brief intervals, tinting the leaden grey with flashes of purple, while the distant thunder could still be heard rumbling like the declining waves of a heavy sea. Then, quite abruptly, the nightingale began to sing in the sycamore in front of my window.

Despite the rain, the lightning and the thunder, the notes rang out as clear as a bell. The bird sang as if intoxicated, as if possessed, as if wishing to drown the thunder, to illuminate the twilight. Never have I heard anything so lovely. On the background of the alternately leaden and lurid sky, the song seemed to show like shafts of silver. It was so mysterious, so incredibly beautiful, that involuntarily I murmured the last verse of Goethe's poem, "Oh, wert thou here!"

Why so much song from one little brown bird? It is indeed excessive — and risky. One male nightingale singing on one perch for hours on end through the night could easily be picked off by a tawny owl. He takes the chance. According to Darwin's theory of sexual selection, this bird has honed such beauty only through the connoisseurship of the female nightingale. She alone knows just what kind of song is the best song. The evolutionist Richard Prum says this is why the nightingale's music evolves in an "art-world," only making sense together with the evolution of an aesthetic of appreciation among female birds. We humans can listen, study, surmise, calculate, measure, and dare to join in, but the full inhabitation of the nightingale aesthetic continues to elude us. We are not yet inside the nightingale's own genius. But that doesn't stop us from trying.


Excerpted from "Nightingales in Berlin"
by .
Copyright © 2019 David Rothenberg.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 This Bird Is Ruined for Us
2 The Sharawaji Effect
3 Beginnings of Time
4 Orderly and Disorderly
5 The Place of Sound
6 Called Most Beautiful
7 Berlin Longs for Berlin
8 Eleven Paths to Animal Music
9 Celebrated by All

List of Figures
For Further Reading
Nightingales in Berlin: The Music

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