Music is in all of the sounds of nature and there never was a sound that was not music–the splash of an alligator, the rain dripping on dry leaves,the whistle of a train, a long and lonesome train whistling down, a truck horn blowing at a street corner speaker–kids squawling along the streets–the silent wail of wind and sky caressing the breasts of the desert... [The world] is the music and the people are the song. –Woody Guthrie
The title song "Before the War" comes from a conversation I had with an older German woman in a cafe in San Remo, Italy, on the Riviera. I was sitting at a neighboring table with some Norwegian musician friends and she leaned over and asked where we were from, what we were doing there. She began to reminisce, in German: "This place is nothing like it was. Before the war, I mean. But you couldn’t possibly understand that, you’re far too young. You have no idea what I’m talking about, no idea at all." And from that thought I spun out this whole mood of nostalgia, this longing for a better time before everything went wrong. You can find it in history or you can find it in nature, but the pull of nostalgia is always there.
Why make music with nature if not to repair our human state of grace? Where did we go wrong? Our story from Zimbabwe tells how murder got into this world, and the song is framed beginning an end inside the cries of an eagle, a lament from the other world, that more-than-human place always around us. "Lines in the Sand" is a eulogy; caged doves are silenced by war in Doug’s childhood memories of Algeria. In between the electric rhythms pulse and we strive to express our grief. But death is natural, too: the words of the Tlingit on "That’s What Makes This World Dark" are a lament on all the fun we’re going to miss when we die. We always want to be somewhere else than we are, and that keeps us moving. Restlessness is the cause of time, and time makes music happen.
The rest of the disk makes its message only in sound, so there’s no point explaining what it’s supposed to mean. We are an improvising, living, evolving ensemble, but not quite a usual instrument with winds, bass and drums. Pay attention to that fourth sound: the tones of nature. Played along. Live, a new kind of jazz element. Why?
What we’re trying to do on this record is make the sounds of nature live musical material. We don’t want to bend it in to our set structures, as extra effect or sweetened ear candy. We want to learn from these textures and melodies, play right with them. Improvise with them, create on the spot, but following methods and structures we’ve agreed upon beforehand.
Doug has traveled the world collecting these exotic sounds. Voices and soundscapes heard in the music were derived from field recordings made in Alaska, Madagascar, Costa Rica, Kenya and Brazil. Recording creatures and habitats is not as easy as you might think. Try going outside even in the wilderness with a microphone and a tape recorder-it’s nearly impossible to find a place without some auto or airplane noise thrumming in the distance. Beyond that it’s like photography. You have to know how to point the machines, how to listen as much as look, how to decide what it is exactly you want to capture.
Then back in civilization, we have to decide together what to do with it. How to take wild sounds in as melody and harmony, texture and form? How to plan enough structure so that the spontaneous will alight in performance? Modern technology has allowed us to get closer to the sounds of nature by letting them be direct musical material.
I used to call the music we do a kind of jazz, but it seems jazz has become a narrower thing in recent years. If this music is any kind of jazz it would be what Evan Eisenberg wants to call ‘earth jazz,’ an image that might have environmental as well as musical consequences. In The Ecology of Eden he writes: "Respond as flexibly to nature as nature responds to you. Accept nature’s freedom as the premise of your own: accept that both are grounded in a deeper necessity. Relax your rigid beat and learn to follow nature’s rhythms-in other words, to swing." It’s not a prescription so much as a suggestion. Listen to the moves of the world and you will then know just what to do.
It may be that all earth jazz can teach us a way in which to fit in-musically, culturally, individually and collectively, to respond, to wend a way inward to a world that has always been much more than a human place. To develop a tradition where all past traditions give up the ghost and shrug their shoulders. You must earn the right to be an animal, to have a habitat, to own a song. You must learn to let go as much as you learn to hold on.
If art is meant to imitate nature then what of all that abstraction out there, all those colors and lines, and listen, what about all those sounds? Music doesn’t imitate anything actually out there, now, does it? John Cage said that music should imitate nature by manner of operation, and here he was quoting Ananda Coomaraswamy who got the idea from Aristotle. We follow the way nature works, and thus we can learn to fit into the world at large and earn our place in it, not destroying it in the process. At least that’s the ecological take on it.
When it comes to making music out of natural sounds, there’s another problem: why not just leave these sounds alone? Isn’t that what Teddy Roosevelt said at the brink of the Grand Canyon, "Leave it as it is." That’s fine for the wilderness, but everywhere else people live together with nature. We must learn to relate.
In Scandinavian languages there is a word musisere, to musify, to music, to make everything musical by musically remaking a human place in the world. It’s not as simple as singing along with the birds, and it’s not as easy and trusting yourself enough to compose a song. You can musicalize experience, treat all that happens as a moving, spontaneous, but somehow structured work of art.
So there’s a way to listen to the whole world as a vast musical composition, and our own efforts make sense only if they show a path toward fitting in to the symphony that is always there. Start figuring out what this might mean as the music begins, and as you leave and return to the streets and the sky, keep listening, and never stop. We’re still before the war. Fight the enemies within and without, and remember who your friends are and what a wild world it is that you fit into.
–David Rothenberg and Douglas Quin
Credits and Acknowledgements
David Rothenberg: Clarinet, bass claninet, alto clarinet, soprano sax, words, keyboards
Douglas Quin: Field recordings, guitar, samplers, synthesizer, digital processing
Bill Douglass: Bass, wooden flutes
Russ Gold: Electroacoustic percussion
Mari Järvinen: Jouhikko, voice (on Track 5)
Engineered and mixed by Amy Hunter at the Music Annex, San Francisco.
Additional engineering by Barry Schiffman at Northern Lights Recording, Santa Rosa; Bowerbird Studios, Petaluma; Storm King Sound, Cold Spring; The Media Lab of the University of Art and Design, Helsinki.
Live recording (Track 6) at Freight & Salvage, Berkeley by Tony Ferro.
Sampled voices of the Lebanese singer, Fairuz, (Track 7) by permission of EMI.
Words for Track 9 are based on "Tlingit Death Songs," adapted by Stephen Berg, The Steel Cricket (Copper Canyon Press, 1996, courtesy of the publisher.)
Produced by Douglas Quin and David Rothenberg
Cover Art and Design: Douglas Quin
Photography: Mary Townsend and Barbara Jordan. Photograph of Dresden, 1945, used by permission of Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin. Photographs of Algiers, 1961, by Andrew Borowiec, courtesy of Diana Quin.
Thanks to: Bendik Hofseth, Jacob Young, Jan Bang, Hasse Andersen, on the trip that got the idea started; to Philip Dean and Minna Tarkka at UIAH in Finland for welcoming an American there, Amy Hunter for her devotion to the project, Thomas Buckner, Mutable Music, World Music Institute, The Nature Sounds Society, Jason Reinier for permission to use his dove recordings, Bernie Krause for the opportunity to record in Costa Rica, Laura Simms for referring us to the story from Zimbabwe which inspired "Murder in the World," and especially to Jim Cummings for having the guts to put it out!