In this episode, we talk with interspecies jazz musician and philosopher David Rothenberg. David appeared at Arizona State University’s Emerge: Carnival of the Future on March 7, 2014 to perform alongside flying quadcopters and the band There Is Danger. Click here to watch a clip of the performance, titled “Drone Confidential,” and visit Slate’s Future Tense channel to read an article about the process of creating the performance. Check out this transcript of the interview, or watch the video below!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is David Rothenberg. I am a musician and philosopher and I’m known for playing music with various creatures: birds and whales and insects.
What are you looking forward to in the future?
I’m looking forward to greater understanding between people with different points of view around the world. I’m looking forward to solving the problems that plague us now.
What are you dreading most about the future?
What I dread most about the future is, I think, what I dread most about the past; the capacity for people to do really terrible things to one another. Some part of us really enjoys that. People have always known how to be evil. The tendency is inside all of us. This isn’t going to go away. It’s something that really has to be tempered and watched.
How can musicians and philosophers help us prepare for the future?
Music has always brought a lot of joy to people. It’s always one of those things that has taken people’s minds off of the worst problems of any age throughout history, and now into the future. But I like the idea of making music with sounds from beyond the human world, playing music with musicians who [you] might not have previously thought were musicians, like 17 year cicadas and humpback whales. These animals are making music and when you realize that, the whole world becomes just a little bit more beautiful and accessible in an artistic way. And it’s like I find this wonderfully exciting new way of looking at things. So one way music can make the world seem ever more alive [is] if you listen more carefully, listen more closely.
How can we teach and learn for the future?
Be open to all kinds of new ways of perceiving everything, to try and understand. There’s a famous idea in philosophy in the 20th century that we can’t understand what other beings think. “We’ll never know what it’s like to be a bat,” said Thomas Nagel. Or Wittgenstein said, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” And I just don’t think those things are true.
Humans do learn more and more about the world around us, but we still know hardly anything. There’s so much going on, and it’s so huge and so vast. The more time we spend trying to learn about the surrounding world, the better we will understand it and be able to save it and fit into it – without destroying it and running it all over with our ideas and our certainty about ourselves.
What story or piece of music most inspires you?
One piece of music that I think of is a piece by Olivier Messiaen, the French composer, called the “Quartet for the End of Time,” which is one of the most famous pieces of 20th century classical music. Many things are known about it, like it was written in a prison camp when Messiaen was a French soldier captured by the Germans and he was imprisoned in France. He was allowed to write this piece of music and instruments were found, and the performance was held – at not quite a concentration camp, but a prison camp – of this very experimental work of music. It was especially experimental at that time, but also it’s very accessible and it’s about the pain and beauty of the 20th century, if you listen to the whole thing. It sort of encapsulates what’s best about 20th century music.