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
'Before the War' is a cutting-edge approach to improvisation that combines music and environmental sound in an extraordinary way—it’s magnificent!
Joel Chadbe, Electronic Music Foundation
Opens a new chapter in the series of music and nature sounds recordings.
Marius-Christian Burcea, Romanian radio host
The Rothenberg/Quin ensemble sound, weaving together understated drums, bass, guitar and environmental samples, provides a new and entirely appropriate setting for jazz clarinet, an instrument that at one time evoked 20th-century city life in all its modernist glory. But that was two generations ago, before the war. This feels like genuinely 21st-century music . . . What is significant about Rothenberg and Quin's ensemble is that technology now permits them to improvise in real time with the natural sounds in Quin's library. . . Quin's samples of birds, wind and water fill out the texture and work in easy dialogue with the percussion.
The Guardian (London)
A notable release
This highly creative, intriguing album constantly recombines the marvelous trio of storytelling, music and nature in ways that keep you listening alertly. A beautiful journey.
This is the sort of CD you have to hear to believe, and even then you’re not sure. Product of an improvisational collaboration between two of the world’s leading environmental musicians, Before the War is an experiment in how not just to listen to the sounds of nature, but jam with them. (Witness the) magnificently restless “Chirp Machine,” with its wicked fast tympani and drums and wildly skirling clarinet, all balanced precariously atop the sounds of hundreds of fidgeting, feather-ruffling, intruder-pecking nesting birds.
Rothenberg’s clarinet is amazing throughout, but with a very different voice on different tracks, ranging from straight-ahead jazz to klezmer, from atmospheres slow and sad to sunsoaring. And Quin’s guitar work is almost as enjoyable as his field recordings, ranging from 70’s gritty funk to Frippian elegance. . .
Gold's shakers blend perfectly with Quin's night crickets on Orchid Angels, and the rainforest merges with flapping bird wings and the wind instruments on the moving anti-war elegy Lines in the Sand. The soundscapes are not simply decoration, but are an integral part of the music. It is the integration of the soundscapes that lifts this album above other worldbeat albums which use the environment only for atmosphere. With Before the War, EarthEar is moving beyond decorative new age stylings and traditional jazz and more toward an open-minded and open-eared world music, with the sounds of the world participating in the dialogue.
Caleb Deupree, Ambient Visions
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