A Concert with Drones in Phoenix

By David Rothenberg

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Bull Hill: A Series on Philosophy, Music, and More

It might surprise you, but jamming with drones seems to already be some kind of viral new genre. In my Berlin neighborhood alone, there are two other clarinetists who’ve done performances of this kind. Drones are hovering all through our culture right now, and they seem to fill people simultaneously with wonder and horror. I was invited to Arizona to the Emerge Festival to create a piece in which I would perform live together with drones, and I found I couldn’t get away from the idea of remote-controlled killing machines dispatched to war zones to eliminate enemies we are too frightened to confront in person. I know, these killings are supposed to be effective and precise, but there is something genuinely creepy about the process. So I decided in my piece the drones would be talking; explaining themselves to us. Recounting their inner feelings as they make their deadly strikes.

David Rothenberg plays saxaphone with drone.
David Rothenberg engages with a machine.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

Some tried to dissuade me from this angle: “Keep this thing light, full of wonder. You told me you wanted the drones to sing!” After a while it was more interesting to imagine them confessing to their crimes. Of course I know they are only following orders. In rehearsing the piece, we had some debate about whether it was better to trust human pilots, or computer pilots. The programmers shook their heads as the students made all kinds of errors trying to pilot the drones with their smartphones, and showed off their programs that could make the copters do all kinds of reliable tricks in the air, over and over again. “See,” they said, “no human can be as accurate as this.” These are the same people who are programming our cars to drive themselves—“There are some things machines just do better than us.” Meanwhile most of us shake our heads. We don’t even want toy helicopters flying themselves. Now our little drones are of course friendly and cute. You can buy one for a few hundred bucks online and fly him indoors and out. As I dance around them with my straight shiny saxophone, I’m thinking, “Well, I’ve jammed with nightingales, humpback whales, and 17-year cicadas; might as well engage with a machine.” The thing is, they often seem to be alive. Like strange creatures dancing through the air in time with the music. In the end we went with the human pilots, trusting our own errors more than programmed precision. This way the machines constantly surprised me. In the midst of these mistakes the drones seem all the more alive. It’s hard to tell who is making these mistakes, the pilots or the piloted. It is when a drone does something unexpected that it most seems like something worth making music with, dancing with, or engaging with. Mistakes in the field can end tragically, with the wrong people dying at the end of the kill. We can never say it is the fault of the weapon, but always the one who fires it. Emotion, the meaning of music, can be a great problem for strategy, a great problem for war. As Bertold Brecht said, “General, man is very useful. He can fly and he can kill. But he has one defect: He can think.”

The Emerge Show



Here is the written version of my text, more or less how we performed it. Words in italics were meant to be spoken by the drones, and in the show this was symbolized by a robotic, vocoder-transformed voice. Non-italic roman type is to be spoken by humans.

Drone Confidential

General, man is very useful. He can fly and he can kill. But he has one defect: He can think. —Bertolt Brecht, “From a German War Primer”


So what do you want? Where should I go? Will I tell you what it is like to be a bird? Follow the salmon heading upstream? Fly right into a volcano’s core? We drones can be your eyes and ears going where no one else is light and fast enough to go. We are your eyes and ears. We are your friends. You’re not pleased if we get into the hands of your enemies. Yet why do you think of us only for war?

We don’t just think you can kill.
             Look at us fly—are you excited, are you scared?
 You know our movements, knows our secrets.
             I hover in the sky, waiting for your call,
 I want to be in control
             waiting for the call to act.
             See us before we see you.


Our greatest weapons today are precision, and fear. We know someone could come after us, learn everything about us— trace the problem down to just one man. We will learn everything about that man, who he trusts, where he goes, what are his routine movements, where he is most likely to be when the deed needs to be done. We will collect all the information necessary so we can then get him. And when it’s time for the mission to run, we don’t even have to be there.

We have to find these single lonely targets. They are the cause of all this trouble. We must eliminate them. But should you not be also there to take the risk to die when you kill? That is the only noble thing about war.


I can’t stand it, remember the face of that girl?
                                       Which one?
 She screamed when she saw her brother’s broken body next to her.
 You hit the whole family by mistake, they weren’t meant to die.
                                       Collateral damage. It happens.
 How can you say that? You don’t feel anything while we kill again and again?
                                       Why should I? I am a robot. I don’t decide when to kill.
                                       You make the call, we are a thousand miles away.
 We always are. We used to send their soldiers and now we send you.
                                       No damage to the soul after the stress.
                                       No guilt to live with for years.
 I’d rather feel the ambiguity of it all.
 The cool rightness of the kill, the suffering that tears inside.
                                       You know all those things.
                                       And that’s why you created us.
                                       So you could learn to forget.
 I wish we would stop this rush
 to distance ourselves from the kill.
                                       People always choose
                                       the path that makes it easier to live
                                       with the worst things they want to do.
            We only follow orders.
             If you don’t care, you only follow orders. Or only follow fear.


 . . . beauty is nothing but the first light of terror, something we barely endure, While we stand in wonder, beauty calmly waits to destroy us. Every Angel—terrifying. —Rainer Maria Rilke, “First Duino Elegy”



David Rothenberg’s latest books are Survival of the Beautiful and Bug Music, on insects and their million-years old music. Professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, he is currently on sabbatical in Berlin, where he has been working on the film Song from the Forest, which is scheduled to play at over a hundred film festivals and will open in theaters worldwide in the fall.

Photos by Elite Henderson.

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