The Year in Words and Sounds

By David Rothenberg

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David Rothenberg’s Best of 2014

Don’t think I’m any kind of authority on these kind of things, but I do read a lot and listen to a lot of music, all the while trying to figure out exactly what holds my taste together. I like to be surprised, I like beautiful language, increasingly I like clear and present stories that do not have multiple narrators or confusing structures. In music I like to be led along by beautiful sounds that I cannot quite explain…

Favorite Books

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthRichard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
A wonderful novel about Australian prisoners of war by one of our most eloquent writers on the troubled extremes of human behavior. Think cruel Japanese warriors torturing prisoners while quoting haiku.

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure
How could you not love a memoir about an author with such parents? “I read the blogs in Russia,” says his father. “They say your work will soon be forgotten.” “Don’t expect to eat at home for free,” says his mother after our little failure returns from college. “Each chicken cutlet will cost you $1.20.” The thrilling conclusion explains it all…

Greg Baxter, The Apartment
Wandering existential tourist arrives in Berlin, decides to stay. He meets a girl who helps find him an apartment. It’s beautiful.

Brian Kane, Sound Unseen
All right, one somewhat academic book, but the best thing I’ve ever read about the acousmatic, a word first used by Pythagors to describe those sounds whose source we cannot name—the very beginnings of music.

Richard Powers, Orfeo
The latest novel by the greatest novelist of my generation, about a composer who retires to become a genetic engineer, and is then wanted by the FBI for conspiring to become a bioterrorist! The history of the 20th century avant-garde then explains it all.

Leonard Padua, The Man Who Loved Dogs
A vast, intense novel translated from Spanish about the incredible true story of the man from the Spanish underground, trained in Moscow to assassinate Trotsky, and what happened to him afterward. Could this really be the same man walking a very special dog on the beach in Cuba 40 years later?

Wim Wenders and Mary Zournazi, Inventing Peace: A Dialogue on Perception
All right, this one came from 2013 but no one I know has heard of it. A wonderful dialogue between film director Wenders and Australian philosopher Zournazi on what is needed to bring peace to our world. Who knew that Wenders sees so many of his movies as anthems toward peace, films like The Land of Plenty, Palermo Shooting, and The End of Violence.

Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank With You
No one writes better about New Jersey than Richard Ford, and New Jersey is well worth writing about, before and after the great hurricane.

Ben Lerner, 10:04
A mysterious journal-like tale of life for a writer who suddenly becomes successful in the wilds of vastly different Brooklyn neighborhoods. A poet becomes a novelist by delving deep into his own story.

Elizabeth Margulis, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind
Another odd academic study on music, but quite accessible. Why do we get bored when people tell the same story over and over again, but in music we love the same song as it gets stuck in our heads? I have always wanted to know the answer to this question.

Favorite Songs

Eno-HydeEno-Hyde, “Who Rings the Bell?”
What is it Brian Eno is such a genius at? It’s always been hard to know, but this song has it, and Hyde is perfect to give voice to the mystery.

Alagoas, “Brighton”
At SXSW I watched two hours of music videos last February, but only this one made me cry. The song is about one thing, and the film another, but they intertwine with total emotion.

Leonard Cohen, “My Oh My”
Yes you still can make one of the best albums of your career when you are 80 years old.

Jeremiah Cymerman, “Secret Refuge” (For Adam Yauch)
Any clarinetist who slices smoked salmon for a living at Russ & Daughters is worth listening to very seriously.

Juana Molina, “Final Feliz”
She’s from Argentina and she also likes to sing with birds and machines, and her music is always quirky and delicious.

Arild Andersen, “Reparate”
With Tommy Smith and Paolo Vinaccia, the great Norwegian bass player makes one of the most perfect jazz albums of the year.

Kronos Quartet, “Last Kind Word Blues”
A version of a famous ancient blues song, cryptically elucidated in this fantastic article by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Tinariwen, “Emajer”
Four-fifths of the world cannot be wrong! The best blues has no chords, no hard luck story, just the ultimate groove from the Sahara…

Magnifico, “Evo Me Narode”
The latest in electronic Balkan beats from the back alleys of Berlin.

Jacob Young, “1970”
Who would have thought that the best album of this Norwegian-American guitarist’s career would be made by plunking him down with a Polish rhythm section he had never met before? Great idea, Manfred Eicher.



David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing, Thousand Mile Song, Survival of the Beautiful, and his latest, Bug Music. He has 12 CDs out, including One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, a duet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, (ECM, 2010). His latest CD, with Pauline Oliveros, is Cicada Dream Band. Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at NJIT and is currently editing a book on improvisation called Vs Interpretation and will release a new CD of live performances with nightingales next spring. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.