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Improvising in Time with Nature

Todd Ziebarth reviews Before the War, a CD by David Rothenberg and Douglas Quin

Before the WarBefore the War, the recently released album from David Rothenberg and Douglas Quin on the EarthEar label, nicely combines the noises of nature with the sounds of modern jazz. Voices from the natural world, as recorded by Quin in Alaska, Madagascar, Costa Rica, Kenya and Brazil, serve as the foundation for the fine improvisational work from the five musicians who play on the record, particularly Rothenberg. In fact, the clarinet and saxophone playing of Rothenberg is the major musical force on the album, and seems to fade in and out of center stage in wonderful time with the rhythms of the natural world.

The twelve tracks on the record offer a nice array of music. Nine are instrumental pieces, and are played in a variety of styles, with the ever-present sound of nature as the constant from track to track. For instance, "Karelian Midnight" sounds as if it emerged from the sands of the Middle East and highlights the haunting voice of Mari Järvinen, while "Swedish Folk Song #2" is a straightforward folk number and showcases the solid work of bassist Bill Douglass and percussionist Russ Gold.

Three songs contain spoken word from Rothenberg. One of these songs, "Murder in the World," is based on a story from Zimbabwe, and tells of the tragic death of a child because of misunderstood intentions and misfired weaponry. Before the War relates a conversation between an older woman and a younger man at a cafe, in which the elder laments the loss of a way of life that existed before the war, and "That's What Makes This World Dark" is a provocative meditation on movement, life and death.

From my perspective, the final track on the album, "Chirp Machine," best captures the concept of the album. The up tempo, high energy, wildly scattered music fittingly matches the braying and squawking of the gaggle of birds that are the inspiration and heart of the song. It was a wise selection for the last song, leaving this listener eager to reacquaint himself with the melodies and harmonies of the natural world.

From EarthEar Records

This is improvisation not over chord changes, but sound changes, built around the powerful soundscapes of a living earth. Rothenberg, an acclaimed woodwind innovator, joins with Quin, one of the masters of soundscape recording and composition to create an "earth jazz," finding inspiration in nature's ways of being, of emerging, of communing with itself. . . .the result is an altogether new sound, worldly, searching, and relaxed, by turns soothing and unsettling. Also features three spoken-word tales, cultural memories of the eternal dance of life and death.

Quin and Rothenberg are joined by Russ Gold on percussion and Bill Douglass on bass and flutes, with a special guest appearance by Mari Järvinen on jouhikko and voice.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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Before the War

by David Rothenberg and Douglas Quin

EarthEar Records


Songs on the CD

1. Beluga Siren
2. Murder in the World
3. Orchid Angels
4. Before the War
5. Karelian Midnight
6. Crabs Who Fall from the Trees Into the Sea
7. Lines in the Sand
8. Swedish Folk Song #2
9. That's What Makes This World Dark
10. Kingfishing
11. Take Out the Loon!
12. Chirp Machine



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