David Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy and music at NJIT, contributed to a documentary film that has won the grand prize at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA).The documentary, Song from the Forest, features New Jersey native Louis Sarno, who has lived in the jungle of Central Africa for 25 years, recording the music of the Bayaka pygmies while fully becoming part of their society. The film chronicles his life there and tracks him as he takes his son out of the jungle to visit America for the first time.
Rothenberg worked as a music supervisor on the film, which won the Grand Prize for Best Feature Documentary at the Amsterdam Festival. Rothenberg said he was travelling in Berlin two years ago when he heard about the making of the documentary about Sarno, whom he had known about for years. He later met with the film’s director, Michael Obert, who asked Rothenberg to work on the film’s soundtrack, especially adding more Pygmy music and rainforest sounds. Rothenberg, who has an expertise in music technology and specifically the relationship between music and nature, agreed. He wrote about Sarno in his recent book Bug Music, describing how the music of the Bayaka fits in seamlessly with the creatures in the rainforest, illustrating in sound how a culture can truly be at one with nature.
“That's basically how I became the music supervisor on the film,” says Rothenberg. “It’s a great documentary, and it’s now it's heading for American festivals. We'll find out soon if we got into the Sundance film festival. And if it gets distribution it will show in American cinemas hopefully in the fall of 2014. I think that's pretty likely to happen now that the film has won the top prize at IDFA, which is widely considered to be the most important documentary film festival in Europe.’’
Rothenberg is a polymath who, along with an interest in music and philosophy, also writes popular books. His newest book, “Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise,” discusses how insect sound influences human rhythm, dance and music. He has also studied how animals use sound to communicate in two previous books, “Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song” and “Thousand Mile Song,” which focused on whale song. In another book, “Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution” (2011), he analyzed the evolutionary reasons that explain, or don’t explain, why beauty exists in the animal world.
Many NJIT professors combine effective teaching with interesting research, and the Harvard-educated Rothenberg is one of them. His music and technology classes are popular with students, and he directs NJIT’s Laptop Orchestra, which in 2011 released its first CD. Some of the students in the orchestra are now pursuing careers in electronic music.
In his view, NJIT is the perfect place for a polymath to teach. “NJIT has been an ideal place to do my work,” says Rothenberg, “because I have been encouraged to move the edge between art and science, sound and nature, music and technology.”