There’s a species of cicada that emerges from underground only every 17 years. It does this to sing, mate and then die in the few weeks it has in the fresh air and leafy trees. Great swarms of these insects cover trees in the Northeast U.S. when this emergence happens, creating an overpowering wave of sound as the males call to the females.
Musician, author and philosopher David Rothenberg uses this cicada phenomenon as the jumping off point in his book Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise for an examination of the rhythm, melody and harmonic structure of insect sound and its influence on human music. People-made music, at its primal origins, is inspired by all of nature – waves, wind, animal noises – down to the breath and the heartbeat. Rothenberg’s hypothesis is that music evolved primarily from listening to insects and that insect sounds are not just noise but have a genuine musical structure. Having explored bird music and whale music in previous books, he feels that the rhythmic pulses, twitters and whirs, the melodies of crickets, katydids, and other insects are most closely tied to the fundamental beat of humanity.
The music of bugs has inspired poets and authors going back thousands of years. Rothenberg relates examples of poetry from ancient Japan and China, which praise the songs of insects. In fact, in China, to this day the practice of keeping pet crickets for their song is still not uncommon (though raising crickets for fighting – much like cock fighting in other parts of the world – has largely subsumed the keeping of crickets for their mellifluous qualities.) Lars Fredriksson, also known as Mr. Fung, has assembled an orchestra of 108 crickets and has issued recordings and given concerts with his entomological ensemble. This predilection for the song of the cricket is such in China that there are even cricket shops. Rothenberg relates a humorous story from Mr. Fung:
“A few years ago I was standing in line at a cricket shop in Beijing,” says Fung. “I had an iPod with American cricket sounds and I put the headphones on the ears of the man standing behind me, and he was like, ‘Wow!’ It was as if he was digging a concert. He took them off and said, ‘So are there a lot of people in the States who appreciate cricket songs?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he got so upset that he pulled away, ‘Those stupid Americans, they have even better crickets than we do, and they don’t appreciate them?!”
Some insect sounds are designed to be loud, to grab attention, to predominate. The author describes the sound generated by the tiny lesser water boatman bug as “99 decibels in volume, louder than a jackhammer 50 feet away, a freight train whizzing by, or a symphony orchestra from the front row. How can such a noise be possible? The boatman makes it by rubbing its own penis against its body. Readers, please don’t try this at home, even above water. You cannot do better than this little-known water bug, more often heard than seen.”
This is a rarity in the natural world, though. Nature-sound recordist Bernie Krause has come to the conclusion that, if one listens closely to insects in their environment, one will eventually be able to hear the seeming jumble and chaos of sound as something more akin to a musical score, with each animal and insect occupying its own sound space. Rothenberg relates Krause’s theory that “creatures in nature divide up the acoustic spectra as a result of natural selection and make their sounds in an acoustic niche, akin to an ecological niche, so their noises will be heard and they won’t get in each other’s way.”
How do, and how can, humans fit into this “insectal” acoustic niche? Rothenberg spends a good part of the second half of the book exploring composers and musicians who work with insect sounds. Some use the sounds as inspiration for music played on standard instruments. Others sample and manipulate recorded insect sound, creating works of their own, sometimes in concert with computer and/or acoustically generated sounds and sometimes unadorned.
The author, being a clarinetist, can’t resist doing this himself: “My method, as always, is not to peacefully listen, but to insist on joining in. Arrogant like most humans, I want to believe my own music can matter as a tiny line amid these ancient tones.” The result is a CD composed of sampled sounds of cicadas, treehoppers, the above-mentioned water boatman, and other insects in tandem with Rothenberg and guest human musicians. Out of the studio, he joins an especially large and loud emerging cicada brood in Illinois, where he must resort to the louder-than-clarinet saxophone to be heard among the cicada symphony. When the cicadas crawling in his hair and up his shirt become too much, he and his companion gather up a number of cicadas to bring to a performance he is to give that evening.
To the small, but inquisitive, crowd he both introduces the performance and sums up his vision:
“The sounds of insects are not usually associated with music, but most of the time we think of the annoying buzz of flies, the whine of mosquitoes about to bite us, or the nibbling of termites slowly eating our houses into dust. But this cicada sound is different. It is the accumulation of long calls of phaaaaroooah all at once into a continuous high tone, plus the surges and waves of two other species. It’s easy to hear it all as a great wash of static, a white noise covering over all music. Yet noise is a part of all music. Pure tones are just shadows of music, machine creations, ideas abstracted from the mess and unevenness of the real world. We need noise to make music, we need uncertainty in order to survive. And with that in mind we have brought a few of these insect musicians along to join us. Charles…can you release the band?”