Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise
by David Rothenberg
St. Martin’s Press, 2013
288 pages (hardcover)
The sound of cicada every evening in the late summer is deafening to say the least. There are moments when it is assaulting and times when it is a melodic chorus outside my window, competing with some very ambitious crickets. One thing is certain, a summer without insect sounds isn’t a summer and if the cicada symphony disappeared, I would lose my reminder that I’m letting the warm months get away from me.
In Bug Music: How Insects Gave us Rhythm and Noise, David Rothenberg, an “interspecies musician,” gives us an inside look at the life cycle and song of insects, with the cicada as his first chair, so to speak. Rothenberg’s volume is an enthusiastic—sometimes even a little wildly so—ode to insect music.
“Throughout history,” writes Rothenberg, “we humans have wanted to embrace these sounds as music, however they differ from our own rules and structures of melody. It is as if we have always intuitively known that the sonic declarations of animals make much more sense to us humans if we consider them to be music rather than language.”
Tibicen Cicada, a yearly cicada that fills the trees around my house in Perrysburg, Ohio.
I first heard about Rothenberg and his book a little while back when a Radiolab short featured his work, and was reminded of it when I stepped into Brilliant Books in Traverse City last month. A composer and professor, Rothenberg brings his years of experience to the world of insect song, enabling the reader to hear it with far more nuance.
Much of his writing is a mix of science, observation, and conversation, and this brings in some interesting connections. For example, when discussing the thirteen-year cicada, he recalls a conversation with Tim Blunk, who spent thirteen years in prison for being part of a group who bombed the Capitol in Washington in the 1980s. Like the cicada leaving its confined quarters after thirteen years, Blunt “emerged back into this world” with a “whoosh of emotions” and internal “noise…like the hiss of a million cicada back in the sunlight after thirteen years underground.”
Other insects, especially the cricket, also get significant attention. While I’ve always appreciated the night sounds of the cricket, I was not aware of just how thoroughly influential crickets are in society. In China, for example, they have inspired poetry and are considered fierce warriors. It is the latter that is really surprising, since it turns out that (not unlike dog fighting), people pit crickets against each other in death matches. They poke and prod them with antennae-resembling objects to irritate them, then throw them into a container and take bets. It’s cruel, but apparently common and, unfortunately, easily found on YouTube.
Some broods of the cicada are extinct. Most of Rothenberg’s fascination is with the thirteen- and seventeen-year cicada, known as the Magicicada, who amaze entomologists with their sense of time—their ability to rise from the ground together. They sing, fly, mate, and die, and the cycle begins again. Bug Music finds its crescendo in chapter seven with Brood XIX, a thirteen-year cicada that emerged in 2011. As the interspecies musician, Rothenberg is able to make contact and plays a concert with the species. “As I finally get up the nerve to play I find I must hunch over to keep the swarm from overwhelming me,” he writes. He pulls out his saxaphone and then, “Contact! Contact! They’re certainly crawling up my naked back under my shirt, but I’m more excited about possible contact in sound.”
There are points in Bug Music where stronger editing was needed. Records of lengthy conversation and the author’s rambling enthusiasm could have been cut down to size. Nevertheless, Rothenberg’s book—released to coincide with the cicada swarm of 2013—remains an interesting and insightful read for the musician, scientist, or anyone fascinated by insect song. Bug Music will change the way to see—and hear—insects.
Radiolab Short with Rothenberg