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Category: ecology

Insect Thrumming As Deep Music: On David Rothenberg’s “Bug Music”

9781250005212

“One sound can be enough if it repeats enough enough enough times so the meaning becomes subservient to the sound”–David Rothenberg, Bug Music (114)

There is a powerful idea behind David Rothenberg’s spirited recent book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm And Noise, which is this: listening to the rhythmic and buzzing sounds of insects such as cicadas and crickets and katydids can teach us about music by helping us hear “beyond the scales and chords of human sense” (11). In fact, the complex, interlocking, and noisy sounds of insects may be the original model that inspired human musical practices in the first place. After all, these sounds are music-like–“immediately accessible, emotional, and interesting” (11). We just need to pay attention to their soundscape.

Bug Music is a timely book too because this summer is the time of a giant cicada emergence. Cicadas are periodical insects that emerge once every 17 years and this year’s emergence, known as Brood II, will take place along the Eastern seaboard  of the United States over the next few months. (For more information, see magicicada.org).

Through a half-dozen chapters, Rothenberg follows his insectoid muse, digging through scientific research, historical literature that mentions insect sound, philosophy, and finds connections with music theory, ethnomusicology, electronic music synthesis, and visual art. He also makes field recordings of insects, plays clarinet with them, remixes them, and even invites an overtone singing friend to make more music out in the field. Along the way we meet interesting bug researchers and bug music enthusiasts and get a sense of Rothenberg’s ongoing curiosity about the deep connections between human music and the sounds of the natural world. (Rothenberg has also written books about birdsong and whale music.) There’s so much probing stuff here that touches on serious musical issues, while the narrative is always playful and loose. It’s a perfect combination. Reading him, you feel like you’re along for a fun, interesting, and sometimes wacky road trip.

For me, one of the most compelling themes in the book is the rhythmic phenomenon of insect chorusing: how huge groups of insects like crickets make their collective thrum. Research has found that insect chorusing follows a simple response-mechanism that produces “interesting rhythms of astonishing complexity” (76). Each insect times their sound and its duration relative to what is going on around them, and the result is “the potential for thousands of rhythmic divisions at all levels of pulse and design” (92). What is interesting here is how each insect does its own independent thing, thereby contributing to the thick rhythmic texture of the mass chorusing. As Rothenberg suggests the “appeal of the insect model for in-phase, out-of-phase rhythms” (110), it’s hard not to think about those human musics that are organized along similar lines. Later in the book, Rothenberg describes the musical value of chorusing insects as “hundreds of independent, irregular rhythms, perhaps listening to each other, perhaps following their own internal drummers, all but part of a giant rhythmic surge…” (200). Insects help us “find ways of delving deeper into the periodic possibilities of repeating structures” (ibid.). Still he wonders: “How can it sound so much like it makes sense even though no one is in charge?” (192)

Which leads to a big question: Did we–humankind–learn our love of rhythm “from listening to the polyrhythmic swirls of the entomological soundscape” (99)? Rothenberg thinks so. “Nature is full of oscillators” (93) and insects “are our original teachers of rhythm” (173) he says. He can’t prove this, of course, but still urges us to “listen outward and expand our acoustic consciousness” (98), not to mention our consciousness of time itself. Chorusing insects present a model of multiple time scales sounding simultaneously, and Rothenberg observes that there “is a way to look at all of music as a hierarchy of levels in the experience of time” (85).

Rothenberg is adept at making analogical connections too. Levels of time scales find their analog in vertical layers of a sonogram of an insect soundscape that Rothenberg includes in the book. Here, Rothenberg compares a sonogram of a recording of singing by BaBenzele forest-dwelling people from Central African Republic that includes the sounds of crickets, cicadas, katydids and frogs (“every creature has its place amid the sonic frequencies”, p.157) with a musical transcription of a performance by a choir and drum ensemble in Ghana. It’s an interesting comparison in that both feature

“repeating simple patterns, overlapping, each at distinct places on the sonic sphere, independent, but fitting together in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, the key property of any polyrhythmic, emergent musical order” (160).

Polyrhythms and emergent musical orders lead to another interesting thread in the book: the connection between insect sound and electronic music aesthetics. Or rather, how electronic music can help us understand insect sound. Rothenberg is particularly interested in the technology known as granular synthesis that enables musicians “to work fluently with insect-type noises and make music out of them” (86). He cites the electronic musician Curtis Roads, author of the granular synthesis manual, Microsound (MIT Press, 2004), who writes that granular synthesis helps us shift our idea of music “away from sharply defined intervals towards curvilinear and fuzzy morphologies” (90). In some of the most engaging passages of the book, Rothenberg describes his ongoing experiments with software synthesizers to make “complex thrumming textural”, insect-like sounds (187). Instruments such as the Zebra synth can make evolving soundscapes that behave like chorusing insects. As Rothenberg plays with the software he muses that so “little is written on the power of texture and timbre in the history and theory of music” (192-193). Perhaps it is through texture and timbre (and rhythm) that we can “go deeper into these edge-musics we can barely explain” (196).

By the book’s end, Rothenberg is playing clarinet with cicadas (while his son contributes a little iPad), trying to insert himself right into nature’s sound mix by contributing his own tones. The meta-lesson here has an ecological edge: that we’re all part of the same soundscape, each of us contributing our voice to the whole. In sum, Bug Music urges us to take seriously the “swirling and complicated sound textures” of insect soundscapes because doing so will change how we listen and how we think about what music is and its role in our lives. At the very least, insect sounds serve as a reminder that if there could be such thing as a universal kind of music, it might well be a densely layered, rhythmic, repeating, and communal kind of thing.

Intangible Things: On Victor L. Wooten’s “The Music Lesson”

New Age : “an eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health

Victor L. Wooten’s book The Music Lesson (Berkley Trade 2008) caught me off guard. I came across the book entirely by accident and after having read its first few pages didn’t know if I felt quite compelled to keep at it. So I put it down. And then picked it up again, kept reading a bit. And then put it down again, back and forth, oscillating on how I felt about it. The Music Lesson was speaking in common tones, asking me to forget thick theory for a moment to follow an invented story about what it means to understand music and being musical, making music with meaning—or, as the cliché goes, with heart and soul. Hmm. I put the book down, and then picked it up again. I kept at it. If I stumbled upon the book I should at least have the patience to stay a while and listen, right?

Wooten is a distinctive musician. A bassist since he was a toddler, he’s well-known for his work with the banjo player Bela Fleck. Here is a clip of Wooten playing a virtuosic rendition of “Amazing Grace”:

As if musical skills on their own weren’t enough, Wooten is also a naturalist and animal tracker, directing a one of a kind music camp in Tennessee that teaches musicianship by way of not just musical instruction but also nature exploration.

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In The Music Lesson, a fictional account of a set of music lessons, we first encounter Wooten at time in his life when nothing seems to be working. He wants to improve his musicianship, but seems stuck in a rut of old practice habits that aren’t paying dividends. Then, as if by magic, a series of music teachers appear in Wooten’s life to guide him on his spiritual quest through a number of musical concepts. The main teacher is Michael, a mysterious trickster-like figure with eyes that change color on occasion and who comes across a little like a Native American sage and Zorro with a skateboard in tow. But there’s also Uncle Clyde, a homeless old man who plays a mean harmonica, Sam, a precocious boy wonder of a eleven-year old drummer who is wise beyond his years, and Isis, a quirky Russian fortune-teller with an intense interest in connection between numbers and music. Michael, Clyde, Sam, and Isis lead Wooten through a series of lessons on groove, notes, articulation, technique, emotion/feel, dynamics, rhythm/tempo, tone, phrasing, space/rest, and listening. By the end of the book, Wooten’s senses have been thoroughly reoriented, his musical life focused and energized.

Scattered through the text are a number of interesting ideas about music and musicianship. Below are a few of them that struck me.

First, music is inside the musician, not the musical instrument. There are many instances in the book where Michael admonishes Wooten for merely thinking of himself as a bassist rather than as a musician who happens to play the bass. The idea here is that musicality is more an orientation towards the field of the sonic rather than a technical competence on a particular musical instrument.

Second, dissonance in music is contextual. For instance, while two notes a semitone apart sounded together produce a “tense” sound when heard on their own (e.g. try playing the adjacent notes C and C-sharp at the same time), when surrounded by additional tones (e.g. try adding the notes F-sharp and A above to the C and C-sharp) the dissonance can sound quite different and in fact, consonant.

Third, when we say we dislike a music we are admitting a failure to perceive it adequately. In a passage about Wooten’s dislike of bluegrass, Michael tells him: “You are talking about you but blaming your lack of perception on this particular style of Music” (56).

Fourth, “beauty is something you experience, not something you prove” (73). This, to me, is a pure phenomenological stance, and probably what music does best: putting out an experience in time that may not mean anything specific or prove an argument, while at the same time bringing us on a virtual ride that feels important somehow.

Fifth, the idea that emotions are stored as a kind of infinite potential within a musical instrument (116). Admittedly, I had not thought much about this possibility, probably because I know myself to be more interested in what I’m feeling than what emotions may or may not be latent in the instrument. But each musical instrument certainly seems to have its own range of affective potential.

Sixth, a listener’s musical attention can be shaped and directed by playing fewer rather than more notes. Here, Michael explains to Wooten a strategy for accompanying a soloist in a way that his or her solo can shine: “We were creating a hole right in the middle of the music that allowed the soloist to stand there out in the open. We also simplified the music, directing all of the attention to the soloist. . .” (140). The lesson here is that by saying less, you can not only listen more, but also give other musical speakers room to breathe.

Seventh, “music is played from the mind, not the body” (158). This almost seems counter-intuitive, since musicians spend so much time refining their bodily relationship to their instruments. And yet, as listeners we’ve often had the experience of witnessing a musician who manages to hold our attention and compel us not so much through virtuosity per se but through sheer presence. The lesson here is that presence and focus are themselves kinds of musicality that transcend what the musical body can pull off.

Eighth, “you need to get your thoughts out of the way so that your true feelings can speak” (216). This idea relates to point number four above. If music is not about proving anything, but rather a tool for exercising perception, then we are best ready for it when we stop worrying about what it all means. From this perspective, music just is.

Finally, here’s Wooten on listening, perception and synesthesia: “What difference does it make who it is? What does it sound like and how does it make you feel? That is what is important. […] Allow your whole body to pick up the vibrations, using the whole body as an eardrum. […] We think that music stops at the ears. That is a mistake. Vibrations can be felt in all places and all times, even with the eyes. Music can be seen if your awareness is broad enough” (239-240). To illustrate this holistic approach to listening, there’s a striking passage at the end of the book where Wooten and Michael are out in the forest taking in its soundscape. As Michael learns to model his listening acuity on Michael’s, all of a sudden he’s having a full-blown synesthesia experience—seeing sound as color flowing through the forest creatures around him. (It’s pretty psychedelic actually and the image stayed with me for a while, even inspiring my own dream in which everyday objects began speaking in tones. But that’s for another blog post!) The lesson here is that there is potentially no end to listening as a full body—and even out of body—experience.

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In sum, The Music Lesson is an idealized account of the musician as a kind of deeply knowing, in-tune seer, healer, and phenomenologist. Michael and the other teachers in Wooten’s life are voiceboxes for the author’s own musical philosophy, and while these at times cartoonish characters are a writerly conceit, it’s a conceit that works well to get Wooten’s many thought-provoking points across. Moreover, it perhaps goes without saying that it’s difficult to talk about philosophical aspects of musical experience without risking sounding cliché or even New-Agey. So hats off to Wooten for trying. I’m glad that I stuck with his zany story to its end.

Last but not least, The Music Lesson is ultimately about the importance of oral tradition to how musical traditions survive and evolve. By the book’s end the narrative circles around on itself, Wooten having taken the place of Michael as a teacher himself, appearing in the life of young musician—a musician that bears a striking resemblance to Wooten himself at the beginning of the book—just at the very moment the young man needs guidance. And so Music—that presence Wooten characterizes as feminine and always worthy of a capital M—lives on as a teachable perceptual power, helping us understand both ourselves and the worlds we live in.

On Practicing Wonder: David Abram’s Becoming Animal

“This whole terrain is talking to our animal body; our actions are the steady reply.”
– David Abram

David Abram is a phenomenologist and ecologist who is interested in “the qualitative language of direct experience” (289).  And since his 1996 book The Spell Of The Sensuous, he’s been on a mission to get his readers to tune/re-tune their animal senses “to the sensible terrain” (3) of earth in order to become more deeply connected with its powers. This “sensible terrain” includes the “more-than-human community of beings that surrounds and sustains the human hub-bub” (9)–you know: insects, animals, trees, rocks, dirt, air, flowing water, mountains, sun, clouds, wind, rain, and snow. In other words, Abram is asking us to pay close attention to nature wherever we might encounter it, to attune ourselves to all its non-human inhabitants, their moods, their rhythms, and their affect–as if we’re being spoken to. And he wants us to not only listen with our whole beings but also listen to ourselves listening. It’s an approach Abram associates with many indigenous communities, for whom “everything is animate, everything moves” (269). This kind of body-listening–being aware of our “animistic inclinations…underneath all our literate logics” (276)–is a step towards valuing the earth’s fragile (and ever threatened) ecology as well as a way of releasing in ourselves powers we never knew we had.

Becoming Human: An Earthly Cosmology (2011) is a remarkable and passionate book whose power derives from how it “attends closely to the sensuous play of the world” (298). In fact, the book is largely about the experience of perception and its texture. Drawing inspiration from the phenomenological approaches of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), Abram grounds his writing in his ongoing, open-ended and always changing relationship with the world. As I suppose other writers do too, except that few of us take the time to capture our perceptions so vividly. The book is structured around a series of topics that Abram explores and unpacks, ranging widely from shadows and depth to the materiality of things, language, reciprocity, mood, mind, and magic. There’s so many engaging perceptions thrown at us in the course of these chapters that it’s difficult to know where to begin a summary. What follows, then, are some highlights.

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In his chapter “Wood and Stone”  Abram elaborates on the power of a large mountain to literally knock us off our feet, then later shifts gears to explain the power of Van Gogh’s painting to stir us. Two very different presences, to be sure, but they both “beckon to us from behind the cloud of words, speaking instead with gestures and subtle rhythms, calling out to our animal bodies, tempting out skin with their varied textures and coaxing our muscles with their grace, inviting out thoughts to remember and rejoin the wider community of intelligence” (40). In the chapter “Mind” Abram urges us to loosen our conception of mind in order to locate it out in the world rather than merely inside us. “Sentience” he says, “was never our private possession. We live immersed in intelligence, enveloped and informed by a creativity we cannot fathom” (129). Recounting his first extended stay camping alone in the woods as a college student many years ago, Abram describes the texture of partaking in a non-verbal, more-than-human creativity:

“I was thinking, yes, but in shifting shapes and rhythms and dimly colored vectors, thinking with my senses, feeling my way toward insights and understandings that had more the form of feelings blooming in my belly than of statements being spoken within my skull” (112).

In the chapter “Moods”, Abram wants us to realize how deeply our moods or feeling states are embodied and triggered by the weather, exploring torpor, lucidity, stillness, wind and rain. Our moods are not internal things, he says, but rather “passions granted to us by the capricious terrain” (50). Neuroscientists would no doubt have a field day with Abram, vehemently disagreeing with his locating of mind outside the human brain. But Abram speaks from deep experience of directing his attention “toward the odd otherness of things–holding our thoughts open to the unexpected and sometimes unnerving shock of the real” (153). This is hilariously illustrated in Abram’s account of how he once used fear-induced singing to stun a large group of seals into curious submission.

The most compelling part of Becoming Animal is the chapter “Sleight of Hand” where the author recounts his adventures studying with tribal magicians and medicine persons in southeast Asia. Abram, a sleight of hand artist himself while in college, travelled to Asia to study magic but ends up learning about perception–which begins as soon as he encounters powerful teachers for the first time and immediately feels physically ill–only to realize that “I was misinterpreting sensations that simply were very new to my organism” (207). Magic is all about perception, of course, and Abram notices that his teachers–mediators as they are between the human and non-human worlds–are diligent students of other creatures. Magicians and healers study other animals in order to more fully identify with them, bringing their honed powers of empathy to bear on their therapeutic work with other humans.  As Abram observes:

“The more studiously an apprentice magician watches the other creature from a stance of humility, learning to mimic its cries and to dance its various movements, the more thoroughly his nervous system is joined to another set of senses–thereby gaining a kind of stereoscopic access to the works, a keener perception of the biosphere’s manifold depth and dimensionally” (217).

One of Abram’s teachers in Nepal, a man named Sonam, asks him to spend time focusing his visual attention on a rock, as if trying to get inside the rock’s presence. Next, Sonam adds listening to the mix, asking his student “to gather both of my listening ears into that small point in the air where my eyes were focused. What?!? (…) Sonam was simply asking me to concentrate my listening upon the very location where my two eyes were already focused” (242-243). After working with rocks, Abram is asked to focus on a raven perched at a distance–to look right at the raven just below its eyes for an extended period. Then the ante is upped again as Abram is asked to bring his tactile sense to bear on his attention exercises with ravens. Can he try feeling with his body what the bird is feeling?

Where are these exercises going?  Sonam wants his student to grasp a kind of ESP-like interspecies deep kinesthetic empathy. Abram’s break-through happens one day when he watches a raven struggle to move a rock and then feels this straining inside his own body. Remarkable! It’s through these kinds of perceptual exercises with Sonam that Abram realizes “the astonishing malleability of my animal senses” (251). Moreover, each sense is informed by the others and “as we explore the terrain around us, our separate senses flow together in ever-shifting ways” (ibid.). This sets the stage for a frankly awesome descriptive investigation of shapeshifting in which Abram describes witnessing Sinam metamorphose into a raven and then back again into human form.

Abram eventually unpacks how this (probably) happened (237-241). Yet, even with this explanation, the links between the magician’s “kinetic invocations” (239) of the raven and their deep impact on Abram’s recalibrated senses are fascinating to ponder. And Abram, ever attuned to mysteries beyond his comprehension, leaves open the possibility that perhaps his teacher really did turn into a bird. The enduring truth about human perception, he says, “is that our bodies subtly bend themselves to every phenomena they experience (251). The question for all of us is: How far can we take our perceptual bending?

As a musician and someone interested in the phenomenology of making and listening to music, I found  much of interest in Becoming Animal. First, the book is a manual about human perception and how we experience the worlds we inhabit. Perception includes, of course, what we can touch, see, smell, and hear. Perception is “the sensory craft of listening” (289) with our bodies says Abram–listening to our environment closely, to one another, and to “the sonorous qualities of our voice and audible sound-spell of our speaking”(ibid.). As cliché as it may sound, Abram has helped me listen more closely–to the whooshing trees in my neighborhood and even the quiet hum of my computer’s hard drive. Once you read Abram a lot of things seem more alive.

Second, as a manual about perception Becoming Animal is also a treatise on attuned, phenomenological writing. Page after page Abram models a wizardly ability to conjure the life force and energy of whatever it is he’s describing–whether it be a rock, a bird, a person, a feeling, the voluminous depth of a shadow, the stars or sky. This is very fine descriptive writing that reveals and resonates far beyond its subject matter to bring the reader deep into the insides of things and experiences that we didn’t know had an inside. Required reading, I would say, for aspiring ethnographers.

Finally, Becoming Animal dares to cross all kinds of boundaries–including the human/animal, technology/nature, and sacred/secular binaries–in a search of a level of experience common to all animate beings. The implicit guiding question here is: What does it feel like to really be alive to the world in all its complexity? Abram’s writing explores this question by intimately chronicling his own life and bringing us along on an engaging and often trippy ride of discovery and transformation:

“Reality shapeshifts. Underneath our definitions, prior to all our ready explanations, the world disclosed by our bodily senses is a breathing cosmos–tranced, animate, and trickster-struck” (298).

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