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.

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