This year, in the northeastern U.S., spring and summer bird song will have a sonic partner—the click and whirr of the seventeen-year cicada. In his new book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, author David Rothenberg listens to cicadas and other thrumming, humming insects, and considers the idea that we humans may have learned our own rhythms, beats, and synchronizations from our antennae-bound neighbors. Here’s David on his new book, which completes his trilogy of books on nature and sound, out now from St. Martin’s Press.
Birds, whales, and now insects—you’ve written about and made music with all of them. What is it like moving between these different musical languages? Is it at all like moving between different kinds of human music, say, jazz and throat singing and heavy metal?
You’re right, each one is a genre into itself. Each kind of creature changes the way I think about music, and what music means to me. With insects, each one is a single simple organism that makes complex music only when part of a huge emergent order of which it need not comprehend much beyond its own simple sound. But together, they make a rich complex music of many species. As a human, it is a challenge to join in.
Bug Music makes the case that humans’ sense of rhythm and dance may have arisen out of our coevolution with the sounds of insects. Do you think the wide variation in human music across cultures has something to do with the variation in the vastly different soundscapes in which different cultures developed?
Yes. Just listen to the way the Bayaka pygmies’ songs fit into their rainforest soundscape in the Congo. This is a human song that knows its place in the layers of birds, frogs, and crickets. Can we in the West ever do as well? (Click here to listen to an audio sample from the Congo, depicted in the sonogram below.)
In this book, you seem to ask your readers to listen not just to science but to our own human experience, what our senses tell us, how we react to things. Why is this kind of subjective observation important?
Science is only one human way of knowing the sounds of nature. Science wants to be rigorous, it needs to measure and count. The musician needs to feel, to catch the groove, to dare to join in, with other human players or more-than-human players.
Ultimately, your work on music and nature seems to be about connection—with other species, with each other, with the whole living planet. How or why does the simple act of listening bring about that kind of connection?
Learn about what you listen to and it suddenly comes alive. Seventeen-year cicadas just sound like a huge mass of noise until you realize that you are hearing three separate species, each making three different sounds. It’s a nine-part motet, an ancient, evolved composition! It’s not hard to hear the parts when they are pointed out to you. For more on this, see magicicada.org and bugmusicbook.com.
2013 is poised to be a big year for cicadas in the Northeast, with the emergence of the seventeen-year Brood II. What plans do you have for jamming with them?
There are a whole series of concerts planned, and if the cicadas are singing, we will bring some to the show to join us. First up is May 22nd at the Judson Church in Manhattan, then June 1st at the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx, part of the World Science Festival.
In June, I’ll be in upstate New York: June 4th and 5th at Mohonk Preserve near New Paltz, June 7th at the Cary Institute in Millbrook, New York, June 8th at the School of Jellyfish in Beacon, and June 15th at the Cicada Festival in Kingston, down by the Rondout. And there may be more. Check my events page, and I’ll see you there.