Bugs Make 'Ancient, Thrumming, And Rhythmic' Music

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They’re coming: After a 17-year absence, cicadas are soon to emerge here in the Northeast -- and the attention of this region will be firmly placed on the insects and their unique noise. But musician and philosopher David Rothenberg is well-prepared. For the past few years, he’s been thinking, studying, and writing about the sounds of cicadas and other insects — and how those sounds have influenced human music throughout history. It’s the subject of his new book and accompanying CD, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise.

Rothenberg discusses the beauty and mystery of insect sounds and shares some recordings of his own compositions — which include performances from the insect community. 

David Rothenberg, on adding Bug Music to a series of books that covers the music of whales and birds:

The trilogy would not be complete without delving into the most ancient, the most thrumming, the most rhythmic [sound]. The background of perhaps all music in nature is the hum of these millions of species of creatures, where each one is like a tiny intelligence.

On whether or not bug noises are a form of music:

Of course it’s music. I always believe these kind of sounds that animals make… are just working the way music works. They don’t work the way language works. A similar thing is repeated over and over and over again. As you know from all that you’ve been listening to here, when we have a hit song, we want to hear it over and over and over again. We don’t need the message again and again. We need that music. We need the feel. We need the thrum, the tone, the buzz, the noise.

On making playing live music and making field recordings with insects:

I’ve always believed that as a musician, you just have to go out there and try and make music with these sounds live to really understand what’s happening…. Just get out there in the midst of something strange and make some music. I’ve been paying clarinet and bass clarinet with cicadas here. I’ve got my friend Timothy Hill from the Harmonic Choir doing overtone singing along with katydids. It was my son who figured out how to play the iPad live along with cicadas to the greatest possible effect.