The Wire

In Writing

Little Machines for Singing: David Rothenberg takes on the swarm

April 2013

We praise thee auspicious Cicada, enthroned like a king
On the tree’s summit, thou cheer’st us with exquisite song…
Free from suffering, though hast neither blood nor flesh –
What is there prevents thee from being a god?

Written in the first century BC, these lines by the Greek poet Anacreon are the earliest recorded example of insect praise. Attributing god-like status to his singing friend, Anacreon recognises its difference from other life on Earth. In a later age he may have asked “what prevents thee from being a machine?”

When Sublime Frequencies released Tucker Martine’s album of insect field recordings, Broken Hearted Dragonflies: Insect Electronica From Southeast Asia in 2004, many listeners refused to believe that the glitchy, buzzing tones on the CD hadn’t originated in a laptop or a synthesiser. Conversely, anyone listening to David Tudor’s Rainforest for the first time might easily be persuaded that they were hearing actual field recordings from the Amazon jungle.

“Some hear bug music, some hear people music, all depends on your ears” wrote the 19th century Japanese poet Wâfu. This epigram opens David Rothenberg’s new book Bug Music, which explores this overlap between natural and synthetic, insect and human-made sound.

“If you like electronic music, you will like insect sounds,” says Rothenberg. “Bug music is electronic music, there is a deep, important connection here. People have loved insect sounds for many thousands of years. Prehistoric people, and Neanderthals, would probably have loved analogue synthesizers.”

Rothenberg himself is rhapsodic about insect sounds and, as with his previous investigations of bird and whale song, he set out to perform alongside a range of insect musicians: “the snowy tree cricket is one of the simplest and most beautiful… the cicadas among the most intense and gripping, while the treehoppers’ vibrational taps are among the most astonishingly complex.” All these collaborations can be heard on the Bug Music companion CD.

david+rothenberg+cicada

Bug Music encompasses an incredible breadth of scale, from the great – the mysterious 17-year incubation cycle of the Magicicada, a monstrous brood of which will hatch in New York State early this summer – to the very, very small – the molecular sounds recorded inside the brains of mosquitos at Clarkson University in New York. “I want readers and listeners to consider rhythm and noise at all possible scales of human awareness,” says Rothenberg, “from the microscopic to the macrocosmic.

"That's why I found Curtis Roads' granular synthesis so compelling – the granular dimension of time is the secret of bug music. Dividing sounds into tiny 'grains' can have huge implications for the re-conceiving of all human thought and our place in the universe… when I mentioned that to Roads he said, ‘don't get too carried away!’”

Rothenberg encourages readers to open up to an expanded sense of what music can be, and from this he hopes we might encounter an expanded sense of our surroundings. The implicit message is that retuning oneself to think differently about music might be beneficial on multiple levels: to each of us individually, to humankind as a species and, perhaps, even to the planet as a whole.

“Listening to nature can be a gateway towards listening to experimental music, but listening to and enjoying experimental music can also be a gateway towards listening to the sounds of nature.”

Humankind’s ability to empathise with and understand the needs of other species is one of our greatest talents, and listening to them is just one part of that. “We know so little about the sensory world of other creatures,” says Rothenberg, “nature is still a giant book waiting to be opened, translated, and deciphered; or, if you see it as music, it can be listened to and interacted with.”

Bug Music: How Insects Gave us Rhythm and Noise is published by St Martin’s Press. More details on the book here, and on the CD here.