David Rothenberg’s Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise

Reviewed by Tyran Grillo

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Picador  |  2014  |  ISBN: 978-1-250-00521-2 |  288 pages


Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise by David RothenbergIn the summer of 1998, during my first excursion to Japan, I found myself on a wooded path flanking Kyoto’s famous Zen temple of Ryōan-ji. It was an area, I later discovered, forbidden to pedestrians—a realization foreshadowed when, above the orchestra of July cicadas, I heard the hum of an unexpected soloist: a Japanese giant hornet. The cocktail of emotions firing through my blood was one I hadn’t tasted since my childhood standoff with a rattlesnake, when fear of the predator was tempered by fascination of being its prey. In an instant those two fangs of my memory coalesced into the present stinger, a needle threading caution through an otherwise idyllic hike. Any real danger, like both encounters, left me unscathed yet acutely aware of every forest note. Indeed, more than the threat of proximity, I will always remember that hornet’s song.

If we can believe that language and instinct as we know it would not exist without animals, whose forms dominate the earliest petroglyphs and the hunting that inspired them, it stands to reason that animals are also at the root of music. No author has explored this notion more openly than David Rothenberg. In previous books, Why Birds Sing and Thousand Mile Song, he has profiled some of the most ancient musicians on the planet (birds and whales, respectively), but none as prolific and longstanding as those of his latest, Bug Music. The latter title will read like an oxymoron for some, but Rothenberg pleads its case. Not because he disillusions himself or the reader into believing that insects are “melodic” in the manner of birds, but that they are torch-bearers of that most fundamental of musical impulses: rhythm.

At the heart of this narrative is Rothenberg’s obsession with the 17-year cicadas of North America, where certain broods of these hemipteran wonders spend their lives under the ground before expending themselves in a final, cacophonous orgy above it. His relationship to this protracted rhythm cycle provides the book’s autobiographical leitmotif and speaks to the veracity and precision of insect timing. It’s an engagement with sound, a willingness to interact with and be a part of it, that inspires Rothenberg to articulate such histories in the first place. “More than any other book I’ve written,” he revealed to me in a recent interview, “this one most pushes the envelope in terms of what is music. People love the sounds of insects but don’t spend time on them. I once wrote that bird song is the oldest music around, but insects are more ancient, and the idea of what they’re doing is even more inevitable and basic. When you hear a whole cascade, this is what life is like.”

A central point of his analysis is that insects are both scientific and humanitarian, teaching us not only about evolution but also culture. Witness Rothenberg’s second chapter, in which he details his time with Swedish Sinophile Lars Fredriksson, known to most as Mr. Fung, a legendary cricket enthusiast of Stockholm who leads his own cricket orchestra. While his assembly taps into a universal need for noise, which Rothenberg sees reflected in musical instruments like the mbira—and to this I might add the shamisen, banjo, and jaw harp—to my ears Mr. Fung’s performances are fascinating simulacra. Crickets make their music just fine in absence of conduction.

Conversations with, and anecdotes from, sympathetic entomological figures, including John Cooley, Curtis Roads, and Richard Alexander, along with other musicians and composers like David Dunn, Francisco López, Mira Calix, Graeme Revell, and Timothy Hill, serve to embolden Rothenberg’s theoretical constant: namely, that music is an entanglement of biological and non-biological being. Music, Rothenberg suspects, exists somewhere between infinity and the smallest particle of being, between death and life, which is why repetition entrances us and why its most fluent practitioners are the insects. Understanding the “granular” nature of bug music, then, is essential to feeling it. As he writes, “The macroscopic can turn into the microscopic, with a single gleam of conception,” and it is from one end of this spectrum to the other that expression is born.

The fourth chapter, “Listen Outside the Ear,” hones this point when discussing insects who hear with other parts of their body (legs and such) through vibrational attunement. For them, listening is an embodied act in ways humans can, at best, partially understand. The loudest sound produced by any earthly animal compared to body weight, for example, is the lesser water boatman, a tiny European pond insect only a few millimeters in length. His status as such upsets our standards of measurement—and sexuality, as the boatman produces its clarion serenade by rubbing a leg along his penis. This action is in-built. The thinnest of separations exists between input and output, requiring none of the messy filters through which humans sift actions to death. To increase what we understand of insects is therefore to decrease what we understand of ourselves. It’s a reality that leads Rothenberg to affirm that “real music is sung by the creatures of this planet,” and that our musics may be secondary, if only by virtue of being younger.

Rothenberg argues that we secretly crave noise because so much of it has evolved outside the scope of our immediate desire to hear it. The very ubiquity alone of insect noise suggests this, as does the fact that newborns in the mammalian womb are under constant bombardment by sounds of blood flow, locomotion, and communication. Which is one reason why scientists may fear the possibilities of insect intelligence: it would upset the machine model into which insects have been fit. “We all know by now,” writes Rothenberg, “that human beings are the only ones who can do something wrong by nature, make things, sing things, that really don’t fit in,” whereas insects are a compulsory part of everyday landscapes. In this spirit, Rothenberg bypasses stalemated arguments around the notion of animal language by focusing on communication and the role of sound/music in that primal process, as demonstrated by the insect-related poems, from a range of centuries and cultures, with which he effectively peppers his text and which act as a sort of concentrate to the juice of his larger argument.

The writing itself is improvisational, with passages of virtuosity sprinkled over a clear thesis, and serves his goal of listening more widely to the world(s) around us. Rothenberg makes no apologies for wanting to join in the fray whenever and wherever possible. To be sure, he is interested in one thing above all: making music with his subjects. This places him as performer at the center of a 2011 cicada emergence, a process that proves messy and invasive. He does his utmost, breathing through the overwhelming prospect of contributing to a sound already so organized in its chaos. When I asked Rothenberg the obvious question of whether or not he felt these happenings were successful, he responded: “It changed over time. At the beginning, I was working with sounds that I didn’t like. By the end, it was a world I became interested in. I was particularly fascinated by the fact that electronic instruments could sound more like insects than themselves. That’s what has always interested me about sound. You can manipulate things, turn them into something that’s half real, half artificial.”

All of this and more is knowable to the adventurous listener on the book’s companion CD. Featuring Rothenberg on a variety of wind instruments, electronics, and bug sounds, it is a suitable portrait of both the artist and the art at hand. Nowhere so explicitly as on “Insect Drummers” Nos. 1, 2, and 3, each of which realizes a specific concept or phenomenon from the book. “Inside the Mosquito’s Brain” takes inspiration from Igor Sokolov’s sounding of mosquito brain molecules, while “The Water Boatman’s Loudest Penis” yields, appropriately enough, the album’s most feverish pitches. “Your Sound Can Kill” riffs on Dunn’s above-mentioned recordings, which have been known to induce engraver beetles into suicidal frenzy.

Where the book is science as music, the album is music as science. Some of its experiments take shape in Rothenberg’s interactions with katydids, whose thrumming thickets permeate a handful of situations. Whether looped into haunting regularity, as with guitarist Robert Jürjendal in “Riddim Bugz,” or paired with the Norwegian seljefløte (overtone flute) in “Listen Outside the Ear,” there’s a feeling of overall mixture that is equal parts organic and contrived. There’s even a bit of speculative anthropology in “Katydid Prehistory,” in which guitar and clarinet dance through an amphibious soundscape. “Treehop,” which samples a famous Rex Cocroft recording of three-humped treehoppers tapping on a tree branch, is more ambiguous. Is Rothenberg leading or following, the music seems to ask, and in so doing already provides an answer: He is drowning.

And drown he does in the album’s star cicadas, bursting as they do through four dense tracks. Of these, “Magicicada Unexpected Road,” is intriguing for its blatant clash of signatures. Rothenberg on clarinet and his son, Umru, on iPad join a rare cicada emergence of Virginia in the spring of 2012. The keening iPad and reed-driven choreography reveal a spontaneity in the grander network of the insect songs, thereby setting up a contrast between the inevitable and incidental. The most seamless collaborator, however, is overtone singer Timothy Hill, whose multi-phonic exhalations are slowed in “Glynwood Nights” to reveal hidden relationships with the surrounding field.

Rothenberg ends with “The Year of Insect Thinking,” which fronts a pine sawyer beetle and soprano saxophone amid a swirl of electronic beats. Notes Rothenberg, it plays on the tendency of electronics toward extremes: “I’d always been interested in the frenzy of insects and their rhythm but was afraid to join in that frenzy. This track represents the many years of thinking about this swirl inside my head, now unleashed.” The result is a strangely familiar balance of internal community and external solitude.

When Rothenberg tells me, “An insect doesn’t have to know too much about what it’s doing to be a part of something beautiful and emotional. People tend not to respect the individual insect,” I’m reminded of a return trip to Japan I took in the summer of 2014. Though no giant hornets crossed my path, I did encounter a lone cicada on the side of a tree along a Kyoto promenade. Even with a chorus of its brethren shouting messages across the humid streets, it clung alone to the bark as I approached. The metallic bite of nostalgia hits me when I think back on that lone voice among the many, singing as if for me alone. Rothenberg gives us both permission and encouragement to revel in such meetings, all while reminding us that, with millions of species of insects in existence and only a fraction of those living (and dying) under scrutiny, their mystery will always be there. But with more of us awakening to the breadth of insect cognition, and to the importance of celebrating wonders like the 17-year cicadas, one can be sure the music will never go out of style.



Tyran Grillo is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, where his research focuses on the (mis)representation of animals in contemporary Japanese fiction. He is also an avid translator, music critic, and photographer, whose words and images can be found lurking in various corners of the online universe.

Header photo of cicada courtesy Pixabay.

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