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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg, Editorial Board Member, Terrain.org

The Unheard Sounds of Summer: Throat-Singing vs. the Katydids of Glynwood


The Glynwood Farm is one large open hillside that rises up like a giant bear’s back, somewhere in the lower Hudson Valley. Once a private estate belonging to a man in the Roosevelt administration, it’s now an institute that promotes sustainable local agriculture. From the point of view of insects, on this August night it sure seems pretty healthy. So I decide to take my friend, the most excellent overtone singer Timothy Hill, to see how his long continuous, harmonic-filled tones will blend in with the nighttime crickets and katydids.

Glynwood Farm
Glynwood Farm, in the lower Hudson Valley, is the
ideal venue for mixing human harmonic overtones
with the songs of crickets and katydids.

Photo courtesy Open Space Institute.

Hill is a fabulous musician, both a singer-songwriter and a carefully trained overtone singer, who has spent years in the company of David Hykes and his harmonic choir, the musician who has pioneered Central Asian throat-singing as an American art, where a single singer can produce a whole series of harmonic overtones—the miracle of one person producing a chord with his or her voice. Though this technique originates with Tibetan Buddhist ritual singing among monks who tend to sing sub-harmonic, booming, super-low tones, in Mongolia and Tuva the same technique is used for a higher, ringing, melodic effect. Hykes made the whole thing calmer, more evocative in a spiritual sense back in the 1970s. I have long admired this music for the way it makes music out of overlapping textures produced by shifting the human voice into a sound-making realm it does not normally inhabit. With my newfound focus on bug music, I suddenly realize there is something in common between a human harmonic singer and a cicada—each make long, rising, rich, intense ,and complete harmonic sound, one singer showing he is capable of a damn enormous sound.

In Tibet, harmonic singing is booming and ominous, transforming ordinary, high-speaking voices into whale-like, impossible deep bass rumbling thrums. In Mongolia, a higher resonance is used to evolve melodies that emerge out of the cavities of a singer’s head, letting one person keep a grounding drone behind changing high pitches. These techniques are not natural for humans to do and take a lot of careful training, or perhaps unlearning of how one is supposed to sing. Such exercises are not “good” for your voice in the normal sense, and it is remarkable that someone like Timothy Hill can sing his own songs so well and clearly and also lapse right into this super-human kind of tone.

The song of a a Neocicada hieroglyphica:

I know it can sound spiritual, or cool in the way a buzzy, catchy hook grabs the listener in so many kinds of world music, but I really wanted to hear what such human luminous sounds could do when coming out of a field of singing insects, so many that no single sound source of them could be identified or caught. How would the pure oos and oms of an overtone singer add a human touch to the world of insect music?

The crickets are relentless, chirping without a pause. Their singing never exhausts them. Even the sex it leads to does not exhaust them, something all cricket fighters know well. The most vicious crickets need sex right before a fight: it primes them up. This is not supposed to work for human athletes, as we know well. Never mind…. Do they need to hear an overtone singer in a dark meadow? They are not indifferent—depending on the notes Tim sings they seem to change the speed of their chirping. One two three four digga digga six seven eight nine it comes in and out of phase, hard to hold down into our simple beating rhythms.

In the distance the bugs themselves seem to explore ambiguous overtones, a luminous living meadow texture streams into position…. At one point the human overtone voice gets so strong the crickets seem to pause to listen, then it fades. Slow the whole thing down and it all gets even more within human reach, lower the pitch and the individual creatures sound more clearly accessible to us, each chirping a simple rhythm, but never too simple. The overtone singing seems the perfect human way to enter their world, because it too is a kind of music with no necessary beginning or end, but it is an everpresent possibility we can choose to tap into, or tune out of. The harmonic series, the way Pythagoras’s mathematical ratios define the resonance of the octave, the same and yet not the same, and the basic intervals of fifth, fourth, and that wolf-tone bluesy triad in between major and minor, a single voice can cast all of that out if you train the air cavities in your head to resonate each tone. It is a rigorous and out-of-the-box kind of training that most voice lessons do not prepare you for, but Tim Hill has been doing it for 30 years.

Overtone singing taps into the basic resonances of nature that humans have evolved to hear in harmonically related ways, and these overtones carry on to the insect world as well. They were singing in the series long before our kind ever evolved on this Earth, and whatever music we have evoked out of textures happened in their presence. Overtone singing sounds somehow right, provocatively in tune in a very basic, bodily way, though it has little of the structure and form we might associate with usual human music. I find the recording envelops me, I want to hear it over and over again, and it offers a kind of clue for how human music might grow closer to insect music, with a live encounter.

Timothy Hill
Singer-songwriter Timothy Hill.
Photo courtesy Timothy Hill.

We are overwhelmed by the sonic environment, but the human sound does have a place in this puzzle of organic noise. I walk toward a big old apple tree full of katydids—they had a pulse to the noise-shimmer of the bush crickets, and the chirping of the tree crickets. The overtone human voice is quite different from the insects, and immensely strange right from the get-go. Perhaps because of this strangeness it immediately fits into the soundscape, and as I walk through the dark fields, barely able to see where I step, I compose as a listener, intensified with microphone and pumped-up headphones, tuning the landscape as I go, not looking for a documentation of the experience but a full-fledged revelation of its texture. It seems a privilege to be in the midst of such a grand orchestra, resonating wildly at so many frequencies.

How can it sound so much like it makes sense even though no one is in charge? Either the attuned slow listener lowers his expectations, or the structure of this music emerges out of all these disparate processes doing their part, and responding like tiny codes to the one special sound that means something to them. Everyone listens in the midst of the fray for something that matters—we are told these little crickets sing only to find a mate, but as with birds and whales, the singing may also be part of the very essence of their species, and thus be a defining part of their lives not to be explained away in the categorizing as only function.

Timothy Hill overtone singing:

I want to categorize all this texture as music, to call it beautiful to listen to, and inhabit its strangeness. I remain surprised by how little is written on the power of texture and timbre in the history and theory of music. Clearly the buzz and scrape of resonance, the dirtiness of distortion, is an essential part of human music-making for centuries, and no one has bothered to explain why. Timbre is never described clearly in music textbooks, which understandably devote much more time to melody, rhythm, harmony, and form, all aspects of music that are much easier to talk about and analyze. But tone is the most personal of musical things, and it is the most salient quality that distinguishes one instrument or one virtuoso from another. It may be that greatness of tone and texture is what most separates an extraordinary musician from an ordinary musician, so it may be important that such aspects of music are hard to quantify or describe, but we know they matter and we seek complexity and roughness in texture as much as we value purity in tone.

I cannot be sure that the crickets and katydids are listening to Tim’s droning complex wavelike tones, but I suspect they do. I believe insects listen to everything, that they respond to sound like little machines following rules that they have evolved to follow for millions of years. The complexity of their timbre swarm is far away from the rhetoric describing human music, so we approach the encounter with very little expectation, very little to say. I listen to what he is doing with my headphones turned way up, so any move I make intensifies the sound. I direct him: “Okay Tim, step back 20 paces, turn toward that katydid tree, away from the horse. Sing again.”

We are hoping for that enveloping soundscape that takes us beyond, to indescribable realms of beauty: what the Persian philosophers once called the sharawadji effect, the greatest of all sonic illusions. Illusions? Sound appears and then it disappears, so its claim to make real transformations to us is a kind of illusion. But bug sounds don’t stop. They go on and on. There are always many more of them than we can ever latch onto.

Timothy Hill singing in the Glynwood meadow,
slowed down:

“Don’t ignore the airplane overhead . . . use the airplane, imagine it to be a giant bug. Text your texture against nature’s texture, nature’s texture vs. machine texture.” How can you tell one from the other? Are nature’s textures always more soothing than the thrum of a machine? When I lived next to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Brooklyn Heights after a time I came to find the incessant swish of the traffic soothing, like a meadow of thrumming insects. But when I left the city to visit an autumn meadow night, the beauty of the cricket sounds in the still full-leaved trees made my cry. That’s when I knew it was time to move out of the city. Bringing Tim out to sing in the midst of such a meadow brings that 15-year-old memory to the fore. My time has come full circle with the incessant cycles of cricket time.

Later I bring Tim into the studio where I can exert total control of an artificial orchestra of booming cicadas and repeating cricket loops from all over the world. Here I find myself in the midst of a complete creative analysis of the confluence of human and insect music, where tones are balanced against noise. Does the creative world opened up by the bugs need the human? The pure pitches and their overtones voiced by Hill do add something to the wash of white noise and its antidotes.

Since I am constructing the chorus in the studio, I play with what pitch is best for Tim’s voice, though he did record it live listening to my handmade chorus of bugs, culled from all over the world, my favorite rhythmic and textual recordings, further effected on the computer into larger, longer washes of sound. I tune him down, down, down to enter those frequencies no unadorned bug can touch. Meanwhile I pitch them down a bit, through transposing and grain-splitting delays, because let’s face it, we humans prefer pitches lower than the follicles on the legs of crickets can hear. In the studio I tune the textures to make bug music and idea, not a documentation. I seek the kind of timbres the insect world encourages me to enjoy.

Still, transpose a human ommmming voice and it is a series of overlapping pure resonances. A cicada is still a beautiful wash of white/pink/hard to pick the color noise. The sonograms of such noise are far more beautiful than the simple documentations of clear pitches. Remember, this is all one instance of Tim’s voice. If we see it we are helped to hear it:

Sonogram of Timothy Hill

And here is one single late-summer cicada, offering up a single tone of rich enharmonic complexity, where glimmers of a clear pitch appear, but mostly a very complex variety of purely specific noise:

Sonogram of late-summer cicada

Maybe it’s just me, but I could stare at these parallel sonograms for a long time and get lost in their different but related kinds of visual complexity, images that pull direct sense right out of what first seems a wash of strange noise. There are overtones inside all complex sounds, made by humans or by insects, glimmers of pure pitch struggling to get out amidst vast sonic confusion. We need to go deeper into these edge-musics we can barely explain, that will waft over us and mark the power of each season to remind us who and where we are.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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This column is an excerpt from David Rothenberg's forthcoming book, Bug Music: The Origins of Rhythm and Noise (St. Martin's Press, 2013).


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