Much as we might take the presence of music for granted, its very existence presents us with a dumbfounding mystery that eludes science to this day.
One need only glance at famed neurologist and Awakenings author Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia to appreciate how—duh—music plays a profound role in the human experience. As we ponder that experience across the expanses of time and culture, it becomes clear that music, in its endless variety of forms, reflects and shapes cultural distinctions while also pointing the way to something universal about us. Rare, says Sacks, is the person unsusceptible to transcendent, highly charged and even violent responses to music—including, he reminds us, people who insist that music isn’t all that important to them.
Whatever the answer(s) may be, we can trace clues back to the primordial beginnings of the planet, and thus to instincts and genetic information locked away, beyond our reach, in the deepest, most primitive recesses of our cognition.
In order to engage this mystery, it makes sense to look around at the sounds of the natural world. Given the biological structure of our ears, birdsongs present the most obvious and aesthetically appealing place to start.
Jazz musician, philosophy professor and author David Rothenberg started there, too, when he explored the world of bird sounds in his 2005 book Why Birds Sing, the first installment of a trilogy that concludes here with Bug Music.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Rothenberg makes the radical proposal that humanity’s musical inclinations might actually stem from sounds made by creatures as alien to us as any extraterrestrial imaginable.
Insects, Rothenberg posits, may have given us our sense of rhythm.
If you allow that to sink in for a moment, it turns your understanding of nature—human nature—inside-out, a pleasantly disorienting sensation through which Rothenberg enters as a romantic, clarinet-toting, tour guide/narrator. He takes a reader into a sonic terrain so foreign that it defies our ability to represent it in visual form. Insects, Rothenberg points out, existed on earth for eons, millions upon millions of years before our earliest mammal relatives entered the evolutionary picture. So it actually stands to reason that the insect repertoire of sounds can be found woven into the archetypal fabric of our collective consciousness.
Rothenberg begins Bug Music by painting a picture of crickets chirping in late summer—a scene so utterly familiar, so thoroughly entrenched in life (depending on where you live) that anyone who’s heard crickets can recall their sound instantly … yet, paradoxically, anyone can just as easily fail to notice it altogether. Like the gurgle of nearby water or the incessant thrum of traffic, insect sounds proliferate around us. “The rhythms of insects bind us to the landscape,” Rothenberg writes, “the warm weft of early autumn, a smile at the seasons’ march.”
Fair enough. But do these sounds genuinely count as music?
Rothenberg asks that question several times, both to a reader and to his various interview subjects. Thankfully, he doesn’t quibble over semantics. Insect “music”—if you’re willing to call it that—contains as much beauty and artfulness of structure as the ear of the beholder might wish to recognize. Even for readers who regard insects as mindless automatons, Rothenberg makes a convincing case for the complexity of the total sound that groups of bugs literally perform in concert.
He also brings a poet’s ear for overlapping cycles to his discussion of the mysterious 17-year emergence of several North American cicada species that took place in 2013:
It’s the slowest sonic beat in the animal world. It’s a sound that can be used to mark the phases of a human life. It’s a mathematical conundrum, an unearthly wonder of animal sound. The cloud of insect music you can barely recall. When you last heard it, you were just settling down. The time before that, you were a teenager. Before that it was the year you were born. The next time you hear it you might be a grandfather. This time the song arrives, you are smack in the middle of your journey through life.
Bob Dylan, Rothenberg notes with some amusement, once (while receiving an honorary degree from Princeton in 1970) confused cicadas with locusts, widely regarded as harbingers of the apocalypse thanks to enduring Biblical images and the destruction they wreak on crops. Cicadas, essentially harmless, suffer from association … and noisy habit; the force of their roar arouses primal fear even in a leading scientist dedicated to studying the creatures.
Such is the dichotomy that Rothenberg embraces: insect sounds can both soothe the soul, make us feel at peace, connected to all of life … while striking panic in our hearts. With good reason, it turns out. As Jeff Goldblum instructs us in his horrifically comic monologue from David Cronenberg’s 1985 remake of The Fly: “Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal—no compassion, no compromise.”
Entomologist Mark Moffett, author of Adventures Among Ants, essentially said the same thing on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2010.
“Ants,” he wryly noted, “are very nationalistic—much more than people. They live in societies that are tightly bounded. You cannot defect from an ant colony.” In other words, ants absolutely do not waver in their one response to foreigners, which is to kill them—no compassion, no compromise…
Moffett went on to detail a litany of gruesome kill tactics (including some that gave him nightmares) and also detailed the ecological crisis wrought by an invasive Argentinian ant species that now claims a tremendous swath of land stretching from San Francisco to the Mexican border.
Rothenberg, to his credit, doesn’t shy away from similarly pressing issues as they pertain to the more sonorous species that hold his attention.
As endearing as it is to picture the author attempting to “harmonize” with insects on his clarinet, Bug Music grips most when it ventures into fascinating, stranger-than-fiction science.
Rothenberg follows David Dunn, a noise musician who teams up with a writer and a scientist. Together, the unlikely trio simulates insect noises in efforts to fend off a pending environmental catastrophe. As Rothenberg explains, immense tracts of North American forest—equivalent to the surface area of several states combined—have been ravaged by forest-killing beetles. In a bizarre case of behavioral triggering with sound, Dunn and his cohorts stumbled across an acoustical key that unleashes instantaneous lethal violence in a particular species of bark beetle.
By reverse-engineering and modifying the tiny insect’s mating call, Dunn and company got the bugs to gnash each other to pieces. While such work has both hopeful and dreadful implications—especially given, say, the military’s willingness to use music as a torture/interrogation device—it makes for a mind-blowing read, particularly when underscored by Rothenberg’s breezy narration that never downplays his sense of wonder.
At times, the author gives hints of new-age inclinations, but he also maintains his academic composure, a difficult balance for a writer’s voice to strike. With his penchant for packaging arch metaphysical questions in plain language, Rothenberg makes it sound easy. He is, after all, a musician, so it makes sense that he would want his writing to sing. Still, one gets the feeling that he’s well aware how easily a dry, unimpressionable tone could blow his great opportunity with this exotic subject matter.
From a distance, insects can lull us to sleep, the perfect soundtrack as we lounge on a hammock as day gives way to dusk. “Some insects,” Rothenberg writes, “are comforting; others are entrancing, perhaps dangerous.”
Up close, the sounds of these organisms bespeak orders of being that remain incomprehensible and even profoundly grotesque to us. As such, the sounds will never lead us to a true understanding of what it’s like hear them from an insect’s point of view. We’ll simply never know what it’s like to be an insect.
The beauty, Rothenberg insists, lies in letting go and listening anyway. Once you let go of everything your brain is wired to hear in terms of melody and harmony, once you listen from “outside the ear,” as Rothenberg urges, wondrous patterns of meshing rhythm emerge from the discordant chaos of the buzzing swarms.
In Thousand Mile Song, the 2008 middle installment of his animal-music trilogy, Rosenberg considers the sounds of humpback whales, orcas and belugas. At one beat every four minutes, the humpback’s music plays out on a time scale difficult for the human mind to fathom.
Insects, though, as Rothenberg capably illustrates, exist on another plane of unfamiliarity altogether. All the more engrossing, then, to consider that a human need as fundamental as music might connect us and … them.
Bug Music delivers a companion album of the same name (sold separately), but if you really want to hear how heavy these sounds can get, and actually hear the overtones of ruthlessness that drive them, you’d do better with Adaptation and Survival, a 1998 album of manipulated insect field recordings by Tribes Of Neurot, an ambient spinoff of moody post-metal band Neurosis.
A striking example that achieves something like a collaboration between humans and insects, Tribes Of Neurot brings to life, albeit abstractly, the hidden world Rothenberg urges us to consider. Adaptation and Survival doesn’t get a mention in the book, but Rothenberg visits with several artists exploring likeminded terrain. One, former ecology professor Francisco López, rebuts John Cage’s famous notion of all sound as music and urges his audiences not to form a picture of nature as an Edenic paradise.
Rothenberg also frames the passion of his scientists as a kind of art. In doing so, he convincingly gets across that their concerns reach far beyond the scope of mere entomological fetish. Take, for example, how he expounds on the Clarkson University study measuring the tones of living molecules inside the bodies of mosquitoes and flies:
Indeed, the presence of sounds even inside the body of insects has been proposed by some scientists as a very indicator of life itself […] The distant implications could be tremendous. One day we might develop templates for exactly how our own living organs should sound. A doctor with a sophisticated nanomolecular listening device would be able to gauge your body’s health by the detailed analysis of sound alone, a nano-stethoscope of the future.
Like the iconic BBC nature-show host David Attenborough, the late astronomy giant Carl Sagan and the aforementioned Oliver Sacks, Rothenberg’s charm stems from his curiosity for realms we wouldn’t otherwise discover or even imagine on our own. His writing crackles with palpable, infectious enthusiasm for the subject at hand.
“It is all beautiful,” he writes, “once you dare to listen.”
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni covers books and music for Paste and is a regular contributor to MTV Iggy, Alarm and Nashville Scene. Based in Rochester NY, he hosts the literary podcast Page By Page, the music show Feedback Deficiency and makes music of his own. He’s working on a documentary that explores the presence of LGBT in Rochester’s African American Christian community.