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Meet the beetles – and other insects that have rhythm and lead to mating

Magicicada septendecim, a.k.a. the 17-year-periodical cicada

Martin Hauser

Bug Music
David Rothenberg
St. Martin's

I'm not sure David Rothenberg actually proves the claim of his book's subtitle, but I'm also not sure it matters. Rothenberg – a professor of philosophy and music, jazz clarinetist and old-fashioned amateur naturalist – says Bug Music is the third in a trilogy, after the delightful Why Birds Sing and Thousand Mile Song. Like those works, Bug Music is a glorious compendium of trivia, poetry, music, recipes, facts, legends and personal anecdotes, albeit about creatures – and their noises – that are arguably less lovely and less loveable than birds and whales. But they do have their points. Some facts:

The lesser water boatman is a European beetle that produces the loudest noise per unit weight of any creature on Earth, a raucous 99 decibels, roughly the same as a jackhammer at 50 feet or a train roaring by. The minuscule water bug makes this noise by rubbing his 50-micrometre-long penis against his abdomen. (A micrometre, for those who don't know and are are curious, is one thousandth of a millimetre.) Rothenberg cracks the "don't try this at home" joke twice in the book and once on the Bug Music CD. About which more later.

Also, U.S. sonic entomologist and electronic musician David Dunn has recorded hundreds of hours of the noises made by bark-boring beetles, the sort currently devastating pine and spruce forests throughout North America, noises that are pretty much imperceptible to humans.

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When Dunn played the noises of a southern pine beetle to a colony of western pine beetles, the western males mated furiously several times, then chewed the females to pieces. Amplified and distorted beetle sounds – Rothenberg describes the effect of listening to them as "uneasy, strange, grumbling, violent, impure … it sounds like something is chewing mercilessly at the side of my ear through the headphones. Let me out! Let me go! Can you explain?" – when played back to the beetles, caused them to "tear each other to shreds."

How could anyone fail to love a book filled with such obscure and fascinating details?

Rothenberg discusses many sorts of insects in Bug Music, but focuses especially on the several species of the genus Magicicada, cicadas that gestate underground for 17 or 13 years and then crawl into the open for a few weeks to "sing, fly, mate, die."

Of course, many people would say that the noise of cicadas is just that, noise, and not especially attractive noise. But Rothenberg calls the incessant insectile roar of courting cicadas "the song of love," and he finds much to admire in it. In any case, the discussion of insect noise leads him in many interesting directions and to several intriguing questions: At what point does noise become music, and vice versa? If you take insect noises and break them down to their smallest component parts, and then recombine the bits into music, is it still bug music?

There are road trips. Rothenberg sets out, with various companions, to visit the sites of cicada emergences around the U.S. – there are 13 broods of 17-year cicadas and three of the 13-years (two classic broods are extinct), which come forth at staggered intervals – to record hours of their chirping. Indeed, Rothenberg plays concerts with (temporarily) captured crickets, accompanying them on clarinet and saxophone, with additional background sounds generated by computer.

Which brings us back to Bug Music, the CD, which is not part of the book, technically, but is "available wherever music is still sold." The first time I listened to it I was put off by the atonality of some numbers, and what I saw as the inconsistencies and formlessness of others. But despite my initial skepticism, I came to quite like the audio Bug Music. It is an endlessly intriguing and entertaining blend of insect noises, saxophone and clarinet, drums, guitar, sitar (I think), flute, keyboards and throat singing, some of it surprisingly tuneful, some of it squawky, all of it with insect noises incorporated as background, rhythm or even melody.

The more I listened, and perhaps this was inevitable, the more I came to appreciate the subtleties of the rhythms and the relationships between the insect sounds and the human-created ones. I found myself in Loblaws once, humming the simple, insistent bass line from the second track, Katydid Prehistory. A defining moment.

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Rothenberg is not the first artist to find inspiration in insect noises. He mentions and/or quotes dozens of poets, prose-writers, artists, musicians and composers who have been inspired by insects, celebrated insects, tried to imitate insects and, in surprisingly many instances, use insect noises as part of their music. Rothenberg's appendices list countless songs, and he quotes often from the five-volume compilation by entomologist Keith Kevan (1920-1991) – for many years director of the Lyman Entomological Museum in Montreal – of nearly every literary reference ever made to insects in world literature.

The question remains: Has Rothenberg demonstrated that insects "gave us rhythm and music"? I honestly don't think so, though I'd very much like to. Every natural thing that makes noise – thunder, oceans, breezes whispering through leaves – has given us noise. And rhythm? The 17-year cycle of Magicicada is rhythmic, I suppose, but I just can't believe it contributed anything rhythmically significant to humanity. Even Rothenberg doesn't seem to believe it, really. He's just having fun with bugs.

H.J. (Jack) Kirchhoff is an editor at The Globe and Mail.

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