David Rothenberg’s recent book Bug Music is a compelling mix of scientific rigor, musical analysis and philosophical inquiry written in an accessible, personal style. One in a series of Rothenberg’s books devoted to investigating the relationship between nature and music, Bug Music is the most compelling of the group for me. While his explorations of bird song and whale song both were fascinating, the sounds and rhythms of insects have had a strong impact on me from early childhood and therefore this book resonates more strongly with my experience. Sounds like these recordings of Tibicen winnemanna cicadas (not the 17 year ones) intrigued me for as long as I can remember while growing up in North Carolina. In particular the rhythmic organization of insect choruses has inspired me in my work with interactive computer music composition and performance. The phenomenon of repetition of regular rhythmic patterns in loose rhythmic canon or counterpoint is thoroughly analyzed by Rothenberg through a wealth of research that he presents, stretching back for hundreds of years. It turns out that insects listen to each other and try to match each other’s rhythmic patterns, creating the wonderfully unpredictable polyphony that we hear in crickets, cicadas and katydids and see in fireflies.
Rothenberg then goes on to make strong connections with musical structures in African drumming, emergent musical orders where complex structure emerges from layers of repetition, and electronic dance music. The book also includes many examples of poetry from disparate cultures that describes the phenomena of cicadas and other insect singers. The 17 year cicada’s periodic reappearance is investigated in great detail and Rothenberg’s musings on its mysterious emergence from darkness to sing and have sex are amazingly insightful. I am extremely happy to be performing with David in my current musical project.