Kirkus Reviews QR Code
BUG MUSIC by David Rothenberg


How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise

by David Rothenberg

Pub Date: April 16th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1250005212
Publisher: St. Martin's

A free-wheeling discourse on the nature of insect noise and its interaction with human ideas of music.

Rothenberg (Music and Philosophy/New Jersey Institute of Technology; Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution, 2011, etc.) has written previously about the songs of birds and whales, both of which he admits are more accessible subjects than insects. Nevertheless, he cites hundreds of years of poetry and music to show that he is far from alone in his fascination for bug music. Basho, the great Japanese haiku composer, wrote in the late-17th century: “Cicadas sing— / know not how soon / They all will die.” Rothenberg writes that the germ of this book, which will be released in time for the re-emergence of one brood of 17-year cicadas in the mid-Atlantic states this summer, first stirred in 1996 when a friend invited him to witness their last appearance above the Hudson Valley in New York. Rothenberg ruminates on this odd prime-numbered rhythm, beating steadily for millennia apparently, which keeps the cicada larvae underground only to enjoy one brief season of maturity in the air every 17 (or, in some lucky species, 13) years, a season they celebrate with loud song and desperate sex. He suggests it is the longest beat in music of any kind. But cicadas aren’t the only creatures that capture Rothenberg’s playful ear and imagination. He also rhapsodizes on the music of crickets, katydids, bark beetles (plausibly suggesting their devastation of Western pine forests might be stopped with the aid of noise), and the water boatman (which makes the loudest sound for a creature of its size by beating its penis against its abdomen). He also riffs on human music, from Josquin des Prez’s medieval chant “El Grillo” (the cricket) and the honey-gathering songs of Ituri forest pygmies to far-out bug-inspired tunes by electronic composers and techno DJs, ending with his own jams with a brood of cicadas in 2011.

Not for everyone, but adventurous audiophiles will catch Rothenberg’s bug for insect-music appreciation.