Musician David Rothenberg plays his clarinet with the buzz of cicadas as his accompaniment.
In early June, David Rothenberg journeyed to the Ulster County Fairgrounds in New York’s Hudson Valley in search of fellow musicians. These are not your typical musicians — they’re found in the grass and the treetops and make their best music in the heat of the day.
They are cicadas, specifically the Brood II periodical cicadas that emerge along the East Coast of the United States every 17 years. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been following their return this spring, and will air a piece on Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour broadcast. With as many as 1 million per acre, the insects emerge after feeding on tree roots for 17 years underground.
Rothenberg finds a few dozen cicadas, hiding in the trees and grasses of the park. He scoops them up and drops them into a net. They will accompany him in a concert that night at the Mohawk Mountain House.
They sound like white noise, a loud buzz from a distance. Cicadas’ mating calls can reach 90 decibels or more, making them as loud as a passing truck or a jackhammer.
But if you listen carefully, you can pick out individual calls, Rothenberg said. The Magicicada cassini, the smallest of the periodic cicades makes the loudest buzzing noise. Then Magicicada septendecim joins in, with a long low tone that sounds like “pharaoh, pharaoh.” Magicicada septendecula pipes up with a percussive rattle. And the females respond with a faint click of her wings. It’s melodic, he said, just as beautiful as birds.
“So you have a three-part motet or a trio here, three different species singing together, so it really then becomes like a piece of music,” he said.
Making music with the animal world is a side job for Rothenberg, who is a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He’s played with birds and whales, and has written books on connecting with the animal world through song.
These jam sessions with the natural world also stretch our notion of what music can be, Rothenberg said.
“Music is an incredibly important kind of communication that humans do, and yet we don’t really know how it works,” he said. “We don’t know what it means. We don’t know what it signifies. We can’t translate it to anything but we know it’s so important to us.”
Rothenberg’s latest book “Bug Music,” published this year, is his seven-year journey to understand how cicadas, beetles, crickets and other insects have rhythms and melodies, which have inspired human music.
“Bug Music” also includes Rothenberg’s jazz compositions with the bugs. In a viral YouTube video, Rothenberg played the alto saxophone with the Brood XIX cicadas in 2011. This year he’s been going out with his clarinet to play with the bugs. He’s also brought out an iPad to play more electronic insect-sounding tones to them.
David Rothenberg, an environmental philosopher and jazz musician focused on “interspecies jazz,” traveled to Springfield, Ill., to convene with the “Great Southern Brood” — the vast hatch of 13-year cicadas buzzing and mating across 16 states in the south and Midwest.
The cicadas represent a chance to communicate with the insect world, Rothenberg said. They break all the stereotypes of insects, he said. They don’t sting or bite, and they’re not toxic. And it’s never been a better time for the cicadas to be out, he said. With the growth of social media since their last emergence, many more people can be drawn into their sounds and their poetic, if short, lives above ground.
“Only for a few weeks, they’re singing,” he said, “Sing, fly, mate, die…There’s this melancholy sense of the moment. It’s so simple and yet so poignant.”
Miles O’Brien will have more on the life and death of the Brood II cicadas on tonight’s PBS NewsHour.