Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I'm With The Swarm: Bug Music

One doesn't have to look too deeply into the effect of the African diaspora on music to start hearing about noise and distortion. The earliest musicians among the pygmy tribes had various ways of making parts of their instruments buzz and hum sympathetically, sounds that American musicians emulated by turning up their guitars, sticking a pencil in the speaker, or stepping on a distortion pedal. Of course, that was centuries after European culture attempted to eliminate noise from music. I may have first read about the connection between say, Link Wray's Rumble and Ghanian sounds in African Music, the essential text by the late Francis Bebey. But not even Bebey probed into why this might be, why humans seem attracted to scratchy buzzy sounds. In his hugely entertaining and deeply thoughtful Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm And Noise, David Rothenberg makes a bold attempt to figure it all out, and much else besides.

One big surprise in reading Bug Music is to learn that this hardly the first writing about the intersection between the music of arthropods and humans. Rothenberg's bibliography includes books dating back nearly 100 years and among the many poems he quotes is one by Anacreon from the first century B.C. However, this is probably the first time a musician has led the charge. Rothenberg plays sax with cicadas, speaks knowledgeably about music of all genres and eras - from Desprez to Deadmau5 - and has even provided a soundtrack to the book in the form of original music and a playlist of insect-influenced sounds.

Since he is not strictly a scientist, he is free to make all sorts of imaginative leaps. In Chapter Three, What Makes Them Dance, he starts a discussion of polyrhythms and repetition with this paragraph:
"Going along with the beat, but not quite on the beat. Don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. The perfect appeal of uneven evenness. Nature not Platonic but just slightly off. We find our way into reality by delving deep into the buzz, by charting the noise, mapping the chaos. Our world is not perfect, and was never meant to be. Once we recognize that, hear music in the fuzziness, only then are we halfway home."

This leads to a brief overview of grooves and polyrhythms and then to the work of primate specialist Björn Merker, who has pointed out that the species that shares 99 percent of our genes (the ape) shows little interest in making music, dancing to rhythms, or joining together in synchronized activities. We obviously do, and such things have likely contributed to our success on the earth, so where did it come from? A strong possibility is the insects, who, after all, have led the way in the development of societies. So while entrenched devoteés of European music may bemoan the buzzing, noisy beat music that has taken over the world, there is likely no stopping it. They should let an enthusiast like Rothenberg show them the way.

Reading this delightful, inspiring book will not only give you a new appreciation for the sounds of a summer night, but also a deeper understanding of the sounds on the radio - tune in.

P.S.: You can find Bug Music: The CD on Spotify and I also created a playlist of many of the songs he talks about, along with a couple of my own additions.


  1. Karen Capucilli6:43 PM

    This is excellent. I love that you're reviewing books too.

  2. Anonymous3:51 PM

    Put this on my Amazon Wish List. There are so many times when I'm outside and think about how great it would be to have John Cage's gift for hearing music in everything. Sounds like this could bring me a little closer!