The Cries of All Those Cicadas Are Really Music — Some Of The Coolest Music There Is


The first official act of summer, the first ritual of the season, is the simplest. Open a window. Feel the crisp air of the new day, and just listen. Birds. Sirens. Stray patter on the street. And late at night, nothing at all. A cat screech that cuts off. One solitary bird chirp. A distant shush of wheels. A door slam. And, of course, particularly in the suburbs, the music of the cicadas. Yes, music.

Albeit, music that buzzes and whines, thrums and fizzes. Music that crackles and pulses, rustles and hums like an industrial fan set too high. Music that clomps along with a rhythmic ththththththth, and a wooawhoowooa whoowooawhoo, and sometimes an Eee….erer Eee…erer Eee…erer. Music goes WEEEooo WEEEooo and sounds like a metal sheet in the wind.

That may not sound like music to many of you, but know that in the South, there have been news reports recently of residents calling 911 to complain about the incessant shrill of the cicadas. And that is exactly how a lot of people react to loud, discordant sounds that they don’t understand.

Also known as … music.

But this, you can’t dance to, and there is no melody nor lyrics.

Unless you count the word “pharaoh,” which some say is the sound of the cicadas. “You just can’t hear the tail end of the word, so it all blends together into a wave of ‘pharaohs,’ ” said David Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who has a side gig as an experimental musician. He likes to collaborate with nature. Mockingbirds, whales. He’s arriving in Chicago on Wednesday to spend a week jamming with midwestern cicadas in public parks and open fields. He began playing with Illinois insects — him on clarinets and flutes, them on their buggy anatomy — about 13 years ago, and returns whenever a cicada brood emerges.

As collaborators, cicadas are patient, he said.

They don’t fly away. “It’s actually humbling,” he said. “You become one musician among millions, billions. You are one more sound. You fade into their drone. A lot of people think it’s ridiculous, of course, but I always think it’s good for a musician to recognize they are not the center of attention. People will say that this is not music, but then someone else is completely moved by the sound.”

Rothenberg even regards the 13- and 17-year sleep of cicadas as making a form of music, “if you think of it as being performed at a very slow rhythm.” Or, perhaps, as cicadas covering composer John Cage, whose famous piece, “4’33”,” was the long silence and incidental environmental sounds that came from just sitting in front an audience for four minutes and 33 seconds.

As for me, depending on where I am in the Chicago area these days, I also hear a theremin, that weird electronic instrument that requires its player to wave around their arms like a conductor.

Think: the spooky ethereal whirring of UFOs in 1950s sci-fi.

But sometimes I hear the hypnotic oscillation of the great 1970s punk act Suicide. And when several breeds of cicadas clash at once, I imagine the feedback tsunamis of Sonic Youth and Neil Young‘s Crazy Horse. Or even Lou Reed’s noise rock landmark “Metal Machine Music.” Other times I hear the synth soundtracks of old John Carpenter movies, or Michael Mann’s “Thief,” which blew up the Green Mill lounge in Uptown, arguably, symbolically, dislodging jazz.

You get musical variety with cicadas because different breeds produce different kinds of sounds. The result can be a wall of sound, which is also the name given to the recording style of Phil Spector, the famous producer and convicted murderer, whose 1960s classics came off so crowded with instrumentation it was hard to tell where one player ended and another began.

Cicadas sound like that.

Ryan Dunn, whose longtime Wicker Park art space Tritriangle occasionally plays host to hard-to-categorize noise makers, sees a degree of overlap with the music of cicadas: “In many ways, (experimental music) tends to have so much more in common with natural soundscapes, because it doesn’t hem to familiar, preestablished structures of Western music. And animals and insects in nature don’t, either. They are just trying to find a way to be heard the best.”

Chicago-based sound artist Kiku Hibino, whose work is typically heard in spaces like the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Lincoln Park Conservatory, has made a career of drawing connections between the sounds created by nature and electronically created music. He grew up in Japan, often surrounded by cicadas, he said. He would collect their light green shells,  and he remembers the way cicadas chirped playfully whenever he tried to catch them. He describes their late summer song as going something like: “tsuku tsuku boshi.

The analog synthesizer he favors for his art sounds suspiciously like the high-frequency calls of cicadas. He figures that’s because he never really shook loose childhood memories of the bugs.

In tone and sound, he said, “they are the complete opposite of electronic music in the fundamental way they produce sound. Electronic musicians think with our brains, and create sounds with synthesizers and then send them out to speakers. The cicada is different. Its entire body is a synthesizer with speakers.”

Specifically, a cicada contains a drum-like organ called a tymbal that includes a set of muscles that it pulls inward and snaps back at a rate of 300 to 400 times a second to create its songs.

The result — assuming their volume is quieter than a jet engine — can be meditative, and indistinguishable from the ambient soundscapes of artists like Brian Eno and Philip Glass.

Chicago-based StretchMetal is a record label and booking business that focuses on ambient music. Its signature project is an eight-hour-long Drone Sleepover during which the audience curls up — and usually sleeps — for a dusk-to-dawn concert of uninterrupted electronic droning. Once a month at the Hideout, StretchMetal also stages Drone Rodeo, a two-hour version.

Unlike many electronic artists, Gray Schiller, who curates and runs StretchMetal, said he doesn’t really distinguish between naturally-created and synthesized ambient sounds. The buzz of the cicada may be a “more literal manifestation of the natural world,” he said, but then, “the capacitors inside our synthesizers are made of clay. Our electronics wouldn’t hold power if they weren’t connected to ground or batteries composed of wet earth.”

Take comfort: Cicada season may be nearing its peak in Illinois, but the song of the (recorded) cicada plays on forever, no further than Spotify, where the ambient “First Summer Cicadas” has been streamed more than 181,000 times and “Cicada Sounds” has more than 168,000 listens.

On the other hand, you know who didn’t have Spotify?

The Greek poet Meleager of Gadara, who called the cicada “shrill-voiced.” Or Aesop, who thought of the cicada’s music as a free symphony. Or Margaret Atwood, way up in Canada, who probably has Spotify, but also once wrote of the insect perfectly, as emerging with “the yammer of desire, the piercing one note of a jackhammer, vibrating like a slow bolt of lightning.”

Each of those artists heard a natural performer where others heard a natural pest.

When Hibino was studying music in college, a professor in his first composition course played him a piece of abstract music and asked what he heard. He said he heard a giraffe. He heard a pepper mill grinding. Also, he heard cicadas. No, the professor revealed, it was just white noise.

But for Hibino, “It was my big aha moment, knowing sound can capture a human imagination.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com



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