Insect Jazz

David Rothenberg
Bug Music

Now this is a new one for me. I’ve heard a few insect field-recordings: Chris Watson and Sublime Frequencies being two suppliers that spring to mind; and I’ve reviewed a modest number of improv recordings, but ‘insect jazz’? I don’t think even Derek Bailey went there. The last recording entitled ‘Bug Music’ was – to my knowledge – Don Byron’s suite of Raymond Scott cartoon soundtrack (to-be) covers. Though he sported a clarinet like David Rothenberg does here, the sound was a world apart: post-colonial jazz caricatures of orientalised cultures with titles such as ‘War Dance for Wooden Indians’. There is of course Graeme Revell’s 1986 LP The Insect Musicians, which provides a starting point for the present offering, being a meticulously organised taxonomy of different insect sounds and their potential integration via technology.

And so it is – following on from entries dedicated to bird and whale song – that Rothenberg now turns entomologist, ushers in swarms of winged and multi-limbed musicians including cicadas, crickets, katydids, leafhoppers and water bugs, from which he manages to coax a pleasant panoply of rhythms and resonations; insect idioms including stridulation, scratches, clicks, chirps and thwooms – some on site, some looped or stretched in the studio; proving once and for all that fact can be flightier than fiction. For more seasoned seekers of the unusual, there is also a turn from a beetle that vibrates its penis violently underwater. The insects, in turn, prompt a sensitive musical response from Rothenberg and co., yielding a delicate palette for the production of precious musical miniatures, which amount to a reflection on relations ‘twixt man and nature, and signalling well the sonic subtleties one’s perceptual filter might ordinarily omit.

Additional performers include Robert Jurgendal on guitar (whose work with Fripp and Eno shows through), singer Timothy Hill and Umru Rothenberg on ipad. So as not to overshadow the main attraction, homo sapien headcounts are kept low throughout, whether live in situ or otherwise, and no effort is spared in underdoing things, as in ‘What Makes Them Dance?’ where ‘a wash’ of sampled katydid hum emerges unhurriedly from the slow spaces between gentle wind, piano and percussion, or ‘Treetop’ wherein Rothenberg’s clarinet ascends to the eponymous summit 1 only when permitted by breaks in the subsonic rumble. Only in the final track, ‘The Year of Insect Thinking’ does Rothenberg cut loose, blended with upbeat electronic percussion that falls on the tasteful side of Bill Laswell’s ethnographic dabbling. As he postulates in his liner notes, ‘human music (likely) evolved out of the millions of years of listening to the sounds of bugs’, which notion has prompted his decision to consciously ‘learn’ from this in his own approach to composition/performance. The patient approach to performance within signals a degree of success in this enterprise.

Indeed, however intricate the expressions of the exoskeletal extras, Rothenberg’s accompaniment is always sparing and sympathetic: the work of a curious and well-attuned ear and a desire to accentuate the unique. Listeners should find the pieces agreeable, though I would qualify this remark by stating that it perhaps requires careful listening in shorter sessions, so as to do it justice. It was released in tandem with a book of a similar name (Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, St Martins Press), and is available in an edition of 1000 copies, thus in no foreseeable danger of extinction.

  1. Actually, it refers to the name of the insect, the three-humped treehopper.

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