The Insect Musicians
NOTES : booklet that came with the LP
"On the twelfth day of the eighth month of the second year of Kaho (1095 A.D.), the Emperor ordered his pages and chamben'ans to go to Sagano and find some insects. Ale Emperor gave them a cage of net-work of bright purple thread. All, even the head-chaplain and his attendants, taking horses from the Right and Left Imperial Mews, then went on horseback to hunt for insects. Tokinon Ben, at that time, holding the office of Kurando, proposed to the party as they rode toward Sagano, a subject for poetical composition. The subject was "Looking for inmsects in the fields." On reaching Sagano, the pary dismounted, and walked in various directions for a distance of something more than ten chö, and sent their attendants to the palace. They put into the cage some hagi and ominameshi (for the insects). The cage was respectfully presented to the Empress. There was sake-drinking in the palace that evening; and many poems were composed. The Empress and her court-ladies joined in the making of the poems."
This, the oldest recorded account of an insect-hunt in Japan, comes
from a work entitled Chomon-Shü, though the pastime of listening
to insects m song was much older, both here and in China. Many poems, dating
from the mid-Eighteenth Century, bear testament to the great value places
in the Orient on the beauty of some singing insects.
"With dusk begins to cry
NATURE & HYPER-NATURE
The inspiration for The Insect Musicians comes from this Oriental poetic
tradition. In the West there has been the odd exwnple of nature and formalism
colliding in music, e.g. "The Flight of the Bumblebee", and recently
Messaien's transcriptions of bird song, rather more beautiful. But they
are always perfortned on instruments of the modem orchestra, and only bear
an awkward timbral relationship with the songs they would imitate.
Once we include all those sounds which were formally too soft, too rapid, or too high-pitched to hear in their natural state, a much wider array of possibilities presents itself. In general insects produce sounds in one or more of the following ways:
Stridulation: the rubbing of one body part against another; one
part generally being sharp-edged, the other filelike. The variety of songs
which can he produced depends on the number of teeth in this file, and
how many of them are being used at the thne, as well as the speed of each
Vibration of membranes called Tymbals: This is best known in cicadae and leathoppers. Tymbals are membrane-like structures usually located ventrally on the basal abdominal segment, that are moved by muscles. The sound varies from species to species, from a continuous trill similar to the crickets, grasshoppers, locusts and katydids, to a harsh scream, usually in response to a disturbance. Some species also have a different courtship song.
|Striking part of the body
against the substrate: Some insects tap or drum on some object in their
environment with various parts of the body. Deathwatch beetles produce
their characteristic knocking sound by drumming with their beads. Others,
for example some grasshoppers use their feet, wilst some stone-flies and
cockroaches use the tip of the abdomen.
Expulsion of air from a body opening: The Death's Head HawkMoth expels air from its pharynx to produce a squeaking sound. The Madagascan Cockroach expels air from certain spiracles to create a loud hissing sound. This, is generally a response to disturbance, though queen bees produce a strange 'piping' sound variously described as a ‘hoot’ or ‘quack’ in the act of laying eggs.
Vibration of Wings or other body parts: In gnats and mosquitos the wing beat rate aids in reproductive behaviour, since these insects locate their partners by responding to the frequency thus generated. Similarly the wing sound of certain flies plays a role in attracting a mate. Other insects in flight produce distinctive sounds incidentally rather than as a direct communicative function. The hawk moth produces a sound like a modulating osciflator in flight. The social insects in swarms produce distinctly different sounds depending on their mood. For example, hornets, wasps and bees ‘roar’ collectively when disturbed or deprived of their queen for any period. Incidentally, some bees continue to buzz with their thoraxes even while their wings are immobilised.
General activities such as feeding or moving about:. oakleaf miners, for example, make quite an audible munching whilst eating the inside of a leaf. And various species of wood beetle produce knocking sounds as they move around inside the hollow logs they inhabit.
House cricket (Acheta domestica)-stridulations.
The technical methodology follows and then supersedes those of musique
concrète and electronic music. All the usual techniques of both
these movements are available to us in a form much easier to manipulate.
But in addition we now have at our disposal a number of very complex and
encompassing digital techniques which give a remarkable degree of control
over any waveform.
The problem for this record is how to communicate this process of transmutation
to an unsuspecting audience, and still retain “musicality”. It seemed pointless
just to use the sounds and their modifications without in some way illustrating
the relationship between them.
|The third group of modifications
is specific to digital technology.
Segmentation and redrawing of segments: each insect sound is
sampled in 128 segments from beginning to end of the waveform. Each one
of these can he partially or completely redrawn or inverted (turned upsidedown
rather than back-to-front). We thus have total horizontal control over
every soundwave. (Cf. Figs. 3a & b).
The permutations of such a degree of vertical control over a sound wave are for all practical purposs limitless. The only difference between any two sounds continuous at the same pitch is their harmonic (timbral) structure, so with minute manipulation any sound is transmutable into any other. Or, far more creatively, the peculiar timbral characteristics of each insect sound can be microscopically investigated and accentuated for the human ear to hear them properly. Curious patterns emerge which throw fight on the desirability to humans of certain harmonics - odd versus even. Peculiar psychology of sound which elsewhere may spark debate as to origins of fear, hate, aggression, melancholy and I&ffig in human attitudes towards different insects in particular, and elements of nature in general. For some insects this small thought may he a matter of life or death. (Cf. Julia Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l'horreur, Edns. du Seuil, Paris, 1980).
In the foregoing notes I have often employed the phrase ‘degree of control;’
an expression which in no way derives from an attitude towards nature as
a subject of exploitation. Rather, as a means of increasing our knowledge
of nature and our psychological relationship with it. A cultural ecology,
or an ecological culture; a "Micro-musique":
It is now the case that in the present state of technological chaos,
nature can only be sustained at the price of a considerable technological
progress. And only in this way does technology regain touch with culture.
We shall end as we began, with a quotation from Lafcadio Hearn's Exotics and Retrospectives, where he asks: "Does not the place accorded to insect-melody, in the home-life as well as in the literature of Japan, prove an aesthetic sensibility developed in directions that yet remain for us almost unexplored? . . . We may boast of being theirmasters in the mechanical,-their mteachers of the artificial in all its varieties of ugliness;-but in the feeling of the joy and beauty of earth, they exceed us like the Greeks of old. Yet perhaps, it will be only when our blind aggressive industrialism has wasted and sterilised their paradise,-substituting everywhere for beauty the utilitarian, the conventional, the vulgar, the utterly hideous,-that we shall begin with remorseful amazement to comprehend the charm of that which we destroyed. "
Written in 1895, this passage today is full of irony, but perhaps the fatefull twists of the twentieth century will after all open new horizons. A Japanese buddhist proverb says:
"Only through having died, does one enter into life." And perhaps the ultimate horizon of technology is nature itself.
Lafcadio Hearn, Exotics and Retrospectives (Vermont, Tokyo, 1971)
R. D. Alexander, "Acoustical communication in arthropods", Ann. Rev. Entomol. 12,1974.
R. D. Alexander, "Sound production and associated behaviour in insects," Ohio J. Sci. 57(2), 1957.
Alexander & D. J. Borror, The songs of insects (1956): 12" LP.
Haskell, P. T., "Sound Production', in: The Physiology of Insects V. II, M. Rockstein (Ed.) (N.Y., 1974)
Borror, De Long & Triplehorn, An Introduction to the study of Insects, (USA, 1981)
Line, Milne & Milne, The Audubon Society book of Insects, (N.Y.,1983)
Philippe Roqueplo, "Does Nature reside at the horizon of technology", in: Traverses (26) 1982.
David Scharf, Magnifications: photography with the scanning electron microscope, (London, 1979)
Jerry Cowhig, The World Under the Microscope, (London, 1974).