Meet the Beetles


I once heard John Zorn perform at 1 Morton Street, playing mouthpieces with no instruments attached, switching them quickly, for disjunctive effects. And there was a cricket in the wall, quite audible and insistent. I told people afterward that I liked the cricket best, but I didn’t mean that as an insult to Zorn. It was a really good cricket. No, what I mean is that there was something about Zorn’s playing that made me appreciate other sounds as well, especially high-pitched ones. This is analogous to my watching Antonioni’s Red Desert in a college cafeteria and, during a reel change, staring at the patterns made by shadows on the ceiling. The movie had stimulated me to look at shapes. (I love Antonioni.)

But I liked the way the cricket’s repetitiveness worked counter to Zorn’s disjointedness. Or perhaps Zorn’s disjunctions worked counter to the cricket’s repetitions. Maybe Zorn would have decided to be less disjunctive if he hadn’t had the cricket laying down the beat for him.

I’ve been listening to Broken Hearted Dragonflies, consisting of the sounds of dragonflies, cicadas, and other insects recorded by Tucker Martine in Thailand, Burma, and Laos in December 2000 and then assembled later by him in Seattle (meaning, I assume, spliced together for greatest effect). “These recordings were not processed; the insects actually sound like this!”

Primary impression: These insects are LOUD. They’re not coming to us simply as this dragonfly calling, or that cicada, but as waves upon waves of combined sound. This is the insects’ world, not mine. So what I’m hearing isn’t “harmonious nature” but something that, if I were there, I’d have to contend with, struggle to find a place in. It rocks, but not to my dance.

I assume that if I lived off this immediate physical environment—hunted, or planted —the different tones would have many associations. But as it is, when it comes to insect calls, I’m an uncomprehending tourist. The liner notes say, “The listener participates in the night’s expression precisely by hearing it. The late American Surrealist filmmaker and ethnomusicologist Harry Smith believed that recordings of nature would reveal patterns and messages. He used to hang a running tape recorder outside his window at night.” I’d argue that you only participate in the night’s expression by living it. So, as for this CD, the question isn’t the Southeast Asian night’s expression, but your night’s (or day’s, or whenever you hear this).

Some insects are in the foreground, in front of the general wave. There’s one that rasps out 19 consecutive beats, then 24, then 20, all within that range but not quite repeating. I’m surprised at how many of these creatures come at us not with rhythm patterns but with sawing sounds, high-pitched ringing buzzes, and crescendos. One gives a chainsaw burst for several seconds, then breaks into distinct beats. And as this is playing, I’m hearing early-morning birds from my own, urban, soundscape, and a helicopter, and a refrigerator motor, and talk radio barely audible through the wall, the words indistinct—none of which I’d have paid the slightest attention to had I not been listening to this CD.

Don’t know yet what I’ll do with it, how often I’ll listen. It’s far less boring than most of the spacey jam music and IDM (“intelligent dance music”) and electronic soundscapes I get in the mail, a lot of which just seem to resolve into inconsequence. Maybe I simply prefer hearing animals rasp and saw. But also, I’m pulled in by the mystery: Who are these insects? Why are they making these sounds?

Insects will be performing Monday, September 27, at 1 a.m. in Prospect Park.