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Music Professor David Rothenberg Makes Music With Cicadas

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADAS BUZZING)

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's a matter of days before the deafening buzz of cicadas fills backyards along the East Coast. Brood 10, which some pronounce Brood X, is supposed to be the loudest and one of the biggest after 17 years underground. While some may dread cicadas, music professor David Rothenberg revels in them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARINET MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When a brood is due to emerge, he gets into his car. And soon, he is playing his clarinet in a forest covered in cicadas. He's been doing this for 10 years. And he joins us now from Cold Springs, N.Y. Welcome to the program.

DAVID ROTHENBERG: Thanks for inviting me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What inspired you to start playing music with cicadas?

ROTHENBERG: I was born in a cicada year. Seventeen years later, when I was in high school, I do remember them. And 17 years after that, they were singing all around my house here. And then I started already scheming that, 17 years after that, then I would be playing music with them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, to some of us, cicadas sound like sort of the static of a broken TV, but there are actually several distinctive sounds. Can you talk us through the sort of individual sounds and why cicadas make them?

ROTHENBERG: Every brood is a separate population of three species of cicadas. The one you just played is called Magicicada cassini, and this makes - an individual cicada goes (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADA BUZZING)

ROTHENBERG: ...But then when you have millions of them, they actually synchronize into these waves of noise. (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADAS BUZZING)

ROTHENBERG: I think acoustically, the reason is to separate themselves from the other main species, which is called Magicicada septendecim, and that one makes this famous totally different sound called the pharaoh sound. They go pharaoh, pharaoh.

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADA NOISES)

ROTHENBERG: So one is the rhythm section. The other is like chords and transitions in Wagner's operas in between one scene and the next.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you make music with them? What is it that you get out of that that allows you to play with this bug orchestra?

ROTHENBERG: Yeah, I'm always interested in how humanity can better fit into the natural world. The only way we're going to save the planet is if we fit into nature better. The whole emergence of these cicadas is quite an interesting rhythm because it's silent for 17 years. Then they somehow know when to come up and make all this sound. Then they go away. It's a really long beat - really long rhythm, almost impossible to fathom how these little critters can figure this out. So this is all setting up the stage for your question, which is, why would you go out and make music with all this noise?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Yes.

ROTHENBERG: Because I want to learn. I want to learn what it's like to be a cicada. I want to learn what it's like to be in this wash of noise and fit in.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARINET MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many are dreading this sort of insect cacophony. In your opinion, what is the best way to enjoy them?

ROTHENBERG: The best way to enjoy them is spend time with them. Go out. Listen to them. Look at them. And take it all in. If it bothers you, just - you can remember that it's going to be silent for 17 years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are your plans for Brood X?

ROTHENBERG: Oh, I'm going to go out there and get together the best musicians I can find to go out and play with them. And one of my favorite things is to get people who have never done this before and watch what happens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Rothenberg is a music professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of "Bug Music." Thank you very much.

ROTHENBERG: Thanks so much for talking to me, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 16, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier headline misspelled David Rothenberg's last name as Rothenburg. A previous broadcast version of this report called cicadas leaf-eaters. In fact, they do not eat leaves.