The cicada’s new groove

How the insect’s infamous screech entered the musical lexicon.

Music professor and cicada whisperer David Rothenberg. Art by Tyler Farmer.

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They may begin their life cycles underground before finally catching a big break off their singular sound, but cicadas have never been underground musicians. In the 221 years since the last time 13-year and 17-year cicada broods both emerged in the same year, their music has remained omnipresent without evolving much. Their sole instruments are their tymbals, whose vibrations echo to a fever pitch in their hollow bodies. Since we humans have begun to record cicadas, they’ve become just one of the thousands of instruments in our own repertoire. 

Thirteen years into capturing cicada field recordings, David Rothenberg is running out of ideas. The NJIT professor has been bringing his clarinet and ad hoc backing bands out to Magicicada orgies from Tennessee to Illinois since 2011. He’s collaborated with musicians like Pauline Oliveros and throat singer Timothy Hill, and Rothenberg’s then 13-year-old son Umru got his first production credit twiddling with an iPad on “Magicicada Unexpected Road.” Professor Rothenberg fancifully credited the bulk of 2021’s We Emerge, whose meshes of bug noise and atonal clarinet recall Tim Hecker’s gagaku-inspired record Konoyo, to the “Cicada Dream Band” spread between Princeton and Baltimore.

“I’d never use my own samples,” Rothenberg assured me in his office. “My recordings are just 10% processed. The draw of field music is where it comes from – you resist the itch to intervene.”

When cicada drone gets sampled in conventional music, though, it’s for every reason except what it sounds like. We’ve never resisted the itch to co-opt the cicada’s hum into our own metaphorical language. Take your pick between “sad southern summers,” “shedding your old self,” or “sneaking out of your house for just one boozy post-prom.” The actual rhythm kept by a cicada tricks one that their earbud’s on its dying gasps. 

Why else would Lorde’s sentimental recordings of New Zealand cicadas get buried under shimmering strata of guitar and backing vocals on “Solar Power”? Why does the insects’ fizz stop before the human vocals on Temples’ sultry psych pop track “Cicada” begin? On the other hand, why else would Atlanta transplant Rick Beato malign the incessant hi-hat on Ariana’s “break up with your girlfriend” as more tymbal than cymbal? People clearly love the idea of the cicada, its onomatopoeic name and symbolism, but the grating noise it makes contradicts the positive messaging.

Rothenberg’s pop science enthusiasm dilutes the inherent eeriness of his field recordings, but sound artists like dave phillips prefer to amplify the cicada’s alien shriek. philips’ Buddha-inspired, hour-long “Cicada Trance” shreds your ears with harsh insect noise while accompanying liner notes linger on how the bug lives purely in the moment. Cicada calls presented unedited are more Ableton than animal, closer to ambulance sirens and jungle breakbeats than forest ambience. Zoom in on one tch-tch-tching Magicicada cassini, and like a lone scarlet pixel in a photograph of a sunset, it’ll derail the whole brood’s mirage of naturalness. 

Cicadas (or imitations thereof) work in left-field tunes that permit this strangeness. The title track of English junglist YAANO’s Cicada EP, inspired by his friend’s playthrough of a Japanese horror game, blends claustrophobic grooves with an ominous rising tone that turns neurofunk into Psycho shit. Sega Bodega’s “Cicada” duet with Arca, the centerpiece of the former’s 2021 album Romeo, is an ethereal dancehall cut that more faithfully recreates the bugs’ lusty call-and-response than most pop songs that directly sample them. Arca plays her role perfectly here: she opened her self-titled album with the lyric “Quítame la piel de ayer” (“Take off the skin from yesterday.”)

The best invocations of cicada calls are built off of colonial era misconceptions of them as crop-ravaging locusts, which stretch the bugs from curiously weird to Biblically apocalyptic. It’s not just armageddon messengers like Ethel Cain and Kristin Hayter (fka Lingua Ignota) who each cast the insects into the roles of the locusts on “Family Tree” and “MANY HANDS,” respectively. Listen to how deliberately out of place Brood X’s wraithlike whine sounds at the start of Bob Dylan’s jaunty “Day of the Locusts,” and you might feel what Dylan felt when he accepted an honorary degree from Princeton at the height of the Vietnam War in 1970, on a paranoid high from David Crosby’s spliff. Cicadas rise from below—tunes like these suggest we’re descending in their place. 

David Rothenberg awaits the next cicada season with the zeal of a cult leader. He’s chased down dozens of broods, year after year noticing the sense of finality that weighed on his earliest cicada projects softening. Each group of cicadas emerges with a keen awareness that this will be their only chance; the clangor you hear outside your front porch in late spring is the sound of their living here now. But for Rothenberg, there’s always next year. He just can’t help it.

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