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.
By the 17th Century the trade of insect-seller existed and grew into a large enterprise, with natural and artificial breeding to supply extensive markets. Most of the insects that were prized were small nocturnal crickets and grass-hoppers and rarely cicadae (semi).
In Japan a rich history of verse celebrates the melancholy of Autumn and the songs of the insects - its most lingering memory. The allusion is nearly always to the grief of parting from a loved one, but more - to the sorrow of the collective memory of summers' end, that strange ancestral pain. In Buddhist tenns it symbolized impermanence, the certainty of bereavement, the pain that clings to all desire, and the sadness of isolation.

"With dusk begins to cry
the male of the Waiting-insect; --
I, too, await my beloved,
and, hearing, my longing grows."
Tsurayuki, Kokinshu (905AD)


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.
Now, for the first time, digital technology allows the sampling and manipulation of any natural sound source. Man can now see nature in a new light, and relate to it in complementary, creative ways. The insect produces sounds which go far beyond the boundaries of natural perception: m their pitch (which is often too high); in their rhythms (which are often too fast); and in their timbres (which can be too complex).
i) Only a few of the insects are ever heard by man, and still fewer in the industrialized West. Best known, of course, are the crickets, grasshoppers, and cicadae. But a great many others produce sounds of communication and by virtue of their other activities. One of most important roles of the new technology is to bring these silent songs into the human acoustic and time scale.
ii) Furthermore, by being able to sample and use the sound itself, and variations of it, we have the possibility of the creation of new instruments, entire new orchestras of timbres.
iii) And in the microscopic analysis of the sounds and their organization (Rhythm) we find suggested new structures of musical syntax and semantics. Though it is notable that from the first listening one will notice a few greater affinity between certain ethnic ("primitive") musics and natural sonorities. 
The Insect Musicians is therefore both very new and, at the same time, very old. It is nature and hyper-nature in a sort of indivisible whole. Despite the high degree of digital manipulation, all the new "instruments" are able to retain the essential character (or "Nature") of their source mtact. If the approach has been to approximate certain ethnic (including European) mstruments, it is mainly due to this "Nature" strongly suggesting it in the first place. And of course it is only one approach. It is perhaps most significant to ask how much man has in the past imitated these natural sonorities in the creation of his own instruments and musics.


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 stroke.
Crickets generally use their two front wings in an upraised position. The Field Cricket, for example, has 142 teeth in its file, and in its normal call uses 67 of them to produce a triple note at around 4900Hz. Its courtship signal, however, uses 92 teeth to. produce a single continuous chirp at the same frequency. In contrast the European House Cricket begins at a slightly lower pitch but changes to a very much higher note on encountering a female, with some chirps in the ultrasonic range.
Short-horned grasshoppers stridulate by rubbing their hind femora over the front wings. Long-horned beetles rub their hind legs along the edges of the elytra. And in some wasps, the edges of adjacent abdominal segments are rubbed together. Some of the world's locusts lack both the file and scraper but produce a very loud signal during their display flight by snapping their wings together.
The pitch of stridulating insect sounds seems to he determined by the tooth strike rate. It is remarkable how the pitch produced in this way and also that by tymbal mechanisms is almost constant throughout the waveform. The principal species differences are related to rhythm. In the Tree Cricket, for example, the pulses of sound may he continuous over very long periods, with the songs of different species differing in pulse rate; or they may he produced in groups (bursts or chirps). The insects themselves are very sensitive to these differences in rhythm, only responding to the song of their own species.
There is so little variation in this behaviour that it is possible to accurately induce responses by replaying appropriate sounds to individuals of a species. It may also he possible to predict the sound that might he produced by a laboratory-bred hybrid species. 

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. 
Meadow grasshopper (Chorthippus parallel)-stridulations. 
Short-winged cone-head (Conocephalus dorsalis)-stridulations. 
Rufous grasshopper (Gomphocerippus rufus)-Courtship. 
Wood cricket (Nemobius sylvestris)-stridulations. 
Bog Bush cricket (Metrioptera brachyptera)stridulations. 
Field cricket (Gryllus campestri)-stridulations. 
Indonesian cicada (Cicada sp.)-stridulations. 
Indian cicada (Cicada sp.)-song African cicada (Cicada sp.) -song. 
European cicada (Lys@tres plebejus)-song. 
Australian cicada (Cicada sp.)-song. 
Wood boring beetle (Hylecoetus dermestoid) -feeding. 
Longicorn beetle (Beetle sp.)-stridulating & scraping. 
Death Watch Beetle (Xestobius rufoyillosum)-knocking. 
Screech bettle (Hygrobia hermanni)-in captivity. 
Tse tse Fly (Glossina morsitans)-in captivity. 
Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax)-droning in flight. 
Gnat (Chironomus sp.)-courtship swarm of males. 
Giant woodwasp (Sirex gigas)-larval chewing. 
Hornet (Vespa crabro)-wing movement. 
Red wasp (Vespula rufa)-in flight. 
Hive bee (Apis mellifera)-hiss reaction to disturbance. 
Hive bee (Apis mellifera)-queens piping. 
Hive bee (Apis mellifera)-many disturbed workers. 
Oakleaf miner (Rhynchaenus quercus)-larval movement. 
Death's Head Hawkmoth (Archerontia atropos)-squeaks. 
Death's Head Hawkmoth (Archerontia atropos)-taking off. 
Hawk Moth (Eumorpha labruscae)-squeaking & wings. 


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.
In fact, an unforseen difficulty presented itself during the composition of The Insect Musicians as a result of this degree of control. Once we can divide a sound into minute segments and then redraw (using a light pen) each of those segments, the resulting modified waveform may bear absolutely NO relation to the source at all. To the audience with no prior comprehension of digital anhlysis, the process must then seem either invisible or a sheer fakery. The musician could indeed tinker indernfitely to create the perfect replica of whatever instrument, if that was his aim, but all that would prove was that Fourier was correct when hypothesised that any sound could he recreated by the right combination of sine waves. Even now this process is still quite rough but the pen light allows sufricientiy rme adjustments to at least theoretically allow any sound to he transmuted into any other sound.
A Poetic technology must satisfy somewhat greater conditions than sirnple technical capacity. Like any poetry it must open up a space of multiple meanings, the conununication not of a 'denoted' message, but one of many interpretations ('connotations'). It is the process, not the end product that we are trying to conununicate. For what is shown is that an unlimited array of instruments and musics can be created from the sounds of nature, including those of human acitivty. Theoreticary, The Insect Musicians are a new orchestra, susceptible to the same variety of application as the orchestras of any part of the world: European, African, South American, oriental . . . ; modern or ancient. 


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.
I thus chose to make Volume I of The Insect Musicians a series of vignettes of a multi-cultural nature.
Each traces a development from the raw sound to its digital transformation and its position in the musical structure. At most 8 different sounds are used in one Piece, the better for the ear to trace the modirication and its development as syntactic and semantic component in musical organisation. Some sounds (the scrapes & clicks) lend themselves more to rhythm, whfist those more tonal (chirps & buzzes) to melody. I have tried to remain faithful to the essential "nature" of each sound, and where possible to use an insect native to a particular continent in the context of a musical theme based on the ethnic music of that continent.
The initial step of the process is sampling the source, thereby being able to play it like a musical instrument. Then there is the group of techniques wed known to experimenters with magnetic tape.
Change of pitch: upon sampling, the sound is available over 6 octaves with further extensions both up and down of several octaves. Some sources were so high-pitched that they needed to be re-sampled and slowed down by another octaves or so before they came into the intelligible hearing range of humans. Other sounds were raised in pitch to take advantage of certain harmonics.
Loops: instead of simply joining the beginning to the end of a sound or sound fragment we can now loop any section of a sampled wave. This means we always hear the beginning but the loop may be in the middle, thus sustaining a note indefinitely. (Cf. Fig. 4b).
Trunkations: this is analogous to the cutting of magnetic tape though the process is much simpler and more precise digitally.
Rotations & reversals: also part of the process of splicing a waveform, this is most valuable when some segment in the middle part of the wave is desired to be placed at the beginning. The entire wave can be cut up and re-"pasted" in any pattern or patterns, and still be played as a note on the keyboard. A second group of techniques has been thoroughly utilised by electronic musicians in the past 30 years or so.
Equalisation: certain frequencies of the sound can be either emphasised or de-emphasised according to desirability. Envelopes: the attack and decay characteristics of the waveform can now be modified by superimposing another wave which modifies the amplitude of the original. Thus, by scaling the sampled sound, we can make it louder or softer at any point from start to finish.
Vibrato, Portamento/Glissando, & Pitchbending: any of these characteristics essential to the dynamic character of instruments can he applied to the sound. The usual array of studio effects is of course also available. 

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).
Mixing & merging waves: into any one of these 128 segments we may interpolate segments from any other wave. In this way the beginning and end of a sound may be a honey bee while the middle section is the cry of a cicada. Merging a wave hnplies cross-fading !wtween any two segments such that in the same example, a merge between the rirst segment and one in the middle would see the sound become graduafiy less Uke a honey bee and more like the cicada. Until the end when the sound would he totally that of the cicada again. This technique was commonly employed in The Insect Musicians. By merging from beginning to end of the one sound, a smooth decay is generated which preserves the central timbral characteristics. It is also most useful for elongating the waveform. (Cf. Figs. 1a & b and their 3-dimensional equivalents: Fig. 2).
Computing harmonics: probably the most far-reaching and creative new technique is the ability to Fourier analyse the waveform and then either change the amplitude of 32 harmonics for each of the 128 segments, (Cf. Fig. 5) or to redraw each of the 32 harinonics of the wave taken as a whole. (Cf. Figs. 4a & 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 no longer a question of an infinite horizon offered up to technical aggression, but of a finite domain which constitutes the condition of possibility of a technology which, in exploiting unconsciously this field, risks suppressing its own conditions of possibility ... In such a context technology is neither ethically submitted nor hysterically dominating; it is intrinsically regulated by a sort of contract which links it to a nature, face to face, as a partner ... it being understood that, through this nature, the real partner is in fact society itself." (Philippe Roqueplo).

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.
The realisation of the finitude of nature goes hand in hand with our perception of Time. These new techniques allow us to hear things as it were in slow-motion, under a microscope. It is the realisation also that our aesthetic sensibfiity is constrained by our limited perceptual ability. Perhaps the most fecund territory for future explorations in art and music lies in the miniature; in detailed experiments with nuances of rhythm and timbre, detail and colour. Towards the extension of our perception of Beauty in the “micro”.

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).