David Rothenberg: Bug Music

On Bug Music, clarinet and soprano saxophone player David Rothenberg communes with all manner of insect creatures, from cicadas and crickets to katydids and engraver beetles. It's not the first time the ECM recording artist has turned his attention to the natural world: he's the author of the book-CD project Why Birds Sing and the book Thousand Mile Song, which concerns music-making with whales, and now brings us the seventy-minute Gruenrekorder CD, released concurrently with the book Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise (St Martins Press).

Three pieces were recorded live in the field and with no overdubbing added, making them particularly pure examples of human-insect interaction. “Magicicada Unexpected Road,” for example, finds the sounds generated by Rothenberg's clarinet and his son Umru's iPad caught within a dense cicada swarm. The other pieces use the insect noises as raw material to be looped and stretched in the studio (the insects's thrumming and scraping lend themselves well to the construction of rhythm backings), with Rothenberg and Jürjendal joining in, sometimes soloing overtop a thick entomological backdrop and other times simulating call-and-response communications with their tiny collaborators. In that regard some interesting moments arise, such as when Rothenberg tries to respond to the irregular rhythms generated by three-humped treehoppers (“Treehop”).

It would be easy for the project concept to overshadow Rothenberg as a musician, but pieces such as “What Makes Them Dance?” and “Riddim Bugz” nicely spotlight his technical abilities as a player, especially when the tunes' laid-back grooves allow him to solo so freely; his decision to play bass clarinet on some of the tracks (e.g., “Kikitara”) is a good one, too, given how well its deep-throated croak complements the insect sounds. The presence of guitarist Robert Jürjendal on four pieces also adds a lot to the recording. He serves up a quasi-psychedelic solo on “Katydid Prehistory” that serves as a nice lead-in to Rothenberg's bluesy reflections, and on “Riddim Bugz” spreads Frisell-esque lines across a regulated mass of crickets and katydids. In essence, the guitar becomes a welcome third voice that adds contrast to the woodwinds and insect noises.

In keeping with the cover image, Rothenberg presents the project with a refreshing degree of irreverence. Oh, he's serious about it, of course, but he's also not averse to seeing its lighter side—how could one do otherwise when one of the sounds comes from the Water Boatman, a tiny underwater beetle who produces its loud thrum by vibrating its penis underwater (to which Rothenberg dryly comments, “Do not try this at home”). He's no fanatical purist either who views the alteration of insect sounds as some kind of heinous violation; in reference to to “Glynwood Nights,” for instance, he's upfront about having slowed down the live outdoors recording in order to better reveal the subtleties of the human-insect interactions. Elsewhere, he's not averse to including electronics to, as he says, “outbug the real work of bugs, so close to the oscillators and filters of electronic music are the mechanisms of our ancient little friends.”

May 2013