Thomas Valerio, “bugs”


        This course is called “Music Technologies and the Natural World.” As the title suggests, throughout the course we’ve learned extensively about music, technology, and nature, and the ways in which the lines between these seemingly contrasting fields aren’t so easy to define and can be easily blurred. Thus, with my final project, I wanted to blur these lines myself, and create a piece of music that is derived from the sounds of nature and that utilizes technology in order to bring out the inner beauty in these natural sounds.


        My main sources of inspiration for the piece were from two presentations given in our class by neurobiologist Ronald Hoy and biologist and composer Anna Lindemann. Anna spoke to our class about the field of biomusic, and the different ways in which music can be derived from biological interactions such as the dawn chorus of birds, gene activation, and selection. I found it really interesting how the substrate of music could be used to display these interesting biological subjects. Dr. Hoy’s presentation went over the vast array of sounds that can be produced by insects, and what these sounds may represent to conspecifics. The insect sounds that Dr. Hoy brought with him struck me as they were so diverse in tone and rhythm, and incredibly dynamic and captivating. These two presentations sparked the idea of my final project, and the piece itself is a sort of combination between the ideas brought up by both speakers.

        Another source of inspiration for this project was the musician and philosopher David Rothenberg. Rothenberg is the author of a book titled “Bug Music,” in which he describes the relationship between insect sounds and music. I took interest in his fascination with the rhythms of insect sounds, which Dr. Hoy was also interested in. In fact, it is stated in “Bug Music” that Rothenberg believes that humanity’s love of rhythm can be directly attributed to the rhythms of insect sounds.

The Piece

        The project itself, simply called bugs,  is a fixed media composition inspired by musique concrète composed entirely of sounds either directly from, or derived from, natural insect sounds (with one obvious exception). I tried to present each sound both in its natural form, as you would hear it from the insect itself, and in its derived form. This derived form was developed by using different techniques and effects, manipulating the sound in a way that I felt both accentuated the inner beauty of the sound and served a new purpose to the piece as a whole. These different forms of each sound are brought about in a sort of “metamorphosis” throughout the piece, where a transformation or direct juxtaposition between the derived sound and its source can be heard, but the link between the sounds cannot be easily attributed. This leaves the derived sounds in an “acousmatic” state, a concept we discussed in class, in which a sound cannot be attributed to a particular source.

        I started out by collecting insect sounds from Cornell’s Macaulay Library. I chose sounds from insects constituting a wide variety of taxa in order to get some of the most diverse sounds possible. Some of the insects I chose were the honeybee, the leafhopper, and the mole cricket among many others. These sounds were then categorized according to their acoustic properties, using a method loosely based on that of Pierre Schafer. I then took these sounds and played around with them a bit in FL Studio 12 to see how different and interesting I could get each recording to sound. For instance, I took the sound of a swarm of honeybees and derived its resonance frequencies electronically (a la Alvin Lucier), which generated the high pitched “twinkling” sound throughout the piece. Other manipulations include EQing, speeding up or slowing down the sound, pitch modulation, compression, delay, and reverb (with which all impulse responses used were also insect sounds), among others. I then took my favorite sounds and manipulations and organized them into this piece, making aesthetic decisions as I saw fit.

        The piece as a whole is quite long and immersive. It could be described as ambient throughout the majority of the piece, but at the end I tried to convey a sense of fleeting urgency. The sense of urgency is loosely based on the importance of insects in our lives, and the rapidly decreasing populations of some of the most important insects like honeybees and butterflies. Without these pollinators, earth’s ecosystem will go awry, so the narrative of the piece is in part to convey life with insects versus the chaos that could ensue without them. Other than that (and as corny as this may sound), I’d like each listener to develop his or her own inner narrative while listening, connecting the sounds to personal feelings, memories, dreams, etc. In order to do this, I would recommend “active listening,” in which the listener’s focus is directed solely towards the piece for its duration. This is most easily done with a good pair of headphones and with one’s eyes closed.

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