Culture Magazine

Machine Music (Cicadas, Pt 2)

By Praymont

Poets invoke cicadas as little poets singing with the Muses, but, for many, the mechanical drone of some of these insects is the antithesis of music. 

Here's Nathaniel Potter in 1839: 

The cicadae breed annually, the locust once in seventeen years. ... The cicadae of Greece must have been highly gifted with musical powers to have been celebrated by Homer .... How differently would the ear of the imperial poet have decided, if he had been condemned to listen to the monotonous, protracted twang of the American locust! (Potter, Notes on the Locusta Septentrionalis Americanae Decem Septima [Baltimore: J. Robinson, 1839], p. 7)

In 1843, the noise of cicadas (i.e., seventeen-year locusts) impressed Hentry David Thoreau, who describes them in a letter to his mother from Staten Island. 

Pray, have you the Seventeen year locust in Concord? The air here is filled with their din. They come out of the ground at first in an imperfect state, and, crawling up the shrubs and plants, the perfect insect bursts out through the back. ... In a few weeks the eggs will be hatched, and the worms fall to the ground and enter it, and in 1860 make their appearance again. ... Their din is heard by those who sail along the shore, from the distant woods, Phar-r-r-aoh. Phar-r-r-aoh. They are departing now. Dogs, cats and chickens subsist mainly upon them in some places. (Thoreau, July 7, 1843)

The "din" raised by this pharaonic plague of locusts impressed Thoreau, but he does not call it music

The noise is often said to be metallic or mechanical. Walt Whitman calls it "that brassy drone" and compares it to "the whirling of brass quoits." (Specimen Days, Aug. 22, 1876) John Burroughs mentions "the brassy crescendo of the cicada." (Locusts and Wild Honey, 1884) 

The entomologist Thomas Workman characterizes the sound of Brazilian cicadas this way:

There is a cicada or some other insect that goes on Ping-ing-ing-ing like a fine wire vibrating and a liliputian triangle working at the same time; there is also another insect making a somewhat similar sound, but not so mechanical or peculiar." (Workman, "A Recent Visit to Brazil," Report and Proceedings of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society for the Session 1882-83 [Nov. 7, 1882], p. 16)

"A fine wire vibrating" -- perhaps, then, it's a kind of music. A strumming? For Archibald Lampman, "The dry cicada plies his wiry bow/ In long-spun cadence." ("Among the Timothy," 1888) And, in Chicago, "Cicadas strum the metal miles of air." (John Frederick Nims, "The Woolen Bug," 1944) The "metal miles" of industry, of whirring mechanisms and gears. Robert Penn Warren imagines cicadas sawing away, churning out "filings of brass." ("Island of Summer," Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968) It's the same in Japan, where "a gross cicada tunes its brassy gear." (D. J. Enright, "Sumiyoshi [i]: First Impressions," Bread Rather Than Roses, 1956) Even in Greece, where cicadas used to be pastoral, they now grate and whirr:

It came from the shore in rhythmic, grating, metallic waves like the engines of an immense factory in a frenzy—the electric rattle of innumerable high-powered dynamos whirling in aimless unison." (Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani, 1958, p. 41)

We link cicada sounds to the noise of "machines to power daylight," (Jamie Grant, "The Cicadas," 1985) "your electric razor," (Chungmi Kim, "Being In Love," 2004) an "electric appliance," (Dana Levin, "My Sentence," 2012), and "the dog days' electrical buzz." (Madeline Bassnett, "Life Cycle" -- scroll way down -- 2011) 

Strange, that something so natural brings artifice to mind.

Later comparisons invoke later machines. In the 19th century, the machines in question were pushed through neighborhoods by scissor-grinders, tradesmen who went door-to-door, sharpening household blades. Their carts contained a metal wheel, which figures in Walt Whitman's description of the cicada's sound: 

A single locust is now heard near noon from a tree two hundred feet off, as I write—a long whirring, continued, quite loud noise graded in distinct whirls, or swinging circles, increasing in strength and rapidity up to a certain point, and then a fluttering, quietly tapering fall. Each strain is continued from one to two minutes. ... Let me say more about the song of the locust, even to repetition; a long, chromatic, tremulous crescendo, like a brass disk whirling round and round, emitting wave after wave of notes, beginning with a certain moderate beat or measure, rapidly increasing in speed and emphasis, reaching a point of great energy and significance, and then quickly and gracefully dropping down and out. Not the melody of the singing-bird—far from it; the common musician might think without melody, but surely having to the finer ear a harmony of its own; monotonous—but what a swing there is in that brassy drone, round and round, cymballine—or like the whirling of brass quoits. (Specimen Days, 1876)

In the longer passage from which I quoted at the start of this post, Nathaniel Potter says, 

How differently would the ear of the imperial poet have decided, if he had been condemned to listen to the monotonous, protracted twang of the American locust! He would have been as much pleased with the scraping of a scissor-grinder, or the grating of a file." (Notes on the Locusta Septentrionalis Americanae Decem Septima [Baltimore: J. Robinson, 1839], p. 7)

He there adds that the sound "rises and falls through the gradations; crescendominuendo et cadendo." 

Here's Cuthbert Collingwood in 1868: 

There are two or three species of Cicada which are no whit inferior in noisy powers .... I shall never forget the first time of hearing the scissor-grinder in the jungle at Pappan when approaching the island in a boat, the noise being distinctly audible for at least a quarter of an hour before we reached the shore, and when there the resounding whir-r-r--whir-r-r--whir-r-r of the insect .... After continuing this deafening sound for some time, it winds up with a protracted whiz-z-z, which dies away just like the scissor-grinder's wheel when the treddle stops. (Rambles of a Naturalist on the Shores and Waters of the China Sea [London: John Murray, 1868], p. 176)

Writing from Guyana in 1883, Sir Everard Ferdinand im Thurn mentions

certain curious insects, locally called razor-grinders (Cicada), from the extraordinary sounds that they make, ... The whole place rings with the whirr of these insects, as though fifty pairs of scissors were being sharpened at once on half a hundred grindstones" (Among the Indians of Guiana: being sketches, chiefly anthropologic from the interior of British Guiana, 1883, p. 153)

The simile survived at least until 1959, when Babette Deutsch wrote "July In Dutchess County": 

Late, the dry / Timbal of the cicada, / Like the pledge of the knifegrinder's wheel, / Refines / Summer's declining edge." (Coming of Age, 1959, p. 111)

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