August is the biggest most overwhelming Sunday night on the planet. It’s possible that other academics actually finish their books, the extra articles, and plan their classes all by mid August. I always mean to do these things. I mean to do them while making the hundreds of piles of clutter in our house disappear and re-connecting with my kids who, by the end of a season of school wrap up events, I’musually ready to give away. This summer I did not do about 793 things. To begin with; the Cicada article. On a very loud morning run out in the country one Sunday in May my mind wandered to Galileo and the fable of sound. I’m not making this up; I really did go to Ridge Road for a long run. And in the midst of a crucial conversation about soccer tryout drama a crucial point almost went by the wayside thanks to the incessant cicadas. Wow!!!! I know why Plato, Galileo, Darwin and others couldn’t get this irritating sound out of their heads. I’ve had a thing for the fact that Galileo’s fable of sound ends with the death of a Cicada for a long time, and one of the summer’s unfinished task involved finishing a book chapter featuring said dead cicada. But suddenly it seemed like the silly interest of a music historian might actually matter to millions of listeners up and down the East Coast. So it seemed time for the popular press. The witty article about the Cicada in a well read national media turned into yet another unfinished summer project.
The seventeen-year cicadas last appeared in 1996, when Dolly became the first cloned mammal, Billboard named the Macarena its top tune, and clubs resounded with electronica. Once again the noisy sex starved adolescents are crawling out of the earth. The males make a racket trying to attract females and if she likes it she clicks her wings. Shortly after sex they die. This deciseptennial return has fascinated humans for thousands of years. Their sound, while remaining biologically the same (at least in cicada terms), sounds different every time. These little summer bugs remind us that sound has no universal objective truth.
Plato heard the same sounds that have been blanketing much of the East Coast and that Charles Darwin heard when he said, “The females are mute; as the Grecian poet Xenarchus says, 'Happy the Cicadas live, since they all have voiceless wives.'” In Plato's time writers described the tiny little drums in the bellies of the male bugs as musical expressions. That would be the Charles Darwin who was so captivated by his pianist wife that he worked music into his theory arguing that music emerged for the purpose of charming the opposite sex. By the late 19th century the terminology centered around animalistic machines. When thousands of them hang out together, their clicking sounds amplify and can reach somewhere between one hundred and one hundred twenty decibels, the volume of a stadium rock concert or an airplane. In the time before trains, car alarms, and electronic amplification, such decibels hardly ever resounded in the world, and they seemed mysterious and mythical. For a sense of what this sonic relativism says about how humans inhabited the earth, think about lightning: before Ben Franklin flew his kite, educated people thought that the thunder and lightning were God’s wrath and that the damage came not from the fiery lightning but from the noise of thunder.
When Plato, hanging out with his male students in the sun, heard the repetitive noise that seems almost not to come from nature, he associated it with music and crafted a myth around it. In Plato’s early dialogue Phaedrus, the cicadas provide a soundtrack for the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus. Socrates manages to tie together cicadas, the birth of the muses, and the invention of singing: “They were so busy singing that they didn’t bother with food and drink, so that before they knew it they were dead. They were granted the origin of the race of cicadas, whom the Muses granted the gift of never needing any food once they were born; all they do is sing, from the moment of their births until their deaths, without eating or drinking.” This musical hearing of cicadas reached its apex in the story of Euonymus of Locri, who needed a cicada’s help to win the Pythian games when a string on his cithara broke. The cicada heard the faltering harmony and jumped onto the string to offer the missing note, singing himself to death in the process.
We also know that Galileo, of the inclined plane, telescope and heliocentric solar system, listened to their buzz when on papal lockdown outside of Florence. Keep in mind that musically this was before Vivaldi, Corelli and Bach—the kind of baroque music that comes with a repetitive rhythmic bass. The most famous composer of Galileo’s time, Monteverdi, was only beginning the move from vocally dominated music. Galileo used the bugs to explore the relationship between musical instruments and natural sounds and to use this exploration as an opportunity to subtly criticize his captors. The son of an important musician, he studied lute as a child, and often-used music as a springboard for broader philosophical points. The cicada made the punch line for a story Galileo wrote about a hermit who raised birds and the search for knowledge.
One night the hermit heard a song near his house; assuming it was a bird, he set out to capture it. The sound turned out to be a shepherd boy with a flute. The hermit then set out on a quest to understand more sounds. The cicada stumped him: “He failed to diminish its strident noise either by closing its mouth or stopping its wings, yet he could not see it move the scales that covered its body, or any other thing. At last he lifted up the armor of its chest and there he saw some thin hard ligaments beneath; thinking the sound might come from their vibration, he decided to break them in order to silence it. But nothing happened until his needle drove too deep, and transfixing the creature he took away its life with its voice.” The hermit never figured out how the cicada worked, and from then on he understood that the world contained infinite “unknown and unimaginable sounds.” The Pope at the time liked this story because it suggested that humans just can’t understand everything God created, and that the quest just ruins the pleasure. Galileo, not surprisingly, meant the story to show that the questions are more important than the answers.
Jumping ahead two hundred years and across the pond to the United States, we find the cicada had become an object of science for its own sake. A year before he wrote the Declaration of Independence and during the time when Mozart was writing piano sonatas, Thomas Jefferson noted in his garden book that he was expecting their arrival. As the Industrial Revolution rolled across America, descriptions of the cicada went from musical to mechanical. Music went towards the mechanical, too. By then instruments dominated musical practice; that meant that, instead of vocal music dominating parlors, emergent concert halls featuring symphonies, pianos, and violins (all of which celebrated human-made sounds) became the locus of ‘Music.’ In June of 1864 The Wisconsin State Register called the cicada a musical instrument, observing that “the male Cicada is furnished with a pair of bellows, one on each side of the body, consisting of two large oval plates, formed of convex pieces of parchment, and placed just behind the wings and thorax.” By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the bugs were heard in machine-terms. Given the quick love-sex-death- cycle it was clear to everywhere that the cicadas had no use for the newly mass-produced rubber condums made possible by rubber factories. That was the Industrial Revolution talking. Factories, railroads, and other machines introduced continuous, repeating sounds that gave the bugs a whole new sonic context. The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported that “…[t]he sights and sounds of 1885 in Indiana were among the most remarkable I ever witnessed. There was a continued monotonous roar, or rather a rattle, like many thrashing machines at a distance.”
It was only a few hundred years ago that the loudest repeated sounds came from musical instruments. As we learned to harness fossil fuels and electrons to make machines and instruments that could blast repeating sounds that exceeded even the cicada, it is little wonder that our ears began to hear them as extensions of our mechanical world rather than our musical one. And because we so frequently hear sounds that emanate from machines not humans and animals the cicadas incessant song has lost it’s association with it’s very life. For the Greeks and for Galileo both the song and the cicada’s strange life cycle remained mysterious. And the song and efforts to understand it turned murderous very quickly. Thanks to Darwin’s evolutionary biology and Edison’s recording technologies we know why they sing and we can push play to hear their love-death any time we want. But they like so many sounds don’t have quite the same potency.