An ode to the cicadas' scream — the noise that surrounds me like a summer symphony
The orchestra of sound envelopes the summertime air, not unlike The 40 Part Motet
The last hot, hazy days of August warrant a look back — a look at what made summer what it is, or maybe what it once was and what it could have been. For our essay series Sounds Like Summer, we asked writers to reminisce about specific moments, reflect on feelings about the season's immense pull over us and conjure up the sounds associated — musical and otherwise. Summer's nearly over, but the reverberation of a particular mood remains.
As a child, I believed that the cathodic song of the cicada was the heat singeing the electrical lines. I thought it was a testament to the temperature: the sun was so hot that even electricity was suffering. It wasn't until I was much older that I learned the shrill cry was originating from cicadas — and the meaning of the sound changed.
Cicadas are small insects that live the majority of their lives as nymphs, residing largely underground. Periodic cicadas spend 13 to 17 years below ground before ascending en masse, while annual cicadas — cicadas that are present each year — spend as little as two years underground. On ascent, they live in trees and emanate a distinct sound that works to detract potential predators. In Toronto, the cicadas come out annually, blending into the contours of the summer with their distinct soundtrack. I wasn't surprised when I learned that one of the native breeds of cicadas in Toronto are called Dog Day Cicadas, their sound mirroring the climax of the summer. When the heat comes to a boiling point, so to does the cicadas' song.
In grade school, I wasn't able to concentrate in class without complete silence. To remedy my distraction, if there was noise, I would hum — not loud enough for anyone else could hear, just loud enough that the sound reverberated through my body — while writing tests or solving math problems. The humming was reminiscent of the sound of cicadas, and worked as an antidote for my short attention span. My sensitivity to sound has persisted into adulthood. I rarely listen to music; the words in the chorus distract me from my own thoughts. Instead, I tune in to the sound of cicadas to ground myself: an om sound found in nature. Their electronic song vibrates impatiently, filling the air until it's the only thing I can hear. When the cicadas sing, all other sounds are cancelled out and my mind is clear.
Last year, I took the train to the National Gallery in Ottawa for work. Although I only had limited time in the gallery, and it wasn't what I was supposed to be doing, I spent a good portion of the day standing in the middle of the Rideau Chapel listening to Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's sound installation, The 40 Part Motet. If the cicadas' cry masquerades as electronic, The 40 Part Motet is technology that replicates reality. The speakers work together to re-create the 16th-century choral work Spem in Alium by the English composer Thomas Tallis. Each of the 40 speakers, configured in a circle, play a separate singing voice. The isolated voices build on each other to create a symphony, working toward an apex that soothes the mind.
As I write this, the view out the window of my third floor walk-up neatly aligns with the treetops where the cicadas inhabit. Their sound echoes into my apartment through an open window, their screams the loudest I've ever heard them. The sound starts off as a distant buzzing and grows impatiently until it reaches a pinnacle, at which point the note is held and then cuts out abruptly. Not unlike The 40 Part Motet, multiple cicadas join together to make a symphonic collaboration that grows so loud I stop what I'm doing to listen. "The sound waves hitting your body from 40 separate speakers in such a pure way really affect you emotionally. The sound just goes totally into you, and, if it's the right space, it really reverberates in your body," explained Cardiff in an interview. And she's right: just as the cicadas' noise enters my window and renders me incapacitated, the sound from the speakers has a similar effect. Standing in the middle of the room with my eyes closed, I think of nothing but the sound vibrating around me, enveloping me.
"Sounds impress on our minds often without our awareness; they serve as aural madeleines, uncontrollably triggering deeply buried memories," write Nora M. Alter and Alexander Alberro about Kathmandu Dreams, another sound installation by Cardiff and Bures Miller. Perhaps the strong link that sound has to memory is what distracts me, rendering me unable to listen to music or voices without a Proustian flashback. "In the vast forest of sounds, the human voice stands out and establishes an intimate link to the unconscious," Alter and Alberro continue.
The cicadas' voice, distinctly inhuman, is an aural madeleine for the dog days of summer. It triggers only blank memories that mirror the final days of August: my body slack from the months of heat, everything in slow motion, a final bout of laziness before September springs with its wind-up toy force. In a way, the cicadas' melody is the perfect song to clear the palate.