As It Happens

This musician makes 'strange, but beautiful' music with Brood X cicadas

It's been years since clarinetist David Rothenberg jammed with his buddies. This weekend, the band was finally back together.

David Rothenberg, a self-descried 'cicada groupie,' likes to jam along to the noisy insects' mating songs

David Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, jams out with Brood X cicadas in a field in Princeton, N.J. (Submitted by David Rothenberg)

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It's been years since David Rothenberg jammed with his pals. But now he's finally getting the band back together.

Rothenberg plays the clarinet and the soprano saxophoneand his backing band consists of billions of five-eyed insects that just emerged from deep underground for the first time in 17 years — the Brood X cicadas. 

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Tuesday from a field in Princeton, N.J., where he was performing his latest "concert" with his beloved bug buddies. 

"There's literally billions of cicadas out right here in this park," he said, the sounds of buzzing, whirring and chirping audible in the background. 

"It's just a wash of noise and drone and these familiar musical elements from human music, but it's tiny little insects that are making it, as they have been for millions of years."

Periodical cicadas are noisy, red-eyed insects that exist in 15 populations worldwide, known as broods. They are among the longest-living insects on the planet, and they spend the first 13 to 17 years of their lives underground, happily feeding on tree roots. 

But when it's time to breed, the cicadas come out in swarms. Within just a few weeks, they find a mate, deposit their eggs in tree branches and twigs, then promptly die, resetting the cycle. 

The broods emerge at different times, depending on their cycles. Brood X — named for the Roman numeral 10 — has recently emerged for the first time in 17 years, blanketing 14 states in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and South.

Rothenberg says he finds their natural life cycles to be utterly fascinating. 

"It's crazy. Why would an insect come out once every 17 years in such large numbers? How could this possibly be going on? Why does nature evolve such a thing?" he said. "Others are figuring it out, and others are just playing music."

An adult cicada rests after shedding its nymphal skin on the bark of an an oak tree on May 5 at the University of Maryland campus in College Park, Md. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

While he hasn't played with Brood X before, he says he's been chasing different broods around and jamming with them since 2011. He's written a book called Bug Music, which was adapted into a film called Song of the Cicadas. 

"If you become a cicada groupie then, you know, it's like following the Grateful Dead around. Every year, you go somewhere else," he said. 

While some people find the the cicada cacophony to be a nuisance, Rothenberg — a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology — calls it "strange, but beautiful."

Their sounds, though, are not purely esthetic. The males are responsible for most of the noise, sending out mating calls to attract females, which in turn respond with much a quieter flap of the wings, Rothenberg explains in his New York Times piece about his eccentric hobby. 

He says he tries to play along with their natural symphony, but he has no idea whether they're responding in turn. Sometimes they perch on his instrument, he says, or land on his head and "sing" into his ears. 

But mostly, he says, they don't seem to notice him at all. 

"I think they're very confident about themselves. Like, 'Yes, 17 years. I counted. I came out the right time with it. Who cares what this crazy person is doing? I've got more important things to do — like sing, fly, mate, die.'"

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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