Thursday, August 27, 2009

`What a Swing There Is in That Brassy Drone'

The soundtrack to my visit to Cleveland was not the Dylan, Everly Brothers and Waylon Jennings albums we listened to on my brother’s stereo in his garage/workshop but the sibilant drone of cicadas. They are beautiful creatures producing beautiful sounds and, of course, now have their own web site (scroll down to the tasteful cicada tattoo). Their sound starts as a restful whirr, like a rapidly shaken baby’s rattle, and rises into a sonic shimmer before descending again into the more prosaic rattle. When dozens are at work it’s like an orchestra of maracas. Throw in the katydid and cricket sections and the sound is layered and polyphonic beyond understanding – the sound of imminent mortality, summer’s end.

As kids we called them “locusts,” a common misnaming. True locusts are ravenous, swarming grasshoppers, a Biblical plague. The North American genus of cicadas, nicely named Magicicada, has life cycles of 13 and 17 years. The summer of 1964 was such an explosion in Northern Ohio. Millions of them swarmed harmlessly through trees and on sidewalks, where boys turned them into slick, skateable impasto. On a camping trip, my brother and I collected them by the bushel and devised novel means of torment, including roasting and boiling.

In Specimen Days, Whitman describes the insect chorus (“locust” here means cicada) in a passage dated Aug. 22, 1876:

“Reedy monotones of locust, or sounds of katydid—I hear the latter at night, and the other both day and night. I thought the morning and evening warble of birds delightful; but I find I can listen to these strange insects with just as much pleasure. 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. The locust-song is very appropriate to the scene—gushes, has meaning, is masculine, is like some fine old wine, not sweet, but far better than sweet.”

After a digression on the katydid and its “piquant utterances,” Whitman resumes:

“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.”

“But what a swing there is in that brassy drone.” Sounds like Glenn Miller.


Fran Manushkin said...

Thanks for these eloquent descriptions! I'm going to listen more closely to the cicadas calling from Central Park--three blocks to the west. Or are they on my block?

Anonymous said...

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.