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Cicada Music Man

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Laura Kwerel: Peter Gena is a composer and pianist who lives in suburban Glenview. His latest studio is in a kind of strange place…

Peter Gena: It's your garden variety tool shed and basically it houses this computer…

LK: The computer is connected to a microphone, which is wedged inside a slightly open screen window in Gena's tool shed. Every morning at 7am, the computer begins streaming the noisy din of cicadas from his backyard to a website, called – get this – the Locus Sonus Audio Streaming Project. The idea is to let people eavesdrop on nature sounds from all over the world. That is, if they want to hear this:

The sound is so loud in Gena's leafy backyard that it's comparable to sitting in the front row of a full-fledged orchestra. But that's okay with him. Gena has spent nearly 40 years studying and composing what he calls “extra-musical approaches” to music. That includes translating brain waves into electronic arias, turning DNA strands into clarinet pieces, and now, recording the buzzing of cicadas.

In addition to being a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Gena is also a long-time scholar of avant garde composer John Cage. Cage is known for teaching that all sounds in our environment, no matter where they come from, can be thought of as music.

PG: What I'm interested in the sounds is just sitting here and listening to the variety that you get of the patterns of the buzzes. And if you really sit and listen, you start to appreciate the subtleties that the sound makes. For instance, there's a wonderful wave that varies from my sound meter of about 6 decibels, but you can hear it.

It's almost like Indian music where you've got that drone in the background, and then the ragas are played over it. And they weave in and out of that pitch. It's sort of what's happening here a little bit.

LK: Before Cage came along, music and background sound were very separated. You heard catchy piano tunes inside, maybe in a concert hall, and things like insect sounds outside. End of story. But then Cage came onto the scene in the 1950s, introducing his famous – perhaps infamous – piece called “4 minutes and 33 seconds.” His performance consisted of sitting at a piano, opening the lid, and playing… nothing.

LK: But he didn't have to play, because an equally legitimate music, he believed, was coming from the sounds of the concert hall. You know, if someone coughed or moved in their chair, or opened the doors to walk out. Now, noise was the music.

PG: So there we are, we have the sounds of the cicadas. There's no rule that says there's less of a license to use that sound than if I play notes on a piano. Who's to say that the piano notes are more important than the cicada sounds, right? It's all sound.

LK: Of course, Gena only has a few more days before his newest subjects start to, you know, disappear. The composer walks over to a tree and takes a closer look.

PG: Right there. Right there. And you can see he or she I believe is alive, but the one behind you there has already keeled over. So they are starting to die, which means their job is over.

LK: The cicada songs are one of many everyday sounds that are featured on the Locus Sonus website. Visitors are also encouraged to use the site's audio as a source for larger sound projects. If you look it up online, you'll see a world map speckled with orange dots.

PG: Basically all these dots are from sites that have done transmission. It turns out that they're not all on at the same time, there are quite a few that are not. But the idea is that you can go up there and listen to these sounds. Whether you're away from home and you want to tune into the environmental sounds of your home, or using this sound as a source, which is a wonderful thing.

LK: The noise is streamed through microphones that people have placed in a variety of unusual places: an event in Marseille, a window in Hong Kong, and suspended from a flag pole in Amsterdam. In Chicago there are three spots for microphones, including an apartment in Ukrainian Village and a window in the Art Institute.

But the most interesting Windy City location, and certainly the loudest, is there in Gena's backyard.

So what would John Cage think of his cicada recordings? Gena, who knew Cage personally, has a pretty good idea.

PG: John was very much involved in paying attention. Someone asked him, “what is your definition of music?” He said, “music is anything that requires your attention.” So I think he'd be fascinated just to be outside and taking in the sounds. And if an airplane goes by that's good. The sounds created by anything that we could create aren't any more important than what's already out there. And I think that's his attitude. So he would definitely be delighted.

LK: For Eight Forty-Eight on Chicago Public Radio, I'm Laura Kwerel.

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