May 15 2013 12:00 AM

Brooklyn musician will jam with bugs at Broad Museum


With their crunchy exoskeletons, compound eyes and yellow blood, insects seem more like alien creatures than our fellow Earthlings — but humans have more in common with the six-legged beasties than you’d think. For example, we’ve both taken over nearly every corner of the planet. We have similarly complex social lives. And we both make interesting noises. Not accidental ones, mind you — purposeful, repeated vibrations.

Music, one might say.

At least that’s what Brooklyn-based composer and guitarist Zach Layton calls it. He’s ready for the first human-bug combo jam session of his career, if not in human history. Sunday afternoon, Layton will plant himself in the Broad Art Museum, pull out an electric guitar and bow it gently in response to carefully miked live insects. 

“We will process the sounds of (the) insects, and I will do an interactive performance,” Layton said in a phone interview last week.

Live electronics and insect field recordings will fill out the sonic canvas Sunday, but the big thrill is the element of surprise.

“This is going to be the first time I actually make music in real time with live insects,” he said.

The Michigan State University Entomology Department will outfit a fearsome chorus of Zach-ettes — including crickets, Madagascar hissing cockroaches and a huge scorpion-like thing called a vinegaroon — with tiny microphones and amplifiers.

“I asked them for the noisiest insects,” Layton said. “I’m happy to work with whatever they’ve got.”

Layton is not the first composer to steal his material from another species. “Catalog of Insects,” Layton’s magnum opus for piano, was inspired by 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s “Catalog of Birds,” a cycle of piano works based on birdsong. Copyright lawyers never flew at Messiaen, and they’re not likely to scuttle after Layton either.

Layton got the idea of playing with insects from his previous project, where he played music in response to blips and tones from his own EEG. He was tired of strumming predictable grooves on guitar, following dots on paper. “Biomusic,” as he calls it, floats in a complex cloud of connections.

“It’s based on the way our cells integrate, as a collective of millions of neurons all firing together,” he said.

Before long, however, grooving to feedback from his own brain began to feel like a “closed loop.” He longed to reach outside of himself.

Last summer, Layton was relaxing in rural upstate New York — taking a break from composing, teaching and work on a master’s degree at Bard College — when the chorus of chirping crickets and katydids called to him in a new way.

“I don’t know exactly what these signals are that they’re sending to one another, but there’s a sense of vibration that we’re all participating in,” he said. “Maybe that’s why being in the woods at night creates a calming effect on the brain. There’s something about the vibrations that’s beautiful.”

In April, Layton premiered a haunting work that blended recorded insect sounds, a string quartet and bowed guitar. The name of the piece, “Stridulitrum,” refers both to the scraping of bows on strings and to the scraping motions, or stridulations, of noisy crickets and katydids.

(Hear it at

But the written score will be of no use Sunday.

“The insects don’t read music, so I’m going to leave it up to them to do their thing and I’m just going to try to work with them as best I can,” he said. “My plan is to let them take the lead.”

Deb McCullough, a professor of entomology at MSU, is an enthusiastic liaison with the Broad Museum for Layton’s project. 

“All music is vibrations,” McCollough said. “Musicians think about it their way and we scientists think about it our way, but there’s all kinds of ways it can come together.”

For a visual flourish, a display of iridescent butterflies, beetles and other insects will also be on hand. The Broad is an art museum, after all. “Those won’t make any sounds because they’re dead,” McCullough said apologetically. “But some of them are spectacular, more like jewelry than insects.”

The star of Sunday’s show may be the most humble-looking insect in the bunch: the tiny larva of the emerald ash borer, that notorious ravager of forests.

MSU entomology people will bring a section of a tree, with live larva inside, to Sunday’s little jam session. Research on the sounds they make isn’t exactly musically inspired. As the borer spreads, entomologists are working on ways to fight the pest by singing back at it in its own language. In the lab, they can fool the larvae into thinking the bark is crowded with other larvae and make them flee a tree. Some signals can turn the larvae against each other, or even become cannibals. “We can mess up their little minds,” McCollough chortled.

Sunday’s concert, a more benign affair, will use tiny technology from David Dunn, an acoustic ecologist from New Mexico who visited MSU last summer. 

To record the sonic world under the bark of a tree, Dunn designed what he jokingly called a “complex” transducer: a three-dollar Chinese meat thermometer, gutted and glued with a plastic washer to a piezo bender, the electronic gadget that plays a tune when you open a Hallmark greeting card.

Scientists screw a gadget called an “exciter” into a tree, with a little amplifier, to play an MP3 file of false signals that excite them to answer. “We will probably turn it up with Zach so you can hear the noises, and Zach will take it from there,” McCullough said.

Dunn also has a CD, “The Sound of Light in Trees,” which consists of field recordings of beetle gnawings, chirps and clicks under tree bark, along with the creaking of the tree itself.

It’s a fascinating recording, but Layton, who is more musician than scientist, isn’t content to listen. He wants to join the chorus.

“It’s like Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’” he said. “You’re in the chorus, whether you’re a bug or a human being.”

Zach Layton’s Insect Chorus Concert
in collaboration with the MSU Department of
Noon–2 p.m. Sunday
Broad Art Museum, MSU campus