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Composer captures the pulsing flow of cicada calls in Central Illinois

Composer Karen Power records quadrophonic sound in natural environments using an ambi mic (on the ground), and sometimes a parabolic mic (held) to gather material for music compositions.
Charlie Schlenker
Composer Karen Power records quadrophonic sound in natural environments using an ambi mic [on the ground], and sometimes a parabolic mic [held] to gather material for music compositions.

The rare emergence of two broods of periodic cicadas at one time in parts of Central Illinois has attracted international attention from those who want to hear the pulsating and ear-piercing mating choruses.

A composer of experimental music stopped Sunday at Funks Grove to record cicada sounds. Karen Power also will give a talk about recording techniques at 3 p.m. Tuesday on the Illinois State University Quad [meet at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts to begin], and a presentation about her music at 4 p.m. in Kemp Recital Hall.

For the first time in a couple of centuries, 13- and 17-year cicadas have emerged at the same time in Central Illinois. Karen Power likes incorporating natural sounds in her music. That has taken her to several continents and now to Springfield and Funks Grove in McLean County. Power said she got the idea of cicada music years ago when listening to a composition by electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros, musician David Rothenberg and the album Cicada Dream Band.

“They went out and played with the cicadas and I remember just thinking, that's fantastic," said Power. "I have been keeping an eye on the different cicada cycles to see whether an interesting one might happen in my lifetime. And then I nearly missed this. It was only about six months ago, I thought of it again, and checked and realized, oh my god, it's 2024!”

Power spends a lot of time listening to environments and then letting what she hears dictate how a musical piece might come about.

“I'm not looking to say, hey, look what you missed. I am interested in why that environment has spoken to me in a particular way and why I've found it interesting. And then kind of somehow representing that in a piece,” said Power.

Over the years, Power has developed systems of orchestration to fit various configurations of instruments.

“Musical systems are designed for a very particular purpose. We have nice harmony, and then we have not-so-nice harmony. And we have all the rules about rhythmic relationships. What got me into this in the first place was always feeling that I didn't quite belong within that structure. I would hear these things out in nature. The moment you try to control them they misbehave. And I really liked that,” said Power.

Layers of sound

In recording cicadas, Power said she's been surprised at the amount of movement in the layers of sound and the expanse of what she hears.

“Think about what happens when you're standing over a river. If you look straight down at the river, for all intents and purposes, that river is both stationary and in motion," she said. "Because the flow is never ending. It can feel almost static, right? There's no beginning. There's no end. And this is how I feel about the sounds that I'm hearing right now [cicadas]. They are absolutely belonging to some vast system that we don't know anything about. They're endless. And there's so much motion in it.”

Musician Karen Power records cicada calls at Funks Grove.
Charlie Schlenker
Musician Karen Power records cicada calls at Funks Grove in McLean County.

She records in four channels [quadrophonic].

“When a piece is brought to an audience the audience sits inside of the quad. An ensemble isn't necessarily playing on stage. They might be emulating an environmental setup. The audience might be sitting around an ensemble in the middle, and then the quad sound is around that. The whole thing is like an environment,” said Power.

She said she usually doesn't commit a structure or a vision for a piece until she has heard everything gathered in the field.

“Otherwise, I would be coming here, and I would be forcing an idea on what I'm hearing. And I usually don't like to work that way. I'd like to sort of let it speak and then think about that for a while. Listen to that for a while, and then decide,” said Power.

That said, it’s possible strings will play a big part in the cicada piece.

“I'm imagining a wall of strings, every range of strings. Maybe like a string orchestra of some kind, and then maybe a smaller ensemble, but with a credible low end, like contra bass clarinet, and really deep instruments that could poke through the cicada wall at different points,” said Power.

In some areas, the cicadas sit low on trees. Funks Grove has tall trees, and the cicadas perch high in them. As a result, it was a little tougher to record them Sunday evening than at other sites. There is compensation for this obstacle.

“There is some nice ticking, which usually gets drowned out. The frequency, the top end of the cicada call, links quite nicely with the wind. When does it become wind? When is it a cicada?” said Power, who has found evening is not a great time for the mating music.

“It's definitely noticeable between 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. That's they're giving it all [time],” said Power.

In Springfield, Power said she found a "magical tree" at Lincoln Land Community College.

“They were all over me. It was ridiculous. I had to double check everything before I put it back in the bag. And I thought I checked everything. And then I turned up at Lincoln Memorial Gardens. And I pulled out the [parabolic mic] dish. And there was one little guy, like right in there. Like, I'm sorry, I've displaced you,” said Power.

Different pitch

The song of the 13-year brood of cicadas has a slightly different pitch than the 17-year variety, said Power.

“It's the lower and the softer kind of constant shade you hear. It's not the call. The actual meeting call is like a long line, and then it dips. It's below that, again much softer,” she said.

When she finds a good tree, she can put a mic in the tree and begin to pick up individual voices. The one at the community college almost had more cicadas on the ground than in the tree.

“They're quite metallic. And quite conversational. It's kind of broken," said Power. "When you start hearing a few of those around the place, then you get this little dialogue happening between them. And then of course, you have the wing flapping sounds as well. Because they were on the ground as well, it made it possible to hover the parabolic dish over them. And you could pick up these tiny, tiny little motions. We've gotten everything from the fragment of a sentence to a word, to the full sentence.”

Power said the periodic cicadas have so much to offer humans if people would take the time to know their extraordinary lives. It is a much different kind of life than the long linear line we think of as life.

“I'm very excited by what I've been recording here,” she said.

Power hopes her eventual cicada music will offer audiences the perspective that not everything needs to conform with what humans believe it should be.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.