Cricket Concert: Bugs Make Music in China

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/14815278/15027297" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript
Singing Sister Cricket i

The jie'er, or singing sister cricket, is kept inside a small cage. The custom of keeping singing crickets in China reportedly dates back to the Tang Dynasty 1,400 years ago, when imperial concubines began keeping crickets in golden cages. Vivian He for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vivian He for NPR
Singing Sister Cricket

The jie'er, or singing sister cricket, is kept inside a small cage. The custom of keeping singing crickets in China reportedly dates back to the Tang Dynasty 1,400 years ago, when imperial concubines began keeping crickets in golden cages.

Vivian He for NPR
Lars Frederikkson i

Swede Lars Frederikkson has been experimenting with cricket music for the past three decades. Louisa Lim, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim, NPR
Lars Frederikkson

Swede Lars Frederikkson has been experimenting with cricket music for the past three decades.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Big Yellow Bell Cricket i

The dahuangling, or big yellow bell cricket, which emits a piercing sound despite its tiny size. Vivian He for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vivian He for NPR
Big Yellow Bell Cricket

The dahuangling, or big yellow bell cricket, which emits a piercing sound despite its tiny size.

Vivian He for NPR

The old showbiz trope warns against working with children or animals. But imagine forming an orchestra out of hundreds of bugs — crickets, no less, who make music by rhythmically rubbing their wings together in a mating ritual.

In China, keeping crickets for their music was originally an aristocratic hobby. The tradition is said to have started 1,400 years ago in the Tang Dynasty. Then, imperial concubines kept chirping crickets in golden cages, the insects' captive existence a sad reflection of their own lives.

Lars Frederikkson, also known by his Chinese name, Feng Liao, is a Swedish cricketmeister who has spent decades making cricket music. He first became interested in the insects as a graduate student in China in the 1970s. He learned how to breed them and eventually started using them in his music.

"This is obviously my edge, because the Chinese will only keep a few, maximum 10 perhaps, for their own pleasure," he said. "What I did was bring it up to slightly larger scales. So I performed once with 700 crickets. And I've been doing ... different kinds of combinations — with improvised jazz, improvised art music, compositions by minimalists like Philip Glass, Steve Reich. My main idea has always been to let people hear the crickets."

On a recent night in Shanghai, around 300 crickets from seven species were in shallow bamboo trays suspended from the ceiling. Pre-show preparation included keeping the crickets in a room cooled to 60 degrees, which suppresses their chirping and makes them sing louder when warmed up to room temperature. As the performance began, the audience simply listened. Slowly, distinctive sounds emerged.

Then, human interaction was added. The program was called Listening to Autumn, the best season for cricketsong. It included a classical Chinese instrument called a guqin, a string instrument a little like a horizontal harp. But Frederikkson has experimented with different types of music.

"In the beginning, I thought it was more like, you're going to have a foundation — a kind of ambience of crickets — and then you have the musicians play on top of that, not really communicating," he said. "Over the years now I've realized and many, many musicians have told me ... they react, they react to pitch. They react to different instruments, they react differently. Bowed instruments is a good one for bamboo bells, for instance. And you get all sorts of interactive reactions from the crickets."

Guqin player Lu Wensheng said he noticed the crickets' reaction straight away — and by the end, he could identify four or five regular pulsating notes.

"It was the first time that I played with insects," he said. "And I found the moment I started playing, the crickets sang more loudly. They are like nature's symphony."

The performance was held in Shanghai's science and technology museum, where scientists are researching urbanization and the resulting decline in cricket numbers and species. If the audience was anything to go by, the lack of city crickets is already being noticed.

Xie Yuqing and high school student Gan Gan were both enjoying the cricket music.

"It reminds me of my childhood when I lived in the countryside," Xie said. "You don't hear this sound anymore in the cities."

"It's the first time I've heard crickets," Gan said. "Where I live there are lots of buildings and crowds of people. But now I feel relaxed and refreshed despite the stress of studying."

But as the crickets chirped, the human interaction took a sudden and noisy turn — fireworks outside drowned out the guqin. While not planned, this may actually help Frederikkson achieve his aim for the night's concert.

"I don't have any high pretensions for this. I just want people to be peaceful, enjoy it and think about what a terrible fate it would be for mankind not to have crickets," he said.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.