Cricket Concert: Bugs Make Music in China A concert in Shanghai features both human musicians and hundreds of crickets that make music by rhythmically rubbing their wings together in a mating ritual. The cricketmeister, Lars Frederikkson, has spent decades making cricket music.
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Cricket Concert: Bugs Make Music in China

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Cricket Concert: Bugs Make Music in China

Cricket Concert: Bugs Make Music in China

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An old show business saying goes, never work with animals or children but it doesn't cover crickets - hundreds of crickets. There's one Swedish cricket impresario and he spent decades making cricket music.

In Shanghai, NPR's Louisa Lim attended the performance and met the maestro.

Mr. LARS FREDERIKKSON (Musician): I'm Feng Liao. It's my Chinese name. And my Swedish name is Lars Frederikkson. And I like crickets.

LOUISA LIM: Keeping crickets for their music was originally an aristocratic hobby in China. It's a tradition that 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 life.

For his part, Frederikkson first became interested in crickets as a graduate student in China in the 1970s. He learned how to breed them and eventually started using them in his music.

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

LIM: Tonight, 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 all the louder when warmed up to room temperature. As the performance begins, the audience simply listens. To the untrained ear, at the beginning, it sounds like a buzz. But slowly, distinctive sounds emerge.

Mr. FREDERIKKSON: The bamboo (unintelligible) - ju-ju-ju(ph) - that one is a bamboo bell.

LIM: And then, human interaction is added. Tonight's program is called "Listening to Autumn," the best season for cricket song. It includes a classical Chinese instrument called a guqin, which is a string instrument a little like a horizontal harp. But Frederikkson has experimented with different types of music.

Mr. FREDERIKKSON: 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. But over the years now I've realized and many, many musicians have told me - no, no, no. 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.

LIM: This 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 tonight's audience is anything to go by, the lack of city crickets is already being noticed. Xie Yuqing and high school student Gan Gan are both enjoying the cricket music.

Mr. XIE YUQING (Resident, Shanghai): (Through translator) It reminds me of my childhood when I lived in the countryside. You don't hear this sound anymore in the cities.

Ms. GAN GAN (Resident, Shanghai): (Through translator) It's the first time I've heard crickets. Where I live, there are lots of buildings and crowds of people. But now I feel relaxed and refreshed despite the stress of studying.

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

Mr. FREDERIKKSON: 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.

LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of music)

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