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NJ Music Professor Finds His Zen Jamming With Cicadas (WATCH)

Patch logo Patch 6/10/2021 Eric Kiefer
a man that is standing in the grass: David Rothenberg, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, plays his clarinet amid a cloud of cicadas. © Photos: Charles Lindsay David Rothenberg, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, plays his clarinet amid a cloud of cicadas.

NEWARK, NJ — “Playing along with these guys is like joining into a fantastic trove with millions of singers.” This is the thought buzzing through the head of David Rothenberg, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark, as he prepares for a jam session that only comes once every 17 years: the return of the Brood X cicadas.

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As billions of Great Eastern Brood cicadas emerge on the East Coast this summer after spending nearly two decades underground, Rothenberg, 58, has been practicing his clarinet chops for the moment the insects arrive.

Rothenberg, who teaches music and philosophy at NJIT, is nuts about cicadas. And it shows.

He first discovered his fascination with cicada jamming in 2011, when the Great Southern Brood emerged in Illinois. Since then, he’s made road trips to other states such as Ohio in his ongoing chase to play music in the midst of a thrumming, whirring chorus of Magicicada.

“Once you hear the sounds of nature as music, it becomes ever more beautiful and alive,” he told Patch.

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Recently, Rothenberg – who penned an ode to cicadas in The New York Times and wrote a book on the experience, “Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise” – embarked on a journey to Princeton. There, he plans to spend a few weeks playing with cicadas alongside other musicians who have caught the bug ... literally.

When asked if the critters respond to any particular melodies, scales or songs, Rothenberg had a simple reply.

“I learn from them,” he said.

One thing is for certain; the bugs aren’t intimidated by the presence of their human bandmates. In his videos, cicadas can be seen crawling all over Rothenberg’s instrument and body while he casually lulls away in a trance, barely batting an eyelid.

Rothenberg, a composer and jazz performer with 16 albums under his own name, has been writing and speaking about the connection between nature and music for years. In 2016, he was among a team of researchers who tried to answer a fascinating question: Can birds keep musical time?

“Science and music may have different criteria for truth, but sometimes their insights need to be put together to make sense of the beautiful performances we find in nature,” Rothenberg said of the study.

Can’t get enough news about the Brood X cicadas? Check out some of our recent stories in New Jersey about the fascinating critters below.

Send news tips and correction requests to eric.kiefer@patch.com

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