New Hits from the Beetles

Today we presented the Herb Alpert Award to David Dunn. Dunn is an “electronic composer” – though I put the term in quotes because it falls so far short of doing him justice. He makes sound installations, but a lot of his work borders on biology. One of his available recordings, Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond, is a recording of minute underwater creatures, and sounds like an elegantly complex piece of musique concrète. More recently he’s invented a microphone that can be inserted into tree bark to record the sound world of the bark beetles that have been devastating the conifer woodlands of the western U.S. Tiny as these creatures are – the size of a grain of rice – they emit a wide range of sounds, some gender-specific, from the backs of their necks. Dunn told me today that, with global waming, these insects have increased from having one or two generations a year to four or five. As the global temperature rises, they move to higher elevations, and are in danger of infesting mountain forests that have never developed defenses against them. These high-altitude trees are the ones that hold snow in place that feeds the great rivers of the west. And so the unnatural spread of bark beetles is a real menace to the ecology of the western U.S., threatening massive droughts, and his recordings help monitor changes in the beetles’ habits. As he wrote in his application statement:

I wish to argue for the necessity of an art that sometimes turns outward instead of only reifying our obsession with human self-consciousness. It is an art that desires to foreground the non-human world. This requires a merger of art and science that places the human back into a measured position within the biotic world and encourages both to contribute to a collective activism of real world problem solving.

While my trust in science is tempered by all of the familir criticism directed at it for its true limitations, I still believe that it is one of the only tools we have for transcending the basic human condition that we cannot perceive what we do not believe. At the same time, many of my colleagues will accuse me of being too grandiose in believing that art must contribute to real world problem solving by enriching the communication of what science reveals through seeking the facts of nature.

Given the avalanche of messages that we are now receiving from the Earth in the form of disrupted natural cycles, increasing natural disasters, unprecedented loss of biological diversity, global warming, etc., it seems apparent that we are truly beginning to pass through the eye of the environmental needle. It occurs to me that the best use of my time as a musician is to spend it simply listening to some of those messages and to pass them along to others.

Dunn’s wife told me that when they told friends about the Herb Alpert Award, some of them replied, “Oh, I didn’t realize David was a composer.” But he is, and his music has a fascination born of unfamiliar yet natural processes. Right after the panel met in January to decide the award, I gave a hint of the winner by playing Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond on Posclassic Radio. (The Alpert panelists for a given year are kept secret until the award is given, but I’ve already been outed in the Times, so what the heck.)

So today we had a nice little ceremony at a private apartment in Manhattan to present the awards, also given for film, dance, theater, and visual art. Dunn doesn’t often present his sonic findings in public, and was extremely surprised to win. He told me that when he got the letter telling him he’d been nominated (it’s a $50,000 prize, far more appealing than the Pulitzer though less well-known) he threw it in the trash, assuming someone whose work was so esoteric could never win. But he mentioned it to his wife and she made him fish the application back out and complete it. Improvising harpist Zeena Parkins and composer/entrepreneur Gustavo Matamoros were on the panel with me, and we reached a unanimous decision. Dunn’s an amazing guy. He started off his career as factotum for Harry Partch from 1970-74, and inherited much of Partch’s integrity, and his complete unconcern for the rewards of his labor. And his music carries such vast implications for our future on this planet – it makes me feel so trivial, just looking for good tunes and interesting new rhythms.

[UPDATE: The morning after I wrote this, the exterminator came over, because I've got carpenter ants. He went along the wall finding them by listening, his ear against the wall. I told him about Dunn's microphones, and he replied, "Yeah, we have headsets that we can place against a tree and find out what's going on." Seems like the sound world of insects is something we could maybe all stand to pay a little more attention to.]