Sounds of Insects is a gorgeous, graceful record that takes Abro T. Gaul’s 1960 Folkways album of insect recordings as a point of departure for a suite of elegant and varied compositions. While Gaul’s recordings had a definite academic bent, taking place in a laboratory and accompanied by his own spoken commentary, N. Racker and David Orphan weave the arthropods’ delicate flutterings, buzzing throbs and mandible chomps into the texture of their pieces to haunting and beautiful effect.
I’m not sure whether the insect sounds found herein are new recordings, samples from the original Folkways record or have been sourced from elsewhere, but the duo make them sound as fresh as if they were recorded this morning, rendering them on magnified clarity so their individuality and peculiar resonances ping bright and clear into your ears and brain.
The whole effect is like listening to an ensemble performance in a forest in the dead of night, the insect sounds casting a constantly changing commentary as each piece comes into earshot then fades out. The music itself is simple, combining electronics and acoustic instruments, but effective. At the start of Side 1, an ominous, almost Coil-like overture gives way to a Philip Glass-style piano arpeggio, which cycles through most of that side as various magnified chewings and buzzings drift across the space. Later a mournful Ondes Martenot-style motif brings Side 1 to a close, its melancholy song given an unnerving sheen as a chorus of croak-like sounds gurgles behind it.
Side 2 tends more towards the electronic side of things, musically, and the mood turns colder, more alien. At times, the electronics merge with the natural so well that you can’t tell whether it’s an bug or a human making these noises – as at around the 3 minutes 30 mark, where cicada-like vibrations are stitched into rapid digital oscillations, as other rustles and squeaks whirl around it, before a slow descending synth figure fades in. Just after that, electronic rattles and squelches vie with loopily-panned buzzing. It’s disconcertingly great, and strangely comic, as if a house fly has sneaked through my eardrum into my brain and is now circling around behind my eyeballs.
On the whole, Racker and Orphan’s compositions are right on the money, which is just what you’d hope from an experienced electronic musician and the curator of the acclaimed Folklore Tapes label (although I’d query the burst of dissonant string quartet action right at the end as a strange way to bring the record to a close). Nevertheless, Sounds of Insects is never less than captivating – for me, one of the most diverting and interesting releases of the year.