Chorus of Billions: The Birth of Rite of the Cicada (2013 World Premiere)

by Sung Jin Hong

Photos by Adrienne Metzinger, June 2013

TOP: Tree branch covered in Brood II periodical cicadas
MIDDLE and BOTTOM: A curious cicada crawls on Sung Jin’s shorts and shirt.

Symphony of a Thousand may have been written by Gustav Mahler, but Brood II cicadas have been serenading the Northeast this summer as a living “Chorus of Billions.” When my wife Adrienne and I first heard their soaring song during a hike along the rolling Catskills last month, we thought the sound had to be extraterrestrial. We were treated to an intoxicating aural experience. We returned to the same location a couple of times during June to enjoy and record the resonating abdominal drumming from the males and wings flickering from the females. Inspired and rejuvenated by the sea of spellbinding sonorities, my symphonic poem for full symphony and vocal soloist has been born: Rite of the Cicada (2013).

Artists have been influenced by nature for centuries: Josquin des Prez’s El Grillo (1505), Jimi Hendrix’s Hornet’s Nest, Bob Dylan’s Day of the Locusts, 14th-century pottery from the Joseon Dynasty, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. 2013 may be the 100th anniversary of the world premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but it’s also a year to celebrate nature and our leaping and flying serenaders that evoke camp, hikes, summer days and nights eternal.

How am I going to compose Rite of the Cicada? Am I going to include the recorded sounds and video footage of cicadas with a live symphony orchestra and vocalist? Should I imitate chirping and flicking sounds of cicada soloists and the organic lush crescendos of an entire chorus of cicada? Should I compose a score resembling a science fiction horror film with special sound effects full of marches, shrills, trills, chirps, squawks, and flicks? Should I collaborate with a modern DJ with mix-tapes?

Should Rite of the Cicada be related to humanity? The Brood II cicadas mark more than just seventeen-year intervals in our region, but they inspire self-discovery from their precious lifecycle. Concluding almost two decades of purgatorial meditation, these cicadas have risen from the earth, molted out of their thin shells, and emerged for a couple of weeks of flying, lovemaking, and procreation. They are the original social networkers.

Committing to a focused vision and direction for Rite of the Cicada was a priority. My wife asked me if I prefer the original Star Wars films with more substance and convincing storytelling, or the prequels with a buffet of CGI, special effects, and double light-saber spectacles. A grand epiphany wasn’t needed. The enormous challenge was to explore an intimate portrait of a cicada’s life cycle with a powerful narrative... in less than a month.

Rite of the Cicada will probably have two internal sections within the broader narrative:
I. Meditation-Arohati (“Arise” in Sanskrit): slow and brooding poly-tonal, chromatic qualities that dominated my recent world premiere monodrama Edge (2013, based on Sylvia Plath’s final poem)
II. Liebestod (Love-death): intimate and tender portrayal of a cicada embracing life with tonal harmony

Uncertainty lies in every world premiere performance, since it’s a “new” work without a tangible history and past. Brood II cicadas must share similar feelings of angst and apprehension when they have decided to venture into a new world. They collectively take a leap of faith first when they experience “arohati.” Their trust in each other and nature come later. What my wife and I witnessed last month was that the process of uncertainty is life. It keeps things challenging, unnerving, engaging, and even fulfilling and empowering.

The success of a world premiere performance relies heavily on the living performers. As I have always shared with our audiences and musicians, composers are architects and their music is the blueprint. So the performers are the ones who bring every piece to life. I’ve been blessed with all the artists from One World Symphony who have brought my works to life. I am grateful for their generous spirit in making inspiring music and communicating to our audiences.

I look forward to celebrating the summer with you through Mahler 3, world premiere compositions, and wine reception with live jazz on Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 8:00 p.m. at the air-condtioned Holy Apostles in Manhattan.