Music of the… Swarms?

Walking down a street in NYC one evening, I stumbled upon a cloud of flies. A lustrous swarm. All fever and sunlight. I’d been trying to capture the behavior of these creatures on film all summer long, without success. But at last came this moment.

Eager to document the phenomenon, I jumped on top of a postal box with my iPhone. And held still.

When I got home and viewed the footage, I started to get a strong sense of the music that would pair with it. Specifically, a work by Johann Sebastian Bach. His Prelude in C Minor (BWV 847) from The Well-Tempered Clavier. (Performed here by pianist Hélène Grimaud)

When I laid down the audio and watched it with the footage for the first time, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

To me, they spoke to one another. As if from the same world.

But why?

This question leads down so many open avenues.

In fact, I can easily imagine contemplating the elements of this little clip and drawing from them a lifetime of wonderings. And I’m not being facetious.

I’ll just follow one of those limitless avenues today, but will return again and again to pursue others.

I’ll call this first avenue, “Counterpoint.”

Many theories have arisen to explain swarm behaviors that appear in insects, schooling fish, flocking birds and so on. No theory, however, has yet been proven.

One leading thought suggests that swarms shape and function as the result of individual creatures reacting to their closest neighbors. i.e. birds fly in paths that enable them to maintain a certain distance between themselves and the five to six birds around them. When every bird does this, a greater coordinated effort ensues.

This is possible. But for some reason such explanations feel too narrow and mechanistic to me.

Watching the flies move in tandem to to the music, I wonder if perhaps their behavior might not arise from something akin to the technique employed by Bach in this piece. And that is counterpoint.

In case you’re not familiar with this musical concept, here are two descriptions:

“Counterpoint is the art of shaping two or more melodies to sound together.”

— Jeff Evans, Counterpointer Music Software

It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is…’counterpoint’.

John Rahn, composer and music theorist

Basically, counterpoint is the creation of a complex whole by weaving together parts intentionally created to complement one another, and the whole, in meaningful ways. This can be readily heard on a piano when each hand is assigned an independent and contrasting melody that, when played simultaneously, combine into a single coherent song.

Bach was a master of this technique.

See an example performed here.

Now I am no musician, but in reading through many music theory journals, I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to list the specific rules for creating counterpoint. The gist of it, in layman’s terms and grossly generalized, is to begin with a kernel or central idea. This could be either a theme (a short melody) or a key signature like C sharp or B flat (meaning a particular set of notes). Then, from out of this kernel, one creates independent variations. In music, those variations are the equivalent of different melodies. The final step would then be to integrate the different melodies in such a way as to create a vibrant and relevant whole.

I wonder if a similar “technique” might lie behind the nearly incomprehensible swirling of the summer creatures I spotted?

Watching closely as individuals leave and re-enter the swarm seamlessly, I can almost imagine a central idea holding sway within the cloud. Serving as its guide. What that idea or local condition might be I don’t know – temperature? magnetic fields? slants of light? And while each fly’s path is different and entirely independent, each clearly operates within, responds to, and contributes to the whole.

This concept of variation on a central theme is the robust premise not only of great music, but also of countless biological systems. And the necessity of having a robust system at the root of a swarm becomes obvious when the cloud is seen being blown out of place by passing air currents. At this, all the creatures are sent spinning off course and the entire form grows misshapen until — in the blink of an eye — it gathers and reforms itself in the original location. Is such seamless reaction and recovery made possible because the individual variations (flies) are able to efficiently reorganize their complementary paths around a pre-existing central theme (a basic idea or local condition)?

Thinking about this I imagine a different but similar situation:

A large orchestra is performing a symphony. All of a sudden, every one of their instruments drops to the floor. Intuitively and instantly, each musician snatches back up their their instruments and resumes playing from where they left off. Now, presumably, not all begin to play at once, or even remember exactly where they stopped, but enough do and so a consensus quickly builds until everyone is realigned and the piece sounding again, in full glory, as if nothing ever happened.

I realize that the two situations — a disturbed swarm and a disturbed orchestra — are entirely different physical situations.

But are they so different as to be irrelevant? I don’t think so.

And so I wonder if swarm theory might not get a boost from musical theory?

For example, could the phenomenon captured on my iPhone be described (and viewed) musically? We now have the computer power to do this. In other words, what if computerized replicas of swarms were given a central theme (say C major) and then each fly’s path assigned a variation upon that theme.

What might be discovered?

Would the swarm create something “musically” relevant?

This is not in any way to suggest that swarms are really flocks of singing angels. Such a suggestion would be as far from my thinking as things get.

But what I mean to imply is that perhaps the universal impulse(s) which led to the development of counterpoint within human culture might also lie behind the swarming phenomena demonstrated by other creatures.

In fact, what if the two marvels are just divergent expressions of the same concept?

And if so, what else might be?

It’s hard to watch the video and at least not wonder…


** the above video footage was looped but in no way altered until its speed was slowed down, twice, toward the end of the clip


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