“Cicada Terrible Freedom”

The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician Emily Baumgart.

It starts out innocently enough. An exoskeleton on the sidewalk. A large black bug staring at you from a tree as you walk down the street. And then suddenly they’re everywhere, screaming in chorus, and lying in wait on your car door.

Printed poster.

Advertisement for Cicada Terrible Freedom, 1982. Box 36, folder 9, Erick Hawkins and Lucia Dlugoszewski Papers, Music Division.

As someone who grew up too far north to suffer through any kind of massive cicada brood, this is a new and wholly unpleasant experience that I could have easily done without. I’ve been focusing on my archival processing work in an attempt to drown out the incessant humming, and there I have encountered some timely compositions in the Erick Hawkins and Lucia Dlugoszewski Papers. We processed the first half of these papers sometime ago; the second half, the subject of our current work, is primarily made up of Dlugoszewski’s materials: her writings, compositions, photographs, correspondence, and other papers.

Now known primarily for her collaborations with her husband, the choreographer Erick Hawkins, Dlugoszewski was an established artist in her own right. A student of John Cage and Edgard Varèse, her music is decidedly experimental. She went so far as to create entirely new instruments: a large set of percussion instruments crafted by sculptor Ralph Dorazio according to Dlugoszewski’s specifications, as well as the timbre piano, similar to Cage’s prepared piano and Henry Cowell’s string piano that had been developed earlier. The timbre piano involves mutes and other objects placed onto the piano strings, as well as knives, glass bows, steel mallets, and other items used to strike the strings themselves, all producing specific and varied tones.

From the start of working with the Erick Hawkins and Lucia Dlugoszewski Papers, I was perplexed by Dlugoszewski’s method of titling works. Many of her titles seemed to be random strings of words that left me with more questions about the compositions than answers. Suchness Concert and Tender Theatre Flight Nageire and Amor Elusive Empty August. And, applicable for the arrival of Brood X, these three compositions seemed particularly timely: Cicada Terrible Freedom, Skylark Cicada, and Cicada Skylark Ten. The coincidence was too auspicious to pass up.

Cicada Terrible Freedom is the best-known of the three, with a premiere at Carnegie Recital Hall in May 1982. The other two works were composed earlier, both in the 1960s. Unfortunately most of Dlugoszewski’s music is not recorded, so I turned to the scores and Dlugoszewski’s notes to understand the connection between these titles and the bugs outside. In the process, I got to know more about her compositional system.

Unlike many composers, Dlugoszewski didn’t start by sketching on music staff paper. Instead, her method in many cases was to begin with aesthetic ideas–writing down the sorts of feelings she wanted to convey in a specific work. These notes read similarly to poetry and philosophical statements, which makes sense as Dlugoszewski was very interested in everything from the haiku of Matsuo Basho to Federico García Lorca’s concept of duende. in the case of Cicada Terrible Freedom, these early notes include the evocative:

locust passion
wild extravagant nature
of the spurt insect
for that presence
of cicada weights
on my shoulders
for the scent of the desert
for being so in the clustering thick
of things

Another set of notes describes “This membrane / dangerously / fragility paused tilt / in the flow of energy.” These aesthetic, stream-of-consciousness musings are also how Dlugoszewski settled on the titles of her works.

Colorful manucsript score map.

Lucia Dlugoszewski. Map for “Hearing III” movement of Cicada Terrible Freedom, circa 1980. Addition to Erick Hawkins and Lucia Dlugoszewski Papers, Music Division.

The next compositional stage involved what Dlugoszewski referred to as maps. These provided a way for her to outline the overall structure of the work, with notes about the style, gestures, instrumentation, dynamics, and pitches. The maps range from small sketchy pencil drawings to elaborately colored multi-page foldouts. You can see one of the maps for the “Third Hearing” movement of Cicada Terrible Freedom here, featuring a combination of differently colored lines, squiggles, circles, pluses, and other symbols that delineate the general timeline of events in the work.

Manuscript score in pencil.

Lucia Dlugoszewski. First page of “Hearing I” movement Introduction to Cicada Terrible Freedom, 1982. Erick Hawkins and Lucia Dlugoszewski Papers, Music Division.

From there, Dlugoszewski’s music starts to look more conventional, although there are still remnants of the earlier sketches. In the first page of the introduction to Cicada Terrible Freedom, some of those same gestures are recognizable in the timbre piano part. Surprisingly, there seems to be less of a connection to the actual sound of the cicadas than I had expected. Instead, Dlugoszewksi focused more on the essence and identity of the cicadas: one of the maps pertaining to the “First Hearing” includes several upward gestures with the note “fly away,” as if portraying the insects rising out of the ground or into the air. The timing of Dlugoszewski’s cicada works do not link up to any brood emergences but, as she says in notes pertaining to Skylark Cicada, “The architecture of the music as well as the new musical resources and . . . even the title, are functions of the radical empirical immediacy of our musical experience.” Even when the cicadas weren’t out, Dlugoszewski could harness her audience’s memories and experiences of them to accomplish her aesthetic goal.

In the end, I’m not sure if Dlugoszewski convinced me to dislike Brood X any less, but she did at least make me think about the bugs in a different way. I’ll let Dlugoszewski have the last word, who astutely notes that, like the cicada,

to stay alive
you have to be able
to hold against


  1. ccsymphony
    May 28, 2021 at 9:53 am

    Thank you for the musical insights. However, I could have easily done without the negative personal commentary (“this is a new and wholly unpleasant experience that I could have easily done without”) on a most wonderful natural phenomenon (many rapidly disappearing) that we only, briefly, experience once every 17 years.
    We all need our native insects! They’re part of the food chain. Consider all the birds that are having a feast…I used to squish, now I take pictures and enjoy their very short visit. [From the National Zoo site: “zoo animals aren’t the only ones that eat cicadas. Local songbirds, including chickadees, bluebirds and cardinals, will take advantage of their abundance too”]
    So much around us in nature has changed, completely our fault. I haven’t seen any sign of any harm to any of even my newly planted trees.
    Consider bee colony collapses, news of all the cicada broods waiting all these years and now trapped under asphalt, gone forever, the almost disappeared windshield bug index (used to be driving several hours, windshields would be filled with squashed bugs…now, even driving through farm country, there’s hardly anything on my windshield), more violent storms bringing the reality of climate change home.

    I’ve been listening for them attentively every day and the music started getting softer yesterday, still there today, but I know it’s coming to an end.
    Bird-lovers should appreciate them so much…they really don’t do much harm at all.
    And they’re so wonderful for children too, not least during/after the Covid-19 isolation. Wonderful lesson in nature collecting the discarded exoskeletons…even I’ve collected a few as a memento of a part of nature that still, thankfully, is alive! We’re all really still kids!!!

  2. Glen Van Etten
    May 28, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    Southern Kansas was my home until 1972, 37 years. I know very well the cacophony of the not so beloved cicadas, every summer, All summer, every day, every night, all night. Maybe I exaggerate a little. They were ubiquitous and a pain in the ***. We all adapted and turned the sound into a slight intrusion on our evenings. Oddly, I sort of miss the serenade. Thank you for triggering a forgotten memory in an 84 year old Kansas farm boy.

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