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The Essay
Show #207
David Gunn

Science tells us of several species of flies that enter buildings in the fall to find a protected place to spend the winter, of which the most common and annoying is the cluster fly. Related to the popular blowfly, the cluster fly -- or flies, since it's impossible to find one of the little buggers alone -- is extremely bothersome with its habit of flying aimlessly about lights at night whenever the temperature is above, say, 54 degrees. During the day, they often can be found sluggishly crawling about the floors, walls, windows and magnetohydrodynometers. On warm days, the flies often emerge by the hundreds and emit a noise that resembles two or more successive consonants, ergo their name. When two cluster flies are placed together and monitored under strict laboratory conditions paid for by well-heeled research cartels, the sounds they produce are a distinct major second apart from each other. Three flies together produce intervals of a major second and a minor third; four flies make a major second, minor third, and augmented fourth; five flies produce the opening theme of "It's a Small World;" and so on. When the weather turns cool, the flies cluster together in a dense ball of waggling wings that produces a clot of sound so indeterminate that logisticians have gone mad trying to break it down into identifiable parts.

But where most of the sentient world see only a pest whose maggots parasitize several species of earthworms, many contemporary musicmongers instead hold the cluster fly in the highest esteem. An entire school of composition, in fact, evolved around the fly. Its erratic motor movements inspired the eclectic rhythmic patterns of Miles Davis. Its proclivity to buzz in dissonant intervals when swatted gave Henry Cowell the idea for tone clusters. Even its irksome penchant for being eaten by larvae of the larder beetle was duly copied in early performance art by Karen Finley.

Although its popularity waned somewhat during the Minimalism Tridecade, today the cluster fly is again enjoying a mini-renaissance. Electroacoustic technologists for whatever reason have embraced the sound of its drone, and overt samplings of it are, like the fly itself at this time of year, rife. (Example.) A recent episode of Nova exploring the buckwheat-like odor the fly gives off when crushed led to "the new buckwheat cuisine" in Baltimore area dinner theaters. Likewise responding to demand, the Arthur Murray Dance Studios now teach the "cluster dance" to packed classes from Ashtabula to Zontar.

Always with its one good eye out for signs of contemporary music trends, Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar is ready to jump on the cluster fly bandwagon and devote an entire program, this very 207th episode, to the pesky phenomenon. We have imported at no little expense an in-person electroacoustic composer from the heart of cluster country, Dartmouth College. If you've ever wondered what draws an acoustoelectrician to fixate on sounds that emanate from fly tracheas when the rest of us are content to watch reruns of My Mother The Car, stay tuned -- if not for our guest, per se, then at least for some similar mouth sounds from Kalvos.