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Spider Music

David Rothenberg

irds, whales, insects—sure, they all make sound. But spiders? I first came
across the work of Tomás Saraceno climbing through some bubbles atop
the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in his piece On the Roof:
Cloud City in 2012. Later, I saw a much-enlarged related work, Cloud Cities, filling
the great hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Here was an art everyone
could appreciate—sublime in its scale, awe-inspiring, and surprisingly accessible
because you could climb right in it. Forget the usual admonishment to don’t
touch. Saraceno was saying touch, touch, touch, get right inside the work itself. An
Argentinian-born artist trained as an architect, Saraceno deploys insights from
engineering, physics, chemistry, aeronautics, and material science in his work. He
creates inflatable and airborne biospheres with the morphology of soap bubbles,
neural networks or cloud formations, which are speculative models for alternate
ways of living for a sustainable future.

At the time, I didn’t realize how much this work was intimately tied to science
and research. After bubbles, Saraceno has become immersed in the world of
spiders. What exactly are the rules that guide the construction of a spider’s web?
Could we reconstruct and build one exactly from a three-dimensional scan? To
come up with such a plan, it took an artist and many years of close collabora-
tion with scientists to figure out how to run a complex web through a scanning
machine, measure all the details of the silk strands and connections, and then
rebuild it at a scale massive enough so humans might climb within. He was the
first person to scan, reconstruct, and reimagine spiders’ weaved spatial habitats,
and he possesses the only three-dimensional spider web collection in existence.
Saraceno even convinces unrelated species of spiders to spin webs together,
which he exhibits in art galleries and museums all over the world. He calls these
projects hybrid webs.

What makes one web any better than another? Pragmatists would say the one
that best entraps your prey, but with all the beauty they produce perhaps spiders
have a sense of aesthetics as well. That’s a subject close to my heart. For years

© 2018 David Rothenberg PAJ 118 (2018), pp. 31–36.  31

doi:10.1162/PAJJ _a_00392
Top: Sonogram of the drumming rhythms of a peacock spider, Maratus volans. Bottom: Sonogram of a clarinet
playing along with a golden orb weaver, Nephila inaurata. Photos: Courtesy Studio Tomás Saraceno.

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David Rothenberg playing in Berlin with the golden orb-weaver. Photo: Courtesy Studio Tomás Saraceno.

ROTHENBERG / Spider Music    33
I had been interacting with the intricate songs of birds, which I wrote about
in my books Why Birds Sing and Survival of the Beautiful. The latter work looks
specifically at how important the aesthetic has been in evolution, a subject few
biologists have paid much attention to in recent years.

But Saraceno has certainly been interested in it, and also bold enough to bring
scientists into his endeavors, to push them to ask the kind of questions they
might otherwise be afraid to consider. Is a spider’s web beautiful? Is any one
more beautiful than another? What happens when you try to get spiders of
two different species to spin a web together? Will they make something no one
species could make alone, or will they eat each other up, like so many artists
battling scientists?

I was flattered when Saraceno invited me to play music with his spiders. Some
of these critters are master drummers, like the peacock spider whose music is
graphed below. The regularity of the pulses is clear, but also the tonal complexity
of each sound. This music is distinct, surprising, originally felt as vibration but
here enhanced into sound, and then image.

The even spacing of the beats shows that the spider has got rhythm, and the
rich colors and lines in each beat shows that each sound has a unique sense of
tone, not a simple click or hit. The presence of patterns in the midst of clouds of
noise shows that there is a glimmer of music inside the spider’s careful motions.
Their grooving vibrations are usually hard to detect, but Saraceno has amplified
these rhythms as part of his beautiful effort to explore the artistry of spiders,
not only their creations, their spectacular appearance, but the musical sounds
they organize their lives around.

The Tomás Saraceno Studio fills an entire old factory building in the Rummelsburg
section of Berlin by the North shore of the Spree river. The place looks anony-
mous from the outside, but after the creaking metal door is opened inside, I find
a thrumming, grooving world of activity, with human critters abuzz, running
up and down the stairs, hunched over all kinds of equipment and machines on
many floors, a factory of ideas and experimentation. How could the world of
spider art keep so many people so busy? It’s just one part of the Saraceno universe.
His world is full of wonder being created at every scale, somewhere in the realm
between architecture and art, between the public and the mystery.

I am led through many galleries into a tiny quiet room, where a terrarium-sized
metal frame has been covered in the webs of two distinct spider species, the
tropical tent-web spider, Cyrtophora citricola, and the golden orb-weaver, Nephila
inaurata. Very sensitive directional contact microphones have been attached to

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the web; every movement of the spiders on their structure can be traced. They
seem mute and immobile, but then they slowly walk across their universe as
I play some long clarinet tones. These are not drumming spiders but plucking
spiders. Their music may be inadvertent, just the tracings of the cautious step-
ping of all eight legs upon the resonating frame, but the sound so amplified can
be tremendous. And the web is so tough, spider silk being among the strongest
materials ever spun in nature, that I can push the clarinet hard against it and it
will resonate, not likely to break.

What does it sound like? It sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship,
with music reaching between two species of spider, one species of humans, but
many individual humans sharing some untold possible magic linking science
and art. It is only the beginning as we search for meaning in tiny glimmers of
sonic order and plan.

The clarinet searching, jumping, leaving space, rhythmic beats, tentative plucks
of the web, here are the steady tones of the clarinet, overtoned, dark, horizontal,
rectangular, then tu-tu-tu-tu-tu vertical beats . . . spider or man? Listening back
you know I can’t quite be sure, but as I remember, we were definitely feeling out
each other’s musical paths and dreams.

There is a species of fringed jumping spider, Portia fimbriata, that demonstrates an

extraordinarily developed sense of acoustic mastery. This predatory beast climbs
into the webs of its prey, other species of spiders, and knows exactly what these
unfortunate victims like to eat. Maybe he likes to eat flies, maybe he likes to eat
caterpillars. In any case, the fringie is able to play the web of his prey spiders
like a harp, he plucks the strands to mimic the sounds made by caterpillars or
flies, and the spider who made the web gingerly appears, then whoomph, the Portia
gobbles him up—spider music as seductive warfare.

I felt no such threat while playing along with the delicate orb-weaver. But who
knows what that eight-legged alien was actually thinking? If crickets and katydids
have been making polyrhythmic music for millions of years longer than humans
have existed on this planet, it is no surprise that spiders follow a regular beat
as well. Their grooving vibrations are usually hard to detect, but Saraceno has
amplified these rhythms as part of his beautiful effort to explore the artistry of
spiders, not only their creations, their spectacular appearance, but the musical
sounds they organize their lives around. Our ancestors may not have been able
to detect the secret vibrations of spiders, but if they were to hear them, they too
would smile, be amazed, and also want to join in. Human art and music only
gets stronger when it admits the rest of the world can make it with us, together.

ROTHENBERG / Spider Music    35
DAVID ROTHENBERG is an author, composer, jazz clarinetist, and distin-
guished professor of philosophy and Music at the New Jersey Institute of
Technology. Among his many books is the recent Bug Music: How Insects
Gave Us Rhythm and Noise; Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of
Bird Song (also the subject of a 2006 BBC-TV documentary); and Thousand
Mile Song, on making music with whales, which was made into a film
for French television. He has recorded numerous CDs, often with well-
known composers, such as his Cicada Dream Band, with Pauline Oliveros.
Currently, he is writing a book on playing music with nightingales, to
be published in 2018.

TOMÁS SARACENO, a visual artist born in 1973 in Argentina, has gen-

erated an oeuvre as ongoing research, informed by the worlds of art,
architecture, natural sciences, astrophysics, and engineering. His float-
ing sculptures, community projects, and interactive installations explore
new, sustainable ways of inhabiting and sensing the environment. In
2015, he achieved the world record for the first and longest certified fully
solar manned flight. During the past decade, he has initiated collabora-
tions with renowned scientific institutions, including the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Max Planck Institute, the Nanyang Technologi-
cal University of Singapore, and the Natural History Museum London.
Saraceno lectures in institutions worldwide, and directed the Institute
of Architecture-related Art (IAK) at Braunschweig University of Technol-
ogy, Germany (2014–2016). He has held residencies at Centre National
d’Études Spatiales (2014–2015), MIT Center for Art, Science & Technol-
ogy (2012–ongoing) and Atelier Calder (2010), among others. In 2009,
he attended the International Space Studies Program at NASA Ames.

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