My interest in fruit flies all started when my flatmate Peter Rennert first moved into my house earlier this year. He is a PhD student at the University College of London, doing research on the behaviour of fruit flies. I was struck by how much he knew about these small creatures and became fascinated by the videos he’s recorded of them in his lab. When reading more about fruit flies myself I discovered that the sounds they make are most often courtship songs. When I asked Peter if he knew more about this, he put me in touch with senior lecturer Joerg Albert, also at UCL. We met for the first time six months ago when I first visited him at the UCL Ear Institute where he conducts much of his research on fruit flies. He gave me a heavily condensed (but no less dazzling) story of the fruit fly love songs. Two hours later I left the Ear Institute somewhat stunned by the amount of information Joerg had conveyed.
There are 2000-3000 different species of fruit flies existing and every species has a unique song consisting of different pulse patterns and differences in pitch. In the mating ritual the male fly dances for the female fly. While doing this he vibrates one of his wings creating sounds heard by the female fly. This ‘song’ consists of different pulse patterns and ‘humming sounds’ which the female responds to by being available for copulation. For many species, reproduction doesn’t happen (or is much less likely) without this singing ritual. Having travelled extensively over the last two years to study indigenous music of the world, I couldn’t help but think that fruit flies have their own type of folk music as well.
I started listening to the recordings Joerg made of the courtship songs, using them as an inspiration for my own music. Listening to them was a magical experience but also quite a challenge to work with as I didn’t wanted to ‘mess’ with them too much. To me that felt too much like improvising on a theme, without anybody knowing the theme, so no points of recognition. I spent half a year conducting creative experiments with this material, musical and conceptual.
I want to focus people’s attention on it, open this secret universe of sound to the audience, and frame the sounds in a creative way. I really liked what Joerg said in the interview for Resonance FM: “What science and art do is translate things into different languages and slightly transpose them to facilitate some sort of appreciation (…) it has to do with reflecting and representing a certain way our world is constructed. We have a certain insight, we realise something and then we communicate that. We communicate this from a certain perspective, from an individual stand, so we filter the world.”
I realised that my project became more and more of a listening practise, it was as if the fruit flies had unlocked my ears for details in sound. When I conducted a project last year in which I made field recordings in my garden on cassette tape, I already became more aware of the sounds in my surrounding. It’s like John Cage said: ‘Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.’ But the fruit flies added a new layer; a layer for delicate sounds, in the near field of my own ears. I became more interested in the quiet sounds of my own instrument; the flute, and particularly the bass flute as it has so many beautiful hidden sounds. Besides that the bass flute is more close to the pitch range in which the flies sing their songs.
The human tendency to humanise animals is something that has been present in this project all the time. From the beginning I couldn’t help but make connections between my own life and behaviour and that of the flies. I find them cute, kept them as pets in a tube in my house to observe them, and I was sad when they all died when I left the heating off in a week that I was not home. I even found myself having a specific preference for certain fruit fly singers, because they have ‘personality’. I have to admit I’m quite obsessed with fruit flies. Once you notice them they are everywhere! I’m pretty sure that after you have read this and listened to their songs, you will see them everywhere and you will never look at them in the same way.