Cicadas Make Music

Cicadas Make Music

This summer’s cicadas provided the inspiration for the Bilowus’ song, “The Year of the Cicada.”

The Winchester garden wedding could have been a scene from a blockbuster comedy. A brunette sang to the tinkling of the ivories while guests waited for the ceremony to begin. Sarah Bilowus, a high soprano, clutched a microphone, but she said her voice was being “swallowed up” by the backdrop of noisy cicadas.

She kept singing louder and louder to drown out her competition. “All of a sudden, I see a cicada crawling up my husband’s leg,” she said.

David Bilowus, the wedding’s pianist, said he felt something under his pants. “I’m playing and I’m shaking my left leg. I’m trying to play and trying to get it off me. People were watching me and laughing.”

He finally pulled up his pants’ leg. “There it was, climbing up my leg,” he said, with a wide grin.

The summer of 2004 marked the Bilowus couple’s first encounter with cicadas. While countless Loudoun residents were annoyed with the insects, the Bilowuses enjoyed them so much that they ended up composing a song using the cicada mating call. The musicians, along with their son, Andrew, produced “The Year of the Cicada,” their second compact disc. They recorded “Forms of the Ocean” in 1994. The predominantly instrumental cicada compact disc is a single that includes two bonus tracks from the first CD. The family plans to produce a third CD this summer with lyrics.

THE BILOWUSES moved from eastern Texas to a rural neighborhood in Leesburg, bordering Hamilton, five years ago. Their front windows face the Blue Ridge Mountains. David Bilowus, 46, became pianist and organist for the Sterling United Methodist Church eight months later.

Last summer’s cicadas’ buzz came as a complete surprise, David Bilowus said. “I remember looking up and thinking, ‘What is making that unusual sound?’ The trees were loaded with cicadas. It was so loud outside.”

He recalled that his mother-in-law, Helen Segers, said, “There are some little creatures flying through the air. They are very wobbly.”

David Bilowus said he and his son decided to do the research. They searched the Web and visited the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Leesburg. He said his wife thought they were fascinating and amusing. “They would just land on you, and they were just gentle, little creatures.”

Andrew Bilowus, 7, said the insects were “weird at first.”

“And then I liked them,” he said. “They came out of their bodies or something.”

The Brood X cicadas emerge once every 17 years in this area. Their sound is generated by tymbals, which are behind the hind wings, where they are attached to the insect’s trunk, according to the Smithsonian Institution. Its Web site said large muscles contract and make the tymbals bend inwards, producing a vibrating click. Male cicadas try to call louder than their counterparts to persuade females to choose them for mating. Females flick their wings to attract the males they are interested in. Their love song is a series of simultaneous buzzes and clicks.

Sarah Bilowus, 43, said they could hear the cicadas inside the house even with the windows closed. One day, when she was cooking supper, she told her husband the insects had tickled her creative juices and asked him what he thought of the melody she had composed. “Music is such a big part of our lives,” she said. “It started playing in my mind.”

David Bilowus opened the window, and started composing an addition to her melody. “I took her tune and my tune and started formulating a song,” he said.

Andrew Bilowus heard them working on the piece. “He started improvising something, too,” his father said.

The family went to 21st Street Recording Studio in Purcellville and with the help of a technician, recorded a piano track. Their son played the piano introduction.

DAVID BILOWUS RECORDED the cicadas and then took the track to Country House Studio in Nokesville. They added the mating calls, voice effects, strings, flute, drums and base.

Bilowus wanted to include a high pitched mating call, but had trouble isolating that sound in his back yard. He obtained the cicada recording from the Smithsonian Institution.

“The Year of the Cicada” was born. It starts with a lone mating call that seesaws from high pitch to low pitch before fading into a quiet chorus of cicadas. The chorus serves as the backdrop to the instrumental music, which explodes into a lively rhythmical section, mimicking the busy movement of the cicadas. The song, which the family calls “smooth jazz,” is partially lyrical with vocal effects added by Sarah Bilowus.

Sara Woodington, the Sterling United Methodist Church music director, said the insects provided a pleasing accompaniment to “The Year of the Cicada,” “The cicadas had an impact on our neighborhoods and to immortalize them with a piece of music, it was so creative.”

Andrew Bilowus said he enjoyed “the recording stuff.” He said he was not sure if the cicadas made a ‘sound’ or a ‘noise,’ but the combination of the insect’s song and his families’ composition made great music.

Robin Duncan, a music teacher at Smart’s Mill Middle School in Leesburg and the pastor’s wife, said it’s difficult to find a musician of David Bilowus’ caliber. “Because his ability as a pianist comes from his heart and because it is a talent from God, he can play like no one else can,” she said.

David Bilowus was born with absolute pitch. “It’s the ability to hear a pitch and tell you what it is,” he said. “For example, when a door squeaks or if you hit a metal pole or you tap a spoon against a glass of water, I call tell you what each pitch is.”

The unusual skill allows him to hear any pitch on a piano and instantly play it. Transposing or changing the key of a song is easier for him than for people who don’t have the skill.

Sarah Bilowus has a voice coach. When they were at the wedding, she described herself as a first soprano. Four months ago, however, her coach said she is actually a coloratura, because she has gained the ability to reach even higher notes than a first soprano.

Duncan said she is looking forward to the Bilowuses making more music. “Not only can he play, he sings really well and as beautiful as his wife’s voice is, I would definitely be excited about getting a CD with him and his family.”

The Bilowus couple has sung solos and duets in the church. Their son has sung in the children’s choir and played chimes.

David Bilowus recently stepped down as the church pianist and organist so he and his wife could run a family business from their home, D & S Bilowus Music Studios. They teach voice and piano lessons.

HE SAID THE DECISION to leave the church job was not an easy one. However, he wanted to be able to attend services with his family rather than sitting alone at the piano or organ. He also wanted the opportunity to get to know his neighbors, which had been impeded by the 40-minute commute, he said.

Sarah Bilowus said she and her husband have to spend more time on their business than trying to market the CDs. “Most of our living isn’t eked out with CD sales,” she said. “Most of the marketing is for what pays for our food.”

Her husband said they did not have time to market the music this summer, because they were trying to find a home for his wife’s mother. “It was so important to us to take care of her needs. We put it on hold.”

Sarah Bilowus said they can still promote it each summer in different parts of the country. Nathan Erwin, manager of the Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Institution, said 17 different broods have been identified and each one will emerge from the ground on a different year. For example, Brood XIII will make its debut in Illinois, southern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa, southern Michigan and the northern part of Indiana in 2007.

Brood XI in the Connecticut River Valley has not been seen since 1900, he said. The location of Brood XII has not been identified, because there has been no significant emergence in any one location. In addition, the annual cicadas sing every July and August.

Sarah Bilowus has a master of arts from the University of Texas at Tyler, and her husband has a master of fine arts in piano from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Married for 16 years, they met at a music club in Texas. Three dates later, David Bilowus had to continue his courtship long distance. His future wife had a job in California. “We connected as musicians and it grew from there,” he said. “Sarah is a gift to me from God. Andrew is. We just feel richly blessed by God to have the opportunity to make music, to teach music and to share these gifts with people.”