Wolfgang Buttress, making live music with the sounds of bees

Live music improvised on the buzz streamed from a beehive. Wolfgang Buttress, creator of The Hive at the UK pavilion at Expo Milano 2015, tells us about his idea.

It charmed, stunned and surprised visitors at Expo Milano 2015 with its hundreds of lights and steel pieces and the humming of bees remotely connected in real time from a hive in the UK. The Hive particularly amazed those who came at night and had the chance to see it glowing warmly and softly in the dark, as if it was whispering and breathing in the quiet of the wild flower meadow at its feet.

The Hive was originally conceived as the centrepiece of the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo and designed to have a second life. In June 2016 it was installed in its permanent home in London, the beautiful Kew Botanical Gardens with a history of more than 250 years.

The Hive was designed by Wolfgang Buttress‘ studio in collaboration with BDP and Simmonds Studio. A British artist, Buttress is also a musician who has composes music inspired by the sound of buzzing bees. This music became the soundtrack of the installation at the UK pavilion at Expo, but recently the artist has toured with his band BE. Special guests: the bees. We spoke to him about his live gigs, the music at The Hive and what inspired the idea.

How do you bring the buzz of the bees to an audience outside the physical hive?
We place accelerometers inside a beehive, which measure its vibrations and the energy. These signals are digitised and modulated and turned into sound. We send these sounds via the Internet as a live stream to the venues where the musicians play.

Does the streaming provide room for improvisation by the band during the concert?
The sound of the bees the audience hear is live and in real time. We know the bees hum on the key of C. The drone of the beehive provides both a backdrop and a live inspiration to the musicians. The musicians feel the energy of the bees through the drone as well as the occasional specific bee communications –quacking, begging signal, tooting etc. These specific sounds and general hum create an ambience and atmosphere to which the musicians respond in real time.

How do you and the band create a link with the beehive as a living entity?
We play with a fully immersive 3D sound system so there is a connection between bee, musician and audience. The concept is that an individual audience member is one side of the triangle. It is about connection and the idea of letting go. The whole experience of sound, light, audience, venue and smell is the conduit and not just the musicians.

How is music created at the Hive in Kew and on stage?
The human sounds which one heard at the pavilion in Milan are the same sounds as one hears in Kew. We recorded a library of over 200 musical sections all in the key of C. The bees trigger these sounds depending on the energy of the hive.

For the album One and when BE play live we arrange these sounds into compositions. These compositions are fluid and are never played the same way twice. There is variation in the improvisation as well as what the bees choose to do. Saying that there is framework within which we work. It is not free jazz. We aim to create a harmony and balance between order and chaos, muscle memory and spontaneity.

What is the message behind The Hive?
I was very keen that the important message concerning the plight of the honeybee would reach a new audience and Kew is the perfect fit. Put simply, plants need insects to survive and vice versa, and The Hive enables Kew to bring alive this intimate relationship and tell the story of the crucial role played by bees.

Via this immersive space visitors can explore the urgent issues we face in relation to insect pollinators and understand their vital role in helping us feed a rapidly growing population – a core part of Kew’s scientific and horticultural work.

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