Be•One At Sonos Studio
BE•ONE is the work of British artist Wolfgang Buttress, whose Gold Medal-winning installation at last year’s Milan Expo cast the British Pavilion as a giant beehive, highlighting the plight of the honeybee and focusing on their role in pollination.
The installation’s soundtrack was released earlier this year as ‘One’, and accompanied by a pair of live performances at Nottingham Arts Centre. An incredible drone symphony, the four-track album features a group of musicians (including Spiritualized drummer Kev Bales) improvising along to a live audio feed from inside a beehive, creating a vibrant dialogue between insect and human.
Now the ‘Be’ project seems to have caught real momentum. Along with the group's upcoming festival appearances at Glastonbury and End of the Road, Wolfgang’s hive installation has found a permanent home in Kew Gardens. Last week, I ventured down to Sonos Studios in Shoreditch to hear the group for myself…
The space was absolutely rammed, not particularly welcome on one of the muggiest days of the year. At least people were invited to kneel down on cushions, creating a relaxed and surprisingly intimate atmopshere. Well, that and the free booze.
First up was a panel discussion, where Wolfgang and fellow artist Mira Calix discussed their similar approaches to art and field recording. Wolfgang described how the sound of a bee is not just limited to buzzing but also “toots and quacks” – far more musical than he had originally imagined, especially when one of the group realised that their insect collaborators were vibrating in the key of C, which was the breakthrough for the soundtrack.
Then it was time for the performance to start. 40,000 honeybees, streamed live from a hive in Nottinghamshire, provided the starting point. The way it works (let’s get technical for a second) is thanks to the presence of accelerometers inside the hive, which measure the vibrations and activity of the colony in real time. These signals are sent digitally to the venue, and the steady buzz of the hive remains a constant, providing a bridge between pieces as well as a bed for the musicians to improvise over. The bees are the first thing we hear over the Sonos surround sound system, and I have to say, it’s certainly an immersive experience.
Visually, the set-up is simple but effective – arranged in a line, the musicians are barely visible, sandwiched between two gauze screens onto which are projected footage of tessellating honeycombs, bees swarming over a cello, pointillist light sculptures. The connection between art and nature is subtly reinforced, and not made too explicit.
Looking around at the kneeling bodies packed in around me, I selfishly wished that I could be alone in the space. Even removed from its context, this music is immensely beautiful, almost transcendent at times. It's easy to get lost in, as the musicians managed to tap into the hypnotic quality of the drone. I shut my eyes, tilt my head back, and imagine myself in one of the meadows that Wolfgang had spoken about earlier.
At the end, the applause was sudden and explosive, like someone had pulled the cork out of a bottle. It was only when the noise of the hive finally shut off that I fully realised what a bucolic trance I had been lulled into. All in all, a great evening in a space which I hope to have an excuse to return to soon.
Photo credits: Amelia Karlsen (top) and Dom Henry (bottom)
'One' is out now on Caught By The River.
Catch BE•ONE this summer at the following festivals:
22-26 June Glastonbury
24 July Bluedot
6 August Caught By The River Thames
4 September End of the Road