‘Give us a voice’, sings Camille Buttress as the visceral hum of the bees begins to take over. It’s a symphony of man, and bee- but primarily bee. And it’s utterly mesmerising. Words cannot do it justice- hence I’m struggling to write this review. The experience was simply indescribable.
BE isn’t your typical band. Yes, the album ONE is the collective work of an infinitely talented group of 12 musicians, artists and creators, but also the Magnum Opus of 40,000 bees finally given their ‘voice’.
The premise is to explore the plight of the common European honeybee, while simultaneously and effectively stressing their extensive impact on our lives. As Wolfgang Buttress says, they’re setting out to “reconnect man and nature”, who are increasingly separated by our industrial arrogance. Ultimately, we rely on nature; we cannot overpower it, as we once believed. The honeybee pollinates 70% of our crops but are suffering due to use of pesticides and reducing biodiversity- and don’t even have a voice to cry out for help.
The ONE album isn’t even the start of it. Wolfgang Buttress intended this soundscape initially for ‘The Hive’ Pavilion he’s designed, which represented the UK at the Milan Expo in 2015, meeting the brief of ‘Feeding the Planet’. It certainly created a buzz among the judicators, who awarded it the Gold Medal, concluding it as ‘Best of the Best.’
Everything in The Hive pavilion is linked to a real hive, set up in Brackenhurst, Nottinghamshire, and this hive’s activity is continuously live streamed to the pavilion. As energies change within the real-life hive, LED lights pulsate and modulate to reflect the new ambience among the bees.
As scientist Martin Bencsik researched the microvibrations of the Brackenhurst hive, his wife Deirdre, a classically trained cellist, realised the bees ‘hummed’ in the key of C. It’s not a ‘buzz’ sound as you would think, but a low lingering drone. She began playing some slow notes on the cello, detuning it one octave lower, and Wolfgang Buttress’ daughter Camille began improvising some vocals, and a “perfect triangle of cello, voice and bee” was formed, in the words of Wolfgang himself. And marvellously, through the use of magnificent music production and technology skills, the team managed to create a pavilion soundscape to entwine with the bees’ activity. Through recording a series of musical stems, all echoing different potential levels, intensities and movements of a honeybee colony, the team were able to create an almost fully bee-controlled pavilion, accurately mirroring the activity of a real hive. The whole concept is tremendously thought provoking.
Stemming from this was the album ONE. Consisting of 4 tracks, it’s a true symphony of man and bee. Although there are vocals layered on top, alongside gorgeously emotive rich cello, higher violins, ambient piano, mellotron, guitar and some percussion to mention a few, the drone and cries of the bees are truly the lead part. It’s extraordinarily unique and the hum is mesmerisingly harmonious.
The album really struck a chord with music fans, completely surprising the creators, particularly Wolfgang Buttress himself who thought it would be “only a niche album, selling 10-15 records”. It’s received countless plays on Radio 6, Radio 4 and even on Radio 1, the praise of highbrow music experts such as Tim Jonze of the Guardian and has resulted in some really marvellous gigs. Having played Nottingham Arts Theatre and set to play Sonos studio in Shoreditch, Glastonbury and End of the Road Festival, the BE ONE album is certainly receiving some attention.
And there I was at Sonos studios, about to witness it all. Sonos studio itself was a sight to behold- the audience sits together on cushions, and the acoustics are incredible- not to mention free drinks for all who attended. There’s a gauze curtain lowered over the stage, creating a barrier between the audience and the musicians.
After a brief talk and audience interview with key members of the project (clearing up the project, its premise and its meaning) the performance begins. Images are projected onto the gauze of the colony, and all the separate bee vibrations: toots, cries and drones, are explained aurally by Dr Martin Bencsik. And the symphony begins.
It’s a full package, both visually and aurally hypnotic- exquisitely deep cello, tremolo violins, chimes, even melodica, mellotron and electric guitar in places. But the bees are at the core of it- that low, evocative drone beneath is steadily constant, yet fluctuating at points with individual honeybee vibrations. It’s tremendously powerful. It goes by in a blur- too quickly, taking a haunting turn in places, the bees becoming rowdier, and vocals more melancholy. The vocalists hold serenely angelic chords for minutes at a time. Even the metallic whines of the electric guitar intertwine perfectly, to my surprise. The images and videos on the gauze curtain are enthralling and the audience are silent. We’re completely entranced. The message is clear though: the band are behind the gauze curtain, the focus is on the bee, and the band are relying on the bees to create the music, when to come in. They work around the bees. The honeybees play the key role. We need them.
There was a moment of silence as the last euphonic chord faded and the honeybees are the only sound that remains. We’re desperately trying to absorb it all as that resonating visceral hum diminishes.
Their voice has been heard.
After some time to take it all in, I finally got to ask some members of the band and the project some burning questions. I spoke to Kev Bales, who worked on its production with Tony Foster, and also played piano and percussion in the band, Camille Buttress who wrote and performed the vocals, and Deirdre Bencsik, the talented cellist of the band, who also discovered the harmony of the bees in the first place.
Could you tell me how the idea of creating a soundscape using the honeybees developed?
Kev Bales: The idea came from Wolfgang Buttress, who designed the UK Pavilion for the World Expo in Milan. He asked me and Tony (Tony Foster, producer) if we wanted to get involved in making some music for them. So initially, what we were doing was making music for Wolf to use in the pavilion. And the more we got into making music, the more it became these beautiful pieces, so we thought to see if anyone was interested in this as a musical piece, as a separate entity. Even though it comes from The Hive, it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for that. The music just developed into something where we thought ‘let’s just put it out there, so it can have a world of its own’.
So did you expect it to have the impact it did- like Radio 6, Radio 1 even, and all the festivals you’re playing?
Camille Buttress: Not at all.
Kev Bales: Not at all! Well ultimately, we’re making music with bees.
Camille Buttress: 40,000 of them. Not your typical band.
Kev Bales: It’s a very odd band. So we thought we might have a niche, and it would be tiny. I mean, we were making music with drones of bees. So for it to be so well-received in a mainstream way is amazing.
So is the show different every time, with a different livestream?
Kev Bales: It’s getting that way- it’s growing all the time. Tonight was really different.
Camille Buttress: It’s never the same. There’s always that something a bit different.
Kev Bales: There’s certain key points where certain parts come in so we can rely on that, but there are plenty of variations that come with the livestream.
Deirdre Benczik: I think the performance does change each time, because the space itself is part of the performance. Sonos is smaller than the last space and the next space,but I think this makes it develop in a positive way, because we get more used to what’s going to happen. The bees’ vibrations are a constant thing that is recorded and streamed live, but the films that you see will always be the same...even though I can’t say I’ve seen them myself!
Have you ever found it difficult to work with the bees?
Camille Buttress: It’s always been quite natural really- it’s always just worked, because we work around the bees, it was never like we were fitting the bees to what we wanted to play. It never was too difficult because we didn’t try to take over.
So the bees play the main part?
Kev Bales: Of course! And even with the visuals, we don’t really necessarily want to be here as the star of the show. We hide behind the gauze, behind the bees on the projection, because that’s at the forefront. Because when we’re making the music, the bees took the lead role, and we just liked to compliment what the bees were doing.
And are there any new insights you’ve gained through this project?
Kev Bales: Wow. Big question. The insight to Martin’s research on the bees has been eye opening. And for me, I’m a drummer, so to even be on a stage without any drums, and to be playing other things is quite exciting for me. Drums would be better…I keep trying, but it might not fit in with what we’re doing.
Camille Buttress: I’ve learned loads of stuff, I’ve never done anything like this before- doing shows like this, just knowing how to do a performance, this is a completely new experience for me.
Deirdre Bencsik: This will take too long to answer. We’ve all learned a lot about the bees. We all knew because it’s been in the news a lot, that the bees are in decline, but we didn’t know ABOUT the bees that were in decline, so now how bees work, live, socialise, collect food, reproduce- and as a result of that, it’s made me realise that we need to do so much more to help the honeybee. And with, say whales, or tigers- there isn’t anything direct that we can do, but we CAN help the bees. We just need to plant flowers. It’s really simple, and then the bees can survive and pollinate. Without them, the whole food chain will collapse. It’s startling. And they’re a beautiful creature- they don’t do any harm, they’re not wasps! This cello project- we put a hive in a cello- I walked right up to it, tuning the strings, put a bow across the strings, with a thousand bees inside. They never attacked me; they just want to get on with all they do.
As for musical insights, we discovered the bees don’t make sound, they make vibrations, and the vibration is a C, which is how this thing all came together.
Quite a convenient key isn’t it? Rather than G flat minor or something.
Deirdre Bencsik: Definitely, although one of the tracks is in B major, interestingly and fittingly enough. But they do have a definite tone key, and that’s how the music stemmed. Next time you hear it or listen to it, listen to the note, because it is most definitely a C. So the music followed the bees, we put the bees first and in front of the musicians, in front of the music, and it’s not a hard-driven campaign, but it’s a way of saying to people ‘look, we should do something.’ It’s really simple. We’re touched by what we’ve done and we’re touched by the music. And the bees are not asking for help, it’s pitiful really.
It’s like you’ve finally given the bees a voice.
Deirdre Bencsik: That’s a lovely sentence. You should use that.
Well, it’s as Camille sang: Give us a voice.
You can find ”ONE” on Spotify here
BE are performing ONE at Glastonbury, End of the Road and Caught by the River Thames.