I’ve kept bees for many years. There are two hives nicely positioned outside my studio window. On a warm day when their song is loud, I can go to the piano, check their pitch and play my own tunes alongside; an interspecies singalong? If the sky is blue and there’s lots of foraging activity, the hive-hum is squarely on middle C. The middle C of Contentment. A happy key for composers and bees. All my anthropromorphising and observations notwithstanding, most of what I know comes from the hit and miss of amateur beekeeping – my simple observations are just a glimpse of the vast complexity that is the living thing. When I started to consider how my bees might react- at night (do bees sleep?) – in a transparent box – in the middle of a performance space, filled with a few hundred pheromone soaked humans – strong lights and (sometimes) thundering grand pianos (were they aware of any of this?) I realised that I knew very little and started looking for expert advice. I was lucky; all those I contacted were not only erudite but very kind in sharing their knowledge. I was able to avoid mistakes and learn many surprising things about bees.
Their song, its meaning and its use is still a mystery. During the first night-time rehearsal I discovered that swarm pitch had dropped a minor third, from C down to A. So I changed the first human sounds – a bowed piano string and choir entry to A. Did the bees know?
For freely given scientific and technical help I thank:
Andrew Barron, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University; Adrian Dwyer and Scarlett Howard, School of Media and Communications RMIT University; Norman Gary, Professor, Bee Research Scientist, Musician and Professional Bee Wrangler, California; Gene E Robinson, Director, Institute of Genomic Biology, University of Illinois, Urbana and Robert Redpath of BeeSustainable, a wonderful shop where Robert sells beekeeping things and gives ever useful advice on the practicalities.
For the music and production I thank:
The remarkable Astra and its Musical Director John McCaughey who have supported my work for more than 25 years. Joan Pollock, Director of the Astra Improvising Choir. Special thanks to Astra Manager Gabrielle Baker who wrangled this difficult project.
Michael Kieran Harvey, pianist, composer, environmental activist and collaborator. Pianists Kim Bastin, Peter Dumsday and Joy Lee ,
Michael Hewes (recording engineer), Mim Whiting(video),and Eduard Inglis (lighting)
The North Melbourne Arts House
The Astra performance of Dance of the Bee was supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria; the Robert Salzer Foundation; The William Angliss Charitable Fund; Diana Gibson; and the City of Melbourne through Arts House.
All images and photographs by Mim Whiting