Photo: Dom Henry
A huge metal hive with an adjacent British meadow, the pavilion took inspiration from the lifecycle of the bee to highlight how important they are to our ecosystem. The installation was based on Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University’s unique research regarding how bees communicate with one another and with humans. It was all a totally Notts effort too: the pavilion was designed here, Dr Martin Bencsik’s research was conducted at NTU’s Brackenhurst campus, and the soundtrack was written and conceived by Tony Foster and Kev Bales from Spiritualized in Tony’s studio on the outskirts of the city centre.
It is here, on a bright Sunday morning in January that I meet the key players involved: the artist Wolfgang Buttress, the musicians Tony Foster and Kev Bales, and vocalist Camille Buttress. The reason they’re all here is that they are busy plotting how to recreate the experience of the pavilion within a live context, with two dates booked in at the Arts Theatre in February. There’s also an album, One, scheduled for release via Jeff Barrett’s [Heavenly Records] Caught By The River imprint, Rivertones.
Expo 2015 opened in Milan on 1 May last year with the theme ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. Asking Wolfgang how he originally got involved in designing the UK Pavilion, he explains, “It was an international competition. Usually it’s an architect or an engineer that will design a pavilion. It’s quite unusual for an artist to win the commission. I was a little sceptical at first about how you address that theme with a pavilion that is 100 metres long by 20 metres wide. It needed to be something simple, so that a three-year-old child could understand it as well as an academic, and it needed to be international.”
Wolfgang settled upon the idea of raising awareness of the crisis the humble bee is facing at the moment; use of pesticides, lack of biodiversity, and climate change are all threatening the bee’s way of life. “It was a way of getting this idea across through an experience rather than a spectacle. Bees are responsible for 30% of the food that we eat. I wanted to get right inside how a bee behaves and communicates.”
The groundbreaking bee research was conducted by placing accelerometers inside a beehive, so Dr Martin Bencsik was able to measure the vibrations from within. From these vibrations, he can assess the health of the hive; the more vibrations there are, the more energy there is, and if there are none, then the hive is dead. It’s obvious Wolfgang is still enthralled by the bee, exclaiming at one point, “They’re almost perfect, you can almost see them as sentinels of the earth.”
A visitor to the pavilion would have been faced with a 70 x 14 x 14 metre sculpture featuring a delicate lattice work based upon an abstracted hexagon. This was reached by entering a section of the British countryside planted at waist height, “so you had the idea that you are inside nature,” Wolfgang explains. Not only did his pavilion emphasise the relationship between bees and humans, it also emphasised the link between technology and nature, music and nature, and music and technology. “It’s amazing that this technology exists, but it’s the idea that came first. A lot of these pavilions have loads of big video screens and speakers. I wanted this to be very quiet. So even though the technology is really advanced, with a 7.2 surround sound system within the pavilion, you couldn’t see the speakers. It was using the technology to enhance the experience.”
photo: Hufton + Crow
Inside the hive were lights and sounds triggered in real-time by activity within the hive colony at Brackenhurst. But because the full effect of the lights would only really be appreciated when the days got darker, Wolfgang was keen for sound to also be involved. “What I wanted to do was somehow express what was happening in this real beehive with sound. Apart from triggering light, I wanted these vibrations to trigger sound.” That is where the musicians come in to it.
“I had known Tony and Kev for a while. My old studio used to be next to Tony’s. I would see Kev down the Forest games. Because of the music that they’re involved in, Spiritualized and Julian Cope, that kind of Krautrock drone, I thought they would be great people to talk to about how we could express this sound.” Wolfgang continues, “The first idea was to have the sound of the bees and some underlying drone which would react to the bees and that was it really. The whole thing just blossomed.”
Throughout our chat, everyone involved mentions how the whole project has come together through a series of coincidences and serendipity, hence their name for the musical side, Be. Wolfgang invited Dr Martin Bencsik to the studio last February to prep the musicians, as Kev Bales explains, “Martin gave us a PowerPoint presentation about his research and [played] these bee sounds before we made a note. We were sat there listening to these sounds and it was just unbelievable.”
After working out that the hum of the bees was in the key of C, the cellist Deirdre Bencsik (wife of Dr Martin Bencsik) and vocalist Camille Buttress started to improvise. “It all just sort of happened,” says Camille. “Deirdre started playing and I just started singing along with whatever came into my head,” she continues. Tony Foster remarks how even though everyone was impressed with what they had just heard, they weren’t quite ready for it: “I was still setting up mics at this point and hadn’t quite got the levels. We knew it sounded amazing, but we didn’t know how good it was in a way until we tried to do it again. One of us was walking around because we weren’t taking it that seriously at that point. It had footsteps on. We tried to do it again but we couldn’t capture it, the vocal was just stunning.”
When the music in the hive was activated, it used stems taken from the soundtrack that would play in a different order every time, meaning that not only were the bees sort of remixing the music, the music heard within the hive was forever changing. The finished record, One, will be the complete soundtrack as recorded by the musicians and will feature the seventeen-minute The Journey as the A-Side. Explaining what listeners can expect, Wolfgang says, “[The Journey] is almost like walking through the pavilion from the beginning, right through the orchids, through the wildflower meadow, and into the hive itself. The three tracks on the other side work as compositions in their own right. Everything that’s on the release was used in the actual pavilion. The big thing at first is that we tried to curate it more and put more things on to it, but it sounded wrong, so we took things out and made it more minimal. It was getting that balance between bee and man. On the record it sounds like a lot of things going on but it’s quite simple.”
Simplicity was key to the recording of the soundtrack. Listeners will hear cello, vocals, mellotron, violin, piano, bits of guitar, but, as Kev explains to me, the band were careful not to overdo it. “The space is really important. Me and Tony were sometimes here at 3am trying out electronic sounds… The more we took everything out to just feature the bees, and complement what they do, that made more sense.”
Aside from the people sat before me, the cellist Deirdre Bencsik, and the bees, other musicians were invited to contribute to the recording. “We pulled in a few favours,” says Tony. Jason Spaceman from Spiritualized, Youth from Killing Joke, the Icelandic string players Amiina who have performed with Sigur Ros, and John Coxon from Spring Heel Jack all contributed. “They’re all great improvisers.”
Everyone is impressed that they were able to pull such a stellar cast of musicians together. “As an artist and a musician, sometimes there’s this thing with ego,” says Wolfgang. “But because this is about the bee, you could step outside of it, and because of that, everything we thought that the project deserved or needed, it tends to have happened. I’ve never known a project like it.”
photo: Hufton + Crow
When asked about the challenges they face in attempting to take the experience of the UK Pavilion in Milan and transposing it into a live performance on stage, Tony replies, “We are going through it at the moment. If it was just vocals, bass, drums, guitars, it would be second nature to us as we have done it so many times. This is so different, it is a challenge, but it is an exciting challenge. There’s no beat, there’s nothing. We are trying to work out cues, it’s not like ‘after these three chords, you come in’.”
Accompanying the musicians on stage will be a live feed of the bees direct from Brackenhurst, with Wolfgang quick to emphasise that he wants the show to not just be an aural thing, but that it is an experience, “The pavilion worked because it engaged and enchanted all of the senses, and that is the same idea for these performances at the Arts Theatre. We’ve got Squint/Opera, who worked with us at the pavilion, doing these amazing live reactive animations of what is happening to the bees. We’ll have these muslin cloths going all around the stage. It’s more like an installation than a rock gig.”
The performers will be approaching the live performance more like an improvisation than trying to recreate the original recording note-for-note, with Kev explaining, “Sometimes in a rock band there are big broad strokes, you know when the killer chorus is going to come in, but with this kind of music, some of it is very subtle. Spending hours mixing it and moving one little thing is one thing, but trying to take that musically and doing that live is one of the challenges, but it’s quite exciting.”
It was also important to them all that Nottingham was the city where the soundtrack was given its live debut. “Craig Chettle from Confetti said we could put it on at the Arts Theatre,” says Wolfgang, before adding, “The artists, musicians, Dr Martin Bencsik [are based in Nottingham], the pavilion was designed at my studio here. It would have been weird doing it anywhere else. That’s what is nice about the whole pavilion, it wasn’t London-centric. There are really interesting cultural things happening here, and it feels great to be part of it.”
Aside from the performance in Nottingham, the group have had interest from festivals including End of the Road and Glastonbury, and Jeff Barrett has picked up their soundtrack. “Me and Tony have been in bands for years and years. Whether you’re playing in somebody else’s band, or music we’ve done, you think it would be great to get a deal, but it’s almost like you are begging somebody. I don’t think any of us felt like that with this music. It was, ‘Who is the right person to give this to?’, because it’s not singer, bass, guitar, drums. ‘Who is going to look after this music properly?’ We were thinking of Jeff Barrett as the perfect person. He listened to it and said yes,” says Kev.
Concept sketch - Wolfgang Buttress
Not only will they be marking the release of the soundtrack with the two appearances at the Arts Theatre, but Wolfgang will be putting together an in-store installation related to the hive and pavilion at Rough Trade Nottingham.
Finally, what has happened to the pavilion? Well, it is coming back to the UK, but at the time of the interview I’m not allowed to say where exactly, although Wolfgang was keen for it to come back to these shores and for it to be reused. “The idea was that it would have a second life. You are spending a lot of time, energy, and money creating these things. A lot of them are either recycled to trashed, but it was always my intention that it could be disassembled and reinstalled back here in the UK. We are working in the landscape at the moment, it will still have the soundscape in it. The key element is going to be the hive, the landscape will be slightly different even though it’s the same concept. When it opens in June or July everyone will be playing at the opening night.”
One will be released via Rivertones on 12 February 2016.
Be: One Live, Nottingham Arts Theatre, Thursday 18 - Friday 19 February 2016, £12. Tickets available from Rough Trade or WeGotTickets