Harvesting the songs of nature to plead for its future

University of Limerick computer scientist Mikael Fernström collaborates with humans and bees to make sweet music


Bees: imagine a world without them. No honey for your porridge. And probably no porridge, either. That’s a gentle nudge towards thinking about the implications of a worrying global decline in bee colonies, in a video announcing a new Irish art and music composition from the intrepid Soft Day art-science collaborative.

Since 1999, Soft Day (Softday.ie) has created a number of curious and intriguing projects meshing technology and nature, through the efforts of artist Sean Taylor and University of Limerick computer scientist and musician Mikael Fernström.

Their first project, Bliain le Beastach (2000), developed a musical and art composition out of fluctuating rain data taken from all over the island. They’ve also produced Cóisir an tSionainn (The Shannon Suite, 2003), on the life cycle of the salmon and the effects of pollution and overfishing on its habitat; the wonderfully named Nobody leaves till the Daphnia Sing (2009) on contaminated water supplies in Galway and west Limerick, and Marbh Chr ios (Dead Zone, 2010) on two contested marine “dead zones” in Donegal.

Hive of activity
They’ve been involved in many other small to large projects and presentations over the years, all around the world.

Their latest effort, Amhrán na mBeach (Song of the Bees) debuts this weekend and brings together an eclectic mix of participants: scientists, beekeepers, computer scientists, an orchestra, an organist, and the monks of Glenstal Abbey.

“All moulded together into an overall performance,” notes Fernström with relish.

The idea evolved from an initial five-hour discussion between Fernström and Taylor on a drive from Donegal to Limerick, and involved four years of planning – consulting scientists and beekeepers on the current crisis with hive collapses, doing field studies with beekeepers, assembling data, making recordings of bees at different times of the year, and thinking how it all would come together.

Fernström, a lecturer and manager at University of Limerick’s Interaction Design Centre, and a man who always seems to be up to something slightly off the beaten track, went to work developing a hive microphone array for recording bees.

“We started to do fieldwork with specialist beekeepers in Cork, Limerick and Dublin,” he says, making recordings and conducting interviews with them. They also began to work with the monks of Glenstal Abbey, especially chief beekeeper Brother Simon.

Fernström and Taylor liked the ancient connection between monks and beekeeping. For hundreds of years, notes Fernström, monks have produced honey for nourishment, to produce alcohol (such as mead in Ireland) and for medicinal purposes.

But how does all this end up as a musical composition? “For us, we make art with numbers, and large databases of figures,” says Fernström.

Once they’d gathered plenty of such scientific data, they began to map it mathematically, turning numbers on a spreadsheet into musical notes, incorporating factors such as pitch and duration.

“You then have highly dynamic expressions of data,” he says. They ended up using a hexatonal scale for composition
(a scale with six pitches or notes per octave) appropriate to a composition about bees, which make hexagonal honeycombs. Or do they? Fernström says they kind of do, and kind of don’t – the cells are actually more circular but get compressed into a hexagonal shape when kept in rectangular beehives.

“So it’s all an illusion, and that was a kind of Buckminster Fuller moment – the geometry is not what it seems.”

Fernström says they went on to use the so-called Promethean scale within the hexatonal range of scales. It is also known as the “mystic” scale – “which goes well with the monks, and sounds nice as well”.

The final work, which takes place in a single performance at Glenstal Abbey this Saturday, will include the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Glenstal Abbey monks’ choir, the Abbey’s organist, and an “apiary ensemble” of beekeepers, who will play laptops with field recordings of their own bees.

Live buzz
To finish it all off, in the background will be the live sound of the Glenstal Abbey hive.

UL graduates with film and music backgrounds will help to produce and record the event, which will be available as a multimedia project on an as yet to be determined artefact – perhaps a USB key in an appropriate shape ( Dead Zone was distributed on a fish-shaped USB key).

Fernström says the project, which is in part Arts Council funded, has just about reached break-even due to donations from supporters, but Soft Day hopes to raise further funds to help with the costs of producing the final recording.

Going on previous Soft Day form, the final result will be playful but thought provoking and informative about the damage being done to bee colonies (due primarily to certain pesticides), and the possible future for nature’s honey producers.

Fernström says of the work: “It’s serious, but there’s also a lot of hope –
if we make smart decisions now.”

For further information on obtaining tickets to the Saturday afternoon performance, or to make a donation, see softday.ie/bees

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