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Science

Hive of creativity - the British Expo Pavilion links bees with sound and technology

The UK Pavilion at the Expo Milano 2015 is that rare thing: a big idea made to look simple. It is a symphony of technology and bees.

It's been suggested the British Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 is a symbol of Britain as a hive of creativity. The pavilion does indeed feature a hive - a metal "beehive" at the far end of a metal meadow.

To me it represents something only the British could do - that is, take a pretentious idea, such as suggesting the country is a hive of activity, execute it with such a lightness of touch, and at the same time pull off a feat of technological artistry that leaves you simply gob-smacked.

The Germans couldn't do it. And the Austrians, who planted a calming Austrian forest a few doors down on the expo's main drag, the Decumano, couldn't do it either (although they get very close).

"The idea was to take a section of the UK countryside and bring it to Milan to celebrate and highlight the cause and plight of the honey bee," says Wolfgang Buttress, an award-winning artist who designed the pavilion.

Artist Wolfgang Buttress

Artist Wolfgang Buttress wanted to create an immersive experience

Buttress brought together a multi-disciplinary team of architects, scientists, and musicians to create an "immersive experience" based on recordings of bees made by Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University's School of Science and Technology.

A live hive

"In Nottingham, there's a real beehive," Buttress says, "and it sends live digital signals through accelerometers, which measure vibrations. This is sent digitally to here, the center of the hive, and the signals are expressed through sound and light."

During the day, you hear an almost constant drone, punctuated by more traditional instrumentation - sounds like pianos, strings, guitars.

The UK Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015

The hive is a delicate-looking structure that leaves you gob-smacked

At night, you get a light display, too - all orchestrated by the bees in Nottingham.

"We've worked out the parameters of a typical hive," says Buttress. "We've been monitoring these hives in the UK for a few years now. They're very much like humans in the night and in the morning; they're quieter, and in the afternoon they're a lot livelier."

Watch video 00:38

Inside the hive of the UK Pavilion

"Then we built some digital signals that react to the activity and energy in the hive. And regarding the soundscape, once we get to certain thresholds, noise gates are triggered and opened, and that triggers a cello or a violin. So the idea is a symphony between man and bee."

High-tech sound

And it's a symphony coming at you in 7.1 surround sound.

The music was composed by Kevin Bales and Doggen (aka Tony Foster) who otherwise perform together in the British band Spiritualized.

"The music is based around the recordings that Martin Bencsik has made of bees and bee activity, so the initial thing is to make music with the bees and the bees are at the center of all the music that we make," says Bales.

Musicians Kevin Bales and Doggen

Musicians Kevin Bales and Doggen wanted to make music with the bees

"Anything that I and Doggen started to do was based on the drone of a hive," Bales says. "That sets the note and the atmosphere, and then some of Martin's amazing sounds gave us some of the trimmings - he's got some unbelievable sounds you'd never associate with bees."

From there, they "sculpted" the composing with cellos, violins, strings and choir.

"So what you hear in the hive is connected - fingers crossed - to a hive in Nottingham, where Martin does his research. The activities of the bees, in live, real-time, trigger off different tracks at different times," says Bales. So hopefully everyone coming here will have a unique experience."

The UK Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015

The lights of the huge hive also react to the activity of the bees

Time to think

It should also give visitors a chance to remove themselves from all the human activity elsewhere on the expo site, and take time to think about the plight of bees and their collapsing colonies.

"It's quite a serious problem we've got with losing the bees," says Doggen. "If we lose them, we're going to lose a lot of food, so hopefully we can create some awareness of that."

The simple beauty of the UK Pavilion at Expo Milano is that all its high-technology blends into the environment.

The UK Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015

Some of the technology is hidden - but this is a high-tech pavilion

It also benefits from having selected one issue on which to focus. In addressing the expo theme of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life," other pavilions try too hard to be all things to all issues.

" I was very keen to do something which was very simple, very elemental, something a child can understand as well as an academic," says Buttress. "This is the world expo, so you have people from all sorts of different cultures and different languages. So it was important for me that this could be understood viscerally and emotionally."

"It's one simple idea, but within that idea, there's lots of layers of meaning which hopefully you can take away."

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