Arts House chat: Dance of the Bee

Dance of the Bee is an interspecies musical collaboration performed by three pianists, the vocalists of the Astra Choir and a live swarm of bees.

The bees will be inside a transparent sculpted hive, and will sing and as a live video feed lets the audience see into the hive.

Pianist and composer Michael Kieran Harvey was born in Sydney and studied at the Liszt Academy, Budapest. He’s won some of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world and continues to promote the works of Australian and contemporary composers.

His passion for music and his fellow artists is matched by his passion for science, philosophy and our environment. All of which flows into his love for our honey bees; whose world-wide reduction has to be stopped if humans are to even consider continuing on this planet.

He talks about how “music has unlimited possibilities and is always an inspiring way to interpret the universe” and hopes that this work will help each audience member develop an”awe of our friend and companion, the honey bee” that will, “develop empathy and understanding which will lead to meaningful action”.

Michael Kieran Harvey. Photo by Peter Mathew
Michael Kieran Harvey. Photo by Peter Mathew

How do you describe this work to your friends?
It’s not just a piano recital, but a way of collaborating with another species via the visionary expertise in music, science and apiary of Martin Friedel, with three of the most exciting and imaginative pianists working in Melbourne, Peter Dumsday, Joy Lee and Kim Bastin, and with the phenomenal Astra choir directed by John McCaughey.

A swarm of piano pieces written by the industrious denizens of the hive of Australian new music introduces the installation of the Bees’ Cathedral, where instead of nourishing honey, this time they will be manufacturing nourishing music, yet another gift to us humans, who in general treat them with hubris instead of gratitude and awe.

We need to take more care of these amazing creatures, and reject and transcend the philosophy of greed and competition that is wiping them out before it’s too late. For in wiping them out, we wipe ourselves out too, and Nature in turn will simply wipe her hands of us with relief.

In this show the human voice mixes with the pre-electronic symbol of bourgeois industrialism, the piano, to embrace and work with the bee, as they have with us for millennia.

Whose theatre or work inspires you?
Astra under the direction of John McCaughey. [The Astra choir are performing Dance of the Bee.]

Astra is like the beekeeper of Australian composition. For more than 60 years Astra has encouraged the very sweet nectar of Australian composition, with very little fanfare, funding and encouragement; just integrity, imagination, hard work and commitment.

I’m also in absolute awe of Martin Friedel [the Dance of the Bee composer], who not only is an Emmy-award winning composer, but also holds degrees in science and chemistry, and is currently attracting great interest worldwide for his scientifically researched method for surviving prostate cancer.

Who or what inspires you outside of theatre?
Who? Bob Brown, of course. He is our greatest human. Currently I’m undertaking a PhD in composition with Richard Vella, who is visionary in his embracing of new science/arts interfaces. Family – my super-intelligent and gorgeous wife Arabella; my extraordinary parents, who still do outrageous and creative things; my three siblings, ditto; my two headstrong and amazing children; they’re all musicians! Shaun Micallef; his generic pianist and his André Rieu impressions are superlative, on a par with his Milo Kerrigan, the apogee of Aussie sport.

What? Science – especially the ramifications of the Large Hadron Collider and the aftermath of the Singularity. I’m hanging out for the unified theory; I’m so lucky to be alive.

Aubrey de Grey and the SENS institute freak me out (they’re researching immortality), as does the MIRI (Machine Intelligence) institute. And my favourite writers are Dawkins, Dennett and AC Grayling, whom I’ve all met, I’m proud to say.

Tasmania for the still relatively cool climate, the inspiring wilderness areas and gobsmacking MONA make it the best place to live in Australia.

Literature and philosophy: you are never without inspiration! Several of my compositions have been inspired by science fiction, including current projects The Green Brain (Frank Herbert) and a re-appropriation of an earlier ensemble work, Kazohinia (Sándor Szathmári), and also recent collaborative projects with Slave Pianos based on The Lepidopters (Mark von Schlegell).

Earlier science-based works such as my Toccata DNA, which gets played quite frequently around the world, are musical analogies for processes in the natural world. My first piano sonata had literary and socio-political themes: the Dutch cartoon debacle juxtaposed with the libertarian stance of Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade. My Psychosonata (piano sonata #2) is inspired by my association with psychiatrist Saxby Pridmore and alludes to Auerbach’s paintings and Brett Easton Ellis’s novels. My 48 Fugues For Frank, a homage to Zappa, is inspired by my work with yoga master/concrete poet Dr Arjun von Caemmerer – rock meets Avant-Garde meets the Enlightenment philosophy of Rameau, all crashing together.

Music has unlimited possibilities and is always an inspiring way to interpret the universe.

What was your first idea for this show?
As Martin Friedel writes: “Our age, the Anthroprocene Age started with the industrial revolution. The human population exploded, accompanied by an exponential demand for food and plant material. Huge tracts of temperate forest, grassland and wilderness have been destroyed and replaced by industrial-scale single crop cultivation. High yields are achieved using artificial fertilisers and an armoury of highly toxic pesticides and herbicides. Pollination of vast mono-cultures is achieved by huge numbers of bees, whole sole purpose is fixed to the transport of pollen from one plant to the next identical plant.

It is calculated that about one third of the food we consume requires bee pollination. Our very existence is increasingly dependent on the health of this remarkable little creature. But apis mellifera is now endangered. Artificial breeding has led to a diminished gene pool; Indiscriminate use of antibiotics has reduced resistance to infection. Lack of genetic flexibility, combined with neurotoxic pesticides and exotic parasites – spread by globalisation – have delivered mass death; as has colony collapse disorder (varyingly called spring dwindle, May disease, autumn disease etc) to hundred of thousands domestic and wild bee colonies throughout Europe and the US.”

Both Martin and I wanted to make a work involving our Astra colleagues that addressed this alarming situation, but offered a way of increasing empathy for the bee through music.

Did it make it into the final work?
Yes. The specific “music” of the hive and its various states of activity are reinterpreted by Friedel to create a truly interspecies feedback score, humans reacting to the insect sound, and vice-versa.

He says, “Unfamiliar sounds of the hive and the prepared piano combine with the more familiar sounds of the normal piano. The music traverses from sound structures connecting with image to more intense, virtuosic piano music; from semi-improvised to mathematically formal music – reflections on Gaia at work through the Dance of the Bee.”

Stars of Dance of the Bee
Stars of Dance of the Bee

What question(s) would you like your audience to ask themselves before, during and/or after your show?
We would like the audience to ponder: “What can we concerned humans do?”.

We need to be in awe of our friend and companion, the honey bee. We need to develop empathy and understanding which will lead to meaningful action. We must protect the honey bee from the consequences of our blind greed and must learn that we, the dominant species will only have a future, when other living things have a future. If we do not learn this lesson quickly, Gaia will casually sweep us into the fossil record and give our place to another species.

What show or whose work changed how you saw theatre?
Barry Humphries.

What made you laugh today?
The government seeking to increase GST while the richest companies avoided paying their share of tax and the Commonwealth Bank posted its biggest profit. We are living in a Kafka novel.

How has your art making changed over the years?
It’s become more esoteric, but angrier.

If you could invite anyone to see this show, who would it be?
George Pell, so the police could question him.

Have you ever been in an audience and walked out of a show before it finished?
No, but I walked out of my own performance once.

I just got tremendously depressed at the world and the futility of my pathetic existence in the middle of the Arioso of the Hammerklavier and couldn’t go on. I was fine an hour later with a cup of tea and a cake though.

What makes you curious?
As Elliott Carter posited in his last opera: “What’s Next?”.

I’m curious as to why people donate their hard-earned cash to tobacco, alcohol and gambling corporations to receive in return the gifts of cancer and ruined lives. I’m very curious to see what happens after semiocapitalism; perhaps a golden era of cooperation?

What bores you?
Neoconservatism in all its manifestations. Sport in all its manifestations. Corporatese. Career politicians. Australian politics.

What’s one thing you have you learned to accept?
That Ayn Rand’s philosophy is running the world and we are basically doomed as a species while that prevails.

What’s your suggestion for ensuring that audiences turn their phones off during shows?
Never believe that they have turned off their phones, it’s just like air travel. People used to talk, smoke, eat and drink and for all I know fornicate through concerts. So always play very loud and fast. Never play baroque repertoire on weak instruments or anything involving candles. Most festivals have realised this now. Soon they won’t even have to bother with the earplugs as everyone will be deaf.

What advice can you give to emerging artists about making their own work and finding their voice?
Do not believe the lie that it is necessary to be self-destructive to produce art. Make sure you have your own dwelling before you commit to the artistic life. Do whatever you can to cherish other people rather than use them. Be loyal, unfashionable though that is, because your older years will be very satisfying. As mine are!

Dance of the Bee
Arts House and Astra
11–13 September


Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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