The Swarm received its first outing last year in the resonant chamber of the Thames Tunnel Shaft in Rotherhithe. Now an expanded version for women’s voices and recorded sound is held at The Cavern as part of the Vault Festival. Urban engineering and rumbling trains at Waterloo Station accompanied a mesmerising performance as nine singers enact the dramatic and democratic journey of a swarm of bees across London to a new, safe home.
Using recordings from hives, Heloise Tunstall-Behrens and Roswitha Gerlitz recreate the timbres and social groupings of bees in dance and music. The performers wore blood-red tunics and their faces were embellished with golden cells in the tradition of the Karo tribe in Ethiopia. The sung music is broadly polyphonic, incorporating another African influence, from the Baka people of the Congo.
Tunstall-Behrens identified the frequency of bees at rest, G above middle-C, and uses this as a repetitive figure. In flight the insects vibrate at a lower pitch, B, and when at their waggle, C. The dance is recreated as a recurring eight in rhythm, a central episode, as the community locate and identify its next place of rest.
Maeterlinck’s celebrated treatise on bees is adapted as part of the narration, interspersed with the main action. Layers of sound create a changing cityscape that forms part of the work’s dramatic shape. The effect is fascinating and euphonious if slightly weak on detail and also delineating the stages of the bees’ journey.