The Oratorio for a Million Souls

The Oratorio for a Million Souls is a major feature of the European Capital of Culture, Leeuwarden (Fryslan) 2018 Silence of the Bees programme. The project consists of bee-listening architectures constructed in three European botanical gardens, located in Buitenpost (Fryslan) and Emden and Oldenburg (Germany).

Working on the willow framing.

The structures were built by landscape design volunteers from the Nordwin College in Leeuwarden and the artist worked in close collaboration with Jon Drummond to create both the sensor hive and audio system as well as new musical compositions for wind ensembles.

Physically each Oratorio is constructed in wattle and daub and is based upon the form of a traditional woven straw beehive (a Skepp in English). The hemispherical interior of the Oratorio provides a special acoustic architecture that resonates with the domed roofs of Cathedrals and Mosques. And here I would like to say a special thank you to the guys from Nordwin College for all their design and build work on the project.

The finished Leem walls with Thatched roof and roof garden.

The oratorio structures are technologically simple and robust, each of the three Oratorio listening spaces contains two sensor hives equipped with small high-quality microphones as well as digital sensors that collect data on Bee movement, temperature and humidity and this data is also converted into sound patterns.

So why bees?

As a colonial insect with highly defined social structures bees have for Millenia provided us with a metaphor for human social organisation. The workers who make up the vast majority of the hive population, have stood for loyalty, obedience, courage and selflessness ~ and much of their behaviour would seem to support the anthropomorphic metaphors we attach to them – The Hive was a perfect role model for Nineteenth Century industrial capital, which like the Monarchy is based upon a rigid autocratic power pyramid.

Bumble Bees are rather friendly.

But rather messy!

Oratorio for a Million Souls – design concept from Nigel Helyer on Vimeo.

A visualisation of the Oratorio structure – courtesy Sebastiaan, Sjoert and Mikael from Nordwin College Leeuwarden.

These metaphors have however evolved and changed with both the increase in knowledge of insect ecologies and as a reflection of changes in human social organisation. We now understand more about the intricate chemistry of Bee genetics as well as the complex decision-making processes involved (in for instance) swarming – we now understand this as a type of collective democracy – not the work of an individual mind but a product of parallel processing. A natural neural network, if you like, that has evolved over if you like, that has evolved over 100 million years – the hive as a super-organism, the hive-mind.


A sensor hive box in preparation.


Piezo contact mikes placed in the nest boxes
With high-resolution DPA mikes in the landing areas.
An ariel view of the final performance.
The three Oratorio sites work with BumbleBees – in Latin Bombus Terrerestris – and Bombus is derived from the Latin for Buzzing or Drumming – so a direct link to the world of insect sound. For those unfamiliar with contemporary northern European farming techniques such bees are mass-produced, designed for the task of pollination in industrial-scale greenhouse horticulture.
The interior display.
The concept behind the Oratorio is to create a network of listening spaces each domed listening space will allow us to become immersed in a world of insect sounds. We enter into the sonic heart of a Bee-city and for a moment become a citizen meditating at the centre of a sonic hive – all working – all buzzing!

Nigel talks about Oratorio from Nigel Helyer on Vimeo.

Each hive is equipped with two types of microphones and two data sensors. Visitors will hear the sound of bees entering and leaving the nest, as well as the busy interior of the nest.

There are also two types of piano notes, low sustained notes that relate to temperature data, and short sequences of higher notes that are triggered when a bee enters or exits the nest. A sophisticated computer system mixes the real-time sound of bees with the data-controlled piano sounds to create a four-channel live soundscape. In addition, we have developed a new musical composition by using recordings made in the bee hives which we analysed to give a palette of musical pitches. We then used data from bee exit and entry from the hives to provide a sense of temporal structure to the composition.

By combining the musical pitch sets with the daily patterns of bee flight activity we have created a novel composition that the three wind ensembles will play simultaneously from each of the botanical gardens, which will be recombined for each audience via a three-way satellite link-up.

A lo-fi recording of the B-Rhapsodie concert.