400-year-old score based on bees inspires new Edinburgh exhibition

A 400-year-old musical score based on the sound of bees in the hive has inspired part of the first major UK exhibition by a leading Australian artist.

Angelica Mesiti with her exhibition 'In the Round'.

The choral piece was written by Elizabethan polymath Charles Butler, a pioneer in English beekeeping.

His four-part vocal harmony mimics a sound known as piping, which queen bees make during certain periods of their development.

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Artist Angelica Mesiti has edited the score to produce her own sound installation, The Swarming Song, recorded in the University of Edinburgh’s Reid Concert Hall.

It will form part of her In the Round exhibition which opens at the university’s Talbot Rice Gallery on Friday.

Mesiti is known for her large-scale video works and major pieces on show include three internationally acclaimed video installations.

One – Over the Air and Underground – is inspired by forms of communication in nature and uses ultra-violet light to depict how bees see the world.

The exhibition showcases new work by Mesiti sparked by the university’s cultural collections and about 50 artefacts from them will go on show.

These include a 1634 edition of Butler’s groundbreaking beekeeping guide, The Feminine Monarchie, which contains a copy of the Hampshire cleric’s choral score.

In the first edition of 1609, Butler represented the piping noise using a system of musical notation.

By the next edition in 1623, he had expanded this into a four-part vocal composition called The Bees Madrigal – some 300 years before Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his celebrated Flight of the Bumblebee.

The book challenges Aristotle’s view that a male governed the hive, proposing bees are ruled by a queen.

Mesiti said her video installation Assembly, commissioned for the Venice Bieniale in 2019, involved extensive work on musical notation and when she saw the 17th-century score in the university’s collection she was inspired to apply a similar treatment to it.

“The other reason it was of interest was because one of the main works in the exhibition called Over the Air and Underground… involves thinking about several different forms of communication that happen in the natural world, including bees and the vision of bees and how bees see the world.”

The installation involves images of flowers shot under ultraviolet light which Mesiti said “mimics the way bees see the world”.

Another part of the work involves a fungal web spread over a series of flowers while voices perform a tone that “tree roots communicate at”, she added.

She said the works examine “different ways of thinking about how information is exchanged and communication is made in other worlds outside of the human one”.