Cross-pollination is the germination of one species using seed from another. More specifically, the name of this album comes from an event that was held on the South Bank a couple of years back, which sought to combine human voices with the sounds of insects to produce new musical hybrids. As part of this, the sound recordist Chris Watson and the composer Marcus Davidson created ‘The Bee Symphony’, which took recordings Watson and Touch’s Mike Harding had made at bee hives, and set them in a choral context. The production of this piece came at a time of increased focus on the relationship between bees and humans, thanks to the worldwide spread of Colony Collapse Disorder, the causes of which are still unclear, but which are more than likely man-made. A quote is famously (if perhaps erroneously) attributed to Albert Einstein in which he was purported to have claimed that if bees were to entirely disappear from the planet, then humans would be extinct within four years. Without their role in the pollination process, the plants which we rely on for food (or to feed the animals we rely on for food) could die out, with terrible consequences. It is an extreme example of how one species can not just make convenient use of another to prolong the life of its genetic material, but actually be entirely dependent on another for its continuation.
A version of ‘The Bee Symphony’ recorded at a later performance in York is is one of two pieces on this new CD released by Touch. The above context aside, there is a clear musical logic behind the work, with Davidson finding that the insects on Watson and Harding’s recordings “sang” in clusters around the note of A during the day, dropped down a semitone as the day progressed, and rose back to a stronger unison A when their hive was threatened. And so ‘The Bee Symphony’ begins with the bees buzzing tunefully and rhythmically amongst birds in the morning, human voices gradually mixing in – the singers are not imitating the bees, more finding their own harmonies, making notes and sounds that fit, from long fluctuating sequences to short clipped yelps. The symphony becomes noticeably darker and more sluggish later, the voices sliding down that semitone, the sound of the bees (the “drone drone”, if you will) now processed, becoming increasingly muffled and indistinct. Finally, both bees and humans are silenced. ‘The Bee Symphony’ isn’t just a third of an hour in the life of a bee, it is an entire life cycle in twenty minutes, and a stark warning about the fragility of ecosystems.
You can read similar themes into the other piece on Cross-Pollination, which is entitled ‘Midnight At The Oasis’. It isn’t a cover version of Maria Muldaur’s hit from 1974, you may or may not be pleased to hear, but rather a set of recordings from the Kalahari desert. Watson is famous for recording sounds that you just wouldn’t be able to hear with your own ears, but on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ he is going further, to create an entire sonic event you couldn’t ever actually experience, by layering and concatanating an entire night’s worth of recordings into a continuous thirty minute piece (he did something similar with his rainforest installation ‘Whispering In The Leaves’ at Kew Gardens last year). Despite temperatures which can reach into the high forties celsius, the Kalahari is surprisingly full of nature, though its presence is felt more obviously in the welcome cool of the night. Flies dance wearily between the last rays of that raging-hot sun at the start, to be joined by birdsong and the onset of what is to become a very intense burst of insect stridulation. The desert floor seems to be teeming with an incredible variety of species, each with their own distinct sound, and the recordings are rich: full of different frequencies, and different pulsations. Some Japanese monks believe that the voice of Buddha speaks through crickets: listening to the immersive ‘Midnight In The Oasis’, I can certainly hear why they would choose to meditate to these sounds.
However, one thing you don’t hear on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ is any human activity. You might think that was a given, because of the harshness of the location, but in fact the Kalahari desert is home to the San bushmen, one of the oldest genetically distinct races of human on the planet, with their own sonically fascinating language of click consonants. These people have long been completely dependent on the desert, on its climatic cycles, and on its vegetation and wildlife. However, this balance is under threat, with the Botswana government forcibly and illegally relocating them from their ancestral homeland so that they can make more money through exploiting its tourist potential. A tribe can live for millennia in the most unforgiving of conditions, and amongst some of the most dangerous animals on the planet: ultimately, their enemy is not nature, but other men. As ‘The Bee Symphony’ reminded us, perhaps the delicate harmony that exists between humankind and the environment is one that we should be leaving undisturbed.