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Featured image: Hexa-Hive Village near Ossinlampi, Finland. 

by Mary Kosut (State University of New York)  & Lisa Jean Moore (State University of New York)

When you cultivate the art of listening, silence becomes pleasurably noisy. Among other things, avant-garde composer John Cage’s infamous and quietly disruptive composition 4’33” has taught us that ambient noise – the sound waves we tune out – can rearrange our relationship to the sonic world and our way of being in the present. For Cage, “There’s no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” In embodying silence, we become hosts for new frequencies. We become open to the art of buzz.

A bee’s buzz emanates not from their heads, but from the fanning movement of their two pairs of wings. When bees fly their wings temporarily fasten and separate in an exquisite microscopic fusion. It is not visible to the human eye, but it is audible. Catching the buzz, latching on to its frequency, is a comfort in a world of extreme sonic disruption. So, it is significant that only when bees stopped buzzing en masse as a result of Colony Collapse Disorder, that many humans first began to recognize the disappearance of their sounds. The Multispecies Salon is a space to tune into unusual and unheard frequencies; murmurings, static, humming, purring, whirring. It is a sensory lab that invites multispecies clamor and vibrations—layers of sound that bounce off, and in, and orbit around cacophonous species in a universe of reverb and echo.

Humans interpret bee sounds as if they are auditory codes to decipher insect behavior. In the words of a NYC beekeeper, there is a difference between “the G-sharp of a happy hive versus the A-sharp of a pissed-off hive.” Yet there is a palpable energy in the bees’ buzz that much like a bassline, permeates the body. The sounds of bees have inspired musical recordings, and bee sonic variations have been sampled in songs as a form of instrumentation. French composer and pioneer of electronic music, Jean-Jacques Perrey, used his field recordings of bees to construct a 1970s multispecies version of “Flight of the Bumblebees.” Pre-digital, Perrey laboriously cut and pasted pieces of the bees’ buzz together with scissors and tape to create an early electro-cult classic.

The different meanings of the word buzz are relevant in understanding the exchanges and intersections between humans and insects. Buzz is not just applicable within this context as a sound, but also as a physical sensation, an emotional state. Bees and other insects push boundaries of sociality and breach flesh, buzzing in our ears and forcing little dances of human jerkiness. Bees are certainly feared by humans, and this plays into their affective associations. They are also loved and respected. Part of the vibrational force, the hum, and the contact high that one gets from bees is ecologically productive. Buzzing creates sonic ambiance. Theorist and dubstep performer Steve Goodman has explored the ontologies of vibrational force. As Goodman writes, “Affective tonalities such as fear, especially when ingrained and designed into architectures of security, can become the basis for a generalized ecology, influencing everything from microgestures to economics. As such, and unlike an emotional state, affective tonality possesses, abducts, or envelops a subject rather than being possessed by one.” Sound can get on your nerves and cause you to act in certain ways.

The buzz can drive you mad, make you move your body, put you in a fugue state, and interrupt your ability to think. Yet the buzz encompasses other sensory capacities – bees stimulate our taste buds, trigger our sense of smell, and their touch (sting) can linger for days. When a bee enters our line of vision, the affective buzz awakens a complex palette of emotional tones and timbres. In addition to being drawn to the buzz, some urban beekeepers see it as their calling to take on eco-political activism as it benefits local ecologies and potentially reverses environmental crises. But bees are a semi-feral species. Just like living in a high-density city where urban pandemonium resonates, there is the ubiquitous air of danger in keeping bees, adding to the draw of the buzz.

Multispecies communications and vibrations need not necessarily be translated into tidy human syntax. Buzz—an echo between and among species and organisms—is abstract, sensate, and affective. Much like noise music, a genre that challenges conventional understandings of musical and non-musical sound, buzz is a concept that invites feedback, experimentation, improvisation and dissonance within our collective sonic habitats.

Further Reading

Silence: Lectures and Writings (1961) Wesleyan by John Cage Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear (2010) Cambridge, MIT Press by Steve Goodman Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (2013) NYU Press by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut The Art of Noise (1913)by Luigi Russolo

Mary Kosut is a cultural sociologist and associate professor of Media Society and the Arts and Gender Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York. In addition to Buzz (NYU Press 2013), she has published research on tattoo art, flesh-hook suspensions and aesthetic collaborations between bees and human artists. Her current project explores NYC art worlds and how artists negotiate and sustain their practice, despite economic constraints and other forces that obstruct a creative existence. She is co-founder of GCA, an exhibition space in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Mary Kosut: Purchase College profileGCA Website

Lisa Jean Moore is a medical sociologist. She lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and is a professor of sociology and gender studies at Purchase College, SUNY. Her books include The Body: Social and Cultural Dissections (Routledge 2014), Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (NYU Press 2013) and Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man’s Most Precious Fluid (NYU Press 2007). Her newest work explores the way the North Atlantic Horseshoe Crab comes to matter in bio-pharmaceutical and ecological constellations.

Lisa Jean Moore: Purchase College profile
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a companion to the book