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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

A Drone of Bees

A midday swarm in San Francisco's Outer Richmond District

This afternoon, at around 2:50pm California time, I was in the backyard with my 23-month-old. She was just starting to use some chalk we’d gotten her yesterday when I heard this unfamiliar sound: a drone, a kind of buzzing. I looked around and slowly what came into view over the north fence was something that resembled a small dust storm, and that revealed itself soon as a lot of bees. A whole lot of bees. I grabbed my kid and pulled her into our house, one stick of chalk still in her little hand. Closed the windows. Ran to the back bedroom and looked out. Our backyard was engulfed with bees, just filled with them, like a side-loading clothes dryer filled with marbles and running at full speed. I shot 45 seconds or so of video on my phone, though I’m not sure there’s much to see. I post it here for environmental posterity. It makes more sense in still frames, though there are moments when the swarming becomes apparent. The sound was muffled by glass, but the droning was quite clear — frighteningly out of control, and yet eerily suggesting some sense of control. There is no chaos to a swam of bees. It feels directed, agreed upon, consensual. Within a couple minutes the bees had moved west to another neighbor’s yard. As I type this there are still a lot more bees than usual in our backyard. And the ones in the neighbor’s yard (to the north, where this originated) are moving around weirdly fast. Usually they just go from bush to bush, but they are zooming left then right then back then forth, zigzagging like crazy.

The experience reinforced for me how central the drone is to natural sound, how it is primordial, in contrast with song, which speaks of civilization. And yet this drone was the sound of a civilization, a swarm of bees acting as one, a nomad hive. As readers of this site know, I spend a lot of time listening to drones — to the natural environment, to the built environment, and to music built from drones. This bee drone, felt and heard firsthand, was entirely unfamiliar.

The experience also emphasized the value of sound in one sense of one’s environment. The only reason I so quickly recognized the nearing bees was because of my awareness of the various drones and related sounds that are normal to our neighborhood. The bees stood out before they were too close because I heard one particularly odd drone among many — a bad note, as it were.

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By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • […] (1) a listen to the score-meet-sound-design of a short sci-fi film titled Loom (with addendum information provided via email by one of the movie’s composers), (2) a Disquiet Junto project in which the participants interpreted polling data from the ongoing U.S. presidential election as if it were a graphically notated score (see image above), (3) a revised version of a Disquiet Junto remix of a Shostakovich chamber symphony by Kent Sparling (composer of, among other things, the score to Wayne Wang’s The Princess of Nebraska), (4) my interview with sound artist Christof Migone about his excavation of Ray Bradbury‘s The Martian Chronicles, (5) my 1993 interview with Depeche Mode (online for the first time ever) from the period that culminated with the Songs of Faith and Devotion album, (6) one of the seven performances from the recent (August 19) Disquiet Junto concert held in Denver (more audio will be posted live soon), (7) the announcement that I’m writing a book for the great 33 1/3 series on Aphex Twin‘s landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol II, (8) a Disquiet Junto project in which almost 30 musicians in just over four days interpreted an incendiary Yoko Ono Fluxus work from 1955, (9) an abstract exploration of the film-sound nugget known as the “Wilhelm Scream,” and (10) my all too close encounter with a massive swarm of bees. […]

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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