March 30, 2012 9:21 pm

Bell époque

From Björk to the Olympics, bells are playing an increasingly strong role in the music of our time

It was a moment of wonder. As a 13-year-old apprentice bell-ringer, I had been summoned to the local church tower for an introduction to the bells I would be ringing every Sunday. The climb up a steep ladder to the top of the ancient belfry seemed endless but, after finally stepping on to a tiny wooden platform, I found myself giddily surveying eight open-mouthed bells of varying size, dovetailed into a compact space, up-ended on wooden rests and poised for action.

Suddenly the biggest bell moved off its rest and whirred down and round, letting off an ear-splitting clang: one of the bell-ringers downstairs had decided to demonstrate the mechanics. But instead of continuing to toll, the bell contrived to land back on its rest after only one near-revolution and two hits of its clapper. If the bell-ringer on the ground had pulled too hard as the bell swung back up, it would have smashed its wooden rest and swallowed up its rope into innumerable coils. If the bell had not been pulled hard enough, it would not have regained its perch at the top.

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With practice I, too, grasped how to control that big, deep-sounding bell. Sometimes I was in the belfry on my own, tolling a single bell. On other occasions I was in a team of eight. Occasionally we engaged in the mathematically contrived change-ringing peculiar to England – a different tradition to Russia, where church bells are chimed in an unco-ordinated, clangorous way, building up to an extraordinary resonance of specific and unspecific pitches.

That early memory of campanology came whizzing back when I read that bells are to play a prominent role at the opening of the London Olympics in July. The film director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), who has been appointed artistic director of the inaugural ceremony, has entitled the festivities “Isles of Wonder” – inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which Caliban utters the line, “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises.” These words will be inscribed on a bell commissioned by Boyle: the largest ever cast in Europe, this 27-tonne giant – twice the weight of Big Ben, which rings the hour at Westminster – will be installed at one end of the Olympic stadium and will strike at 9pm on July 27, signalling the start of the games.

Martin Creed

Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed will lead a nationwide bell ringing on Olympics opening day

But the Olympic bell theme goes further. On the morning of July 27, the nation is being invited to ring thousands of bells at the same time. Turner Prize-winning artist and musician Martin Creed wants every conceivable type of bell to be rung “as quickly and as loudly as possible” for three minutes at 8am, to send out a signal “that something is happening”.

Bell-ringing, often heard across miles of countryside, has been part of the world’s aural furniture for millennia but it has been obscured somewhat in our noisy, secular, high-tech age. The Olympic plans suggest that 2012 will be a year in which bells win back some overdue attention – a process that can only be helped by their increasingly influential, albeit subtle, role in the music of our time, both popular and (especially) classical.

Mike Oldfield, in his 1973 album Tubular Bells, was the first pop musician of the electronic age to explore the potential of bell sounds; more recently they have been powerfully used by singer-songwriter Björk, whose 2011 album Biophilia features songs underpinned by chimes and gongs. In her 2006 video of “Who Is It”, she even wears a bell-shaped dress, spangled with miniature bells, and is accompanied by handbell ringers in similar garb.

The cover of Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album ‘Tubular Bells’

The cover of Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album ‘Tubular Bells’

On the classical front, too, composers are waking up to the potential of bells to create evocative resonances within a wider sound-picture. Berlioz, in his 1830 Symphonie fantastique, was the first to make a strong impact with the use of a bell, followed by Mahler (cowbells in the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies) and Russians from Mussorgsky to Shostakovich. Interest grew in the latter half of the 20th century, from composers as varied as Messiaen, Cage and Britten, who used the bell-like sonorities of the Balinese gamelan to suggest the magical effect of Tadzio’s appearances in Death in Venice. The modern symphony orchestra is packed with instruments that make bell-like sounds – creating a bridge with music by Tan Dun and other Asian composers, who have sought inspiration in the bianzhong and other traditional chime-bells.

“Composers are always searching for their own voice and for new means of expression,” says Martyn Brabbins, a conductor of contemporary music, “but they also need anchor-points, and a bell can give you a flavour with just one chime.”

What attracts composers is the bell’s extra-musical associations (alarm, joy, mourning) and capacity to evoke timelessness. There are also ritual and meditative connotations, symbolising a clearing of mind and spirit. But their purely sonic properties – the slowly decaying sound, the voluminous complexity of overtones in a big metallic clang – have proved an equally strong stimulant.

Helen Grime, associate composer with the Hallé Orchestra, built her Luna for chamber ensemble around a Tibetan chime she picked up for £10 in an Edinburgh shop. “It’s quite inspiring to think people might have been listening to the same sounds for centuries,” she says.

That is echoed by Matt Rogers, who was commissioned last year by London’s Spitalfields Festival to write Dead Reckoning for 24 hand-bells. “What’s interesting for me is that bell-like sounds occur in the rituals of cultures of great diversity,” says Rogers, whose work turned out to be so popular that it will be repeated at Spitalfields this summer. “When you are writing music, it’s good to think of things that might be universal rather than just part of your specific tradition. It helps you to tune into a wider spectrum of audience perception. Writing music for bells also brings restrictions – which every creative artist needs, because they are the key to finding ways to express yourself. Once you find out how this world [of bells] works, you find out a lot about how your own music works.”

To create the right sound, a bell must be cast from a special brittle metal which, if struck violently, can crack or buckle, resulting in the loss of the bell’s distinctive pitch. Bells do not come cheap, as a glance through the price list of London’s historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry – where the Olympic bell is being cast – shows: a set of hand-bells can cost £20,000, a standard church bell up to £50,000.

Arvo Pärt

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt

It’s just as well, then, that composers have found resourceful ways of simulating bells without having to use them in performance. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt remains an inspiration to many. Pärt, who will be the subject of a BBC “Total Immersion” day in London in April, went through a profoundly religious phase in the 1970s that saw him visiting Russian monasteries and listening to the multilayered sound of their bells – a sound he metamorphosed into a new style known as “tintinnabuli”.

“He was very taken by the impact and decay of bell sound, and rationalised the musical idea into a workable system,” says Paul Hillier, Pärt’s biographer and leading choral conductor. “But he has been careful not to be overt about the sound of bells in his music – otherwise people would be too quick to point out the reference and exaggerate the relationship.”

In Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, the most celebrated electronic work of English composer Jonathan Harvey, that relationship between “simulated” and “real” becomes indivisible. The treble voice of his son is mixed with the analysed-and-atomised pitches of the tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral, transforming recognisable sounds into something ethereal. “In 1980 this was a new idea, something that became possible only with a computer,” says Julian Anderson, who has used similar processes in his own highly refined music.

But such high-tech simulacra do not mean that composers have given up on the real thing. Anderson, whose latest work, The Discovery of Heaven, was premiered last week at London’s Royal Festival Hall, says the opposite has been the case. “Far from lessening interest in real bells, these computerised techniques have made composers more inclined to use them.”

‘Total Immersion: Arvo Pärt’ takes place on April 28; www.barbican.org.uk

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