Images of the Federation Bells
Site visit, 10 May 2020. All images: Terry McDermott
Metaphor and constraint. Striking the bells.
The bells are a physical set of objects. They can only sound by being struck. This was exemplified in Strange Fruit's performance Ringing the Changes, composed by Greame Leak, where performers struck the bells manually with mallets, while swinging, elevated, creating rhythmic textures through the direct physicality of their performance. This example sits at one end of a continuum, from concrete action, to abstraction at the other end.
The way the bells are normally played is through the remote mechanism of playback of a precomposed sequence of notes, much like a player-piano pianola from last century. These precomposed sequences (MIDI files) are considered compositions, made by composers, just like any other kind of musical composition. The bells regularly play each day from a large repertoire of pieces, commissioned and written over their 20-year history. While this is quite a conventional and easily understood mode of playing the bells, it is also quite abstract: the bells are performerless; the pieces, played in sequence, sit together as an arbitrarily-curated set, without explanation. They begin to play unannounced to an audience who may or may not exist, and is equally arbitrary, casual, transitive.
I went to the bells last weekend to take some photos and to experience them. I hadn't been there for some time. The bells amid the coronavirus lockdown, seemed, like the rest of the city, quite isolated, lonely, aloof. The field seemed smaller, not as substantial as I remembered them. They reminded me of a field of mushrooms, in some sort of network, connected with each other by underground wires, but decoupled from the rest of the world.
It was a Sunday; I was there for about 3 hours. Most of the time I was the only one there, except for the occasional jogger and cyclist. The bells started playing at 5pm, a few people gathered to listen, casually coming and going during pieces, without the sense of obligation to stay as one would normally feel during a conventional music performance. There was something transitory about the rendering of these peices which contrasted strongly with the immutable permanence of the physical presence of the bells themselves.
Before that visit it had been a while since I'd last seen them, which had been at a performance of Barney McAll's Transitive Bells, a substantial composition, performed by musicians in concert with the bells as a kind of backing-track. This was a great example of how the bells can be transformed, from an island -like structure, a simple remotely-played carrillion, to something that can really connect an audience to the bells, with live musicians acting as the bridge between the bells and the audience.
There have been other examples of interesting performance modes with the bells, such as Pantha du Prince's live show too, but the point remains the same -- working with the bells live transforms them into something else.
Used my phone to record a bit of Pantha du Prince playing the bells for Melbourne Music Week 2013. Apologies for the distorted audio.
Terry, 18 May
I'm hoping that we can have that sort of connection with the audience that you get with live performance of the bells, and I'm guessing that Dispersion will have its own character, lying somewhere on the continuum between abstract (sequence playback) and concrete (performers manually striking the bells).
How can a voice "strike" the bells? I liked the Strange Fruit work because of the immediate rendering of a bell's tone through the physical act of manually striking it. While it was a performance that had strong elements of spectacle in it, it also allowed for the performers to strike the bells in a remarkably subtle, human, humane manner, that gave the bells a sweetness of tone that hasn't been heard before. Obviously a voice cannot directly activate a bell, but we can perhaps use some metaphors, which might provide some more 'concrete' constraints to otherwise arbitrary rules of engagement, which can account for the same physical laws that cause such resonance, including how sound travels and disperses through the air.
bells samples 48K wav files, one for each bell. Best thing is to put them all in a sound editor-- and sing along to each, one at a time; in order; single breath for each bell; doesn't need to be entire length of the longer bell sounds (you can truncate them); a couple of seconds for each bell is all I need really-- looking for a stable pitch which acts as a basic reference for each bell. Can just be an aaaah sound. Maybe say the bell number before singing it. But not if it's distracting you from the task. The pitch you sing should be the pitch you hear when listening to a particular bell (doesn't have to be the fundamental harmonic or anything, and obviously needs to be in your vocal range). Some of the bells have an ambiguous pitch, so it's to do with how you hear the bells and how you want them to be apprehended.
The borders are closing
As I listen to the bells, the borders between the states are closing. Each state has independent health departments with it's own rules and responsibilities for the residents’ health. Each state decides who can come in and who stays away, each going into lockdown to protect its own residents. In their respective press conferences, the Premiers speak in emphatic language: ‘we don’t want you here’.
This invisible bug is rapidly undoing national togetherness! Federation is revealed as a fragile, conditional idea, a reminder that ‘Australia’ and its states are constructions, a recent imposition on this big island.
It's an attractive choice to live in the parallel universe of music, spending most waking hours in all of music's many fabulous activities and reveries: listening, playing, writing, fanning. When compared to living in this pandemic-laden real world, the Parallel Universe of Music - or any other parallel universe - is an increasingly attractive refuge. My psychological survival might even depend on it.
The Federation Bells seem conceptually straightforward: a collection of sounding objects constructed to celebrate the centenary of nationhood. Yet the beautiful bells are ringing their sounds into personal, national, and global separations. It's ironic and confronting that while I work each day with sounds that were built to celebrate unity, I am reminded of closures, fractures, divisions, and isolations. Damn. My comforting Parallel Universe of Music has developed a major pathway into reality.
Video 1: Bells on grid view
This is a demo of what I've been working on. Its a representation of the bells as a map looking down, in a grid. It's to scale, the biggest bells are the biggest circles.
Sound takes time to travel through the air, about 340 meters per second. Like the ripples caused by a pebble dropped in a pond, a shout or other impulsive sound also has an invisible ripple that travels through the air, the wavefront. We could envision that wavefront hitting each bell at a different times as the wavefront expands through the field of bells, causing a flurry of bell strikes.
To perceive the effect we might have to slow down our metaphorical speed of sound, or speed of causation, so it takes on a rhythmic character, or so it has a perceivable sense of gesture, which would be altered according to where the source of causation, the voice, comes from.
Perhaps this idea of an arc of causation, traveling through the field of bells, maybe one way of creating interesting, controllable gestures. Perhaps that speed of causation can be changed by the intensity or pitch of the shout?
Terry, May 2020