The Federation Bells

The Federation Bells is a permanent installation comprising 39 upturned bells situated in a public park close to Melbourne's central business district, called Birrarung Marr.  


It was commissioned and officially launched in 2001 as part of the centenary of Australia’s federation.

The Federation Bells were designed by Anton Hasell and Neil McLachlan in collaboration with Swaney Draper Architects.

They are played daily. Hundreds of compositions have been created for the Federation Bells and many of them can be heard in an evolving weekly schedule.

Place, and placement

Birrarung Marr is an open space that's great for large public events as well as being a place for casual recreation. Picnics, walks, meetings and individual time out are all common activities at the park. It is adjacent to the Yarra River, and is a relatively recent addition to the public spaces of Melbourne, having been designed and built only two decades ago.


Part of the park's design was the inclusion of a unique carillion, known as the "Field of Bells", which has since become a well-acquainted feature of Melbourne life.


The Federation Bells are unique on a number of levels. For a start, they have been installed "upside-down": they do not hang and swing-- instead they sit and wait. They wait for listeners, those who frequent the park and might come across them, and then they play. 

The sound of the bells

You might think, in your mind's ear, of a dinner-bell, or a church-bell, but the Federation Bells sound quite different from a typical bell-sound.  Most bells have a sound which invokes an ambiguous sense of pitch. This is due to the complex inharmonic structure of the overtones, which are a consequence of a bell's physical shape.

In contrast to this standard "church-bell" form, each individual Federation bell has been acoustically designed to elicit as much as possible, through its timbral structure, a very clear sense of pitch. They are called "harmonic" bells because the structure of their overtones has been designed to mimic those of a plucked string (or human voice for that matter), rather than the more clangorous (inharmonic) sound of a typical clock-tower bell.


Overlaid on this sensibility of timbral "purity" or "clarity" is a tuning system that is a direct result of this philosophy of harmonic simplicity.


So, as an extension of this individual design process, the bells, as a set, have been tuned to a scale that articulates a specific set of simple harmonic relationships. The pitch relationship each bell has with each other reflects the same spectral structure that determines the actual sound of each bell. This tuning system (or scale) that the bells articulate is different to the modern chromatic scale. Their tuning system is unique, and also ancient. 


"Just-intonation" is a term used to describe the way the bells are tuned, and can be traced back to ancient Greek ideas of pitch and harmony. Because of their unique tuning system, the bells can often sound "strange" or "out of tune" to people who hear them for the first time. They take a bit of getting used to, but  if approached with an open mind, one's ears can adapt pretty quickly over the course of several minutes of listening to music played with the bells.

Playing the bells

Because of their esoteric acoustic and musical design, the bells best play compositions that, like the bells themselves, are bespoke and considered. They can play church-bell-like-peels; they can play pop-song arrangements, but they are best suited to music specifically composed for them, and their unique design.


The bells have a very large repertoire, with composers submitting original pieces on a regular basis. Generally they play different sets of pieces regularly each day. These include specifically commissioned pieces, as well as ones submitted by the general public, using an automated playback system. Most of the music is thus pre-composed, and so the experience of listening to the bells play is, in some sense, akin to listening to a recording of a piece of music. There lies the fundamental paradox of listening to the bells: you are at once listening to a set of objects being struck alive, but that sequence of strikes is simply a playback of a preexisting "recording", a set of predetermined events.


Dispersion aims to enhance the potency of this absolutely unique musical instrument by providing a means to directly play the bells through the immediate, intuitive and expressive act of enunciating and projecting a single human voice. This will at once collapse the somewhat austere overwhelming scale of the bells as a musical instrument to something more familiar and intimate, while still retaining the rather monumental, otherworldly quality that the bells possess.