September 16, 2015

The Big Bell

City Hall bell, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel
I love bells. All kinds of bells. Big or small. For me they represent the meeting of musicality and utility. They make beautiful sounds and tell us important things. They tell us the time of day, they summon us to worship and to dinner, they signal festive occasions and funerals and emergencies, they help us keep track of livestock, and lead us into altered states of consciousness… They are found in cultures throughout the world and come in many sizes and interesting shapes. And they are easy to play! In most situations, no musical skills are required (carillons and handbell choirs notwithstanding). But mostly I love them for the timbral variety and richness of their sounds; there's just something about resonant metal that…um, resonates with me…and bells have figured prominently in a few of my pieces (here, here, and here).

I heard plenty of bells in the Azores and this of course made me very happy. I also encountered a style of playing large church bells that I haven't heard before, a kind of "strumming" or "rolling" where the person ringing it strikes the bell repeatedly, very fast, for a long time. I'm not sure if they were doing it with just the clapper, which seems like it would be much too heavy to move that fast, or if they had a pair of hammers or mallets that allowed them to play with both hands. Either way, it was new to me, and quite impressive.

When I attended the mass at the Festa do Emigrante in Lajes das Flores, I was recording the whole thing up in the choir loft (along with assorted videographers, and an old-timer recording with a boombox). At the end of the mass the bell ringer started to do this strumming up in the bell tower, and as I was right next to the tower's stairway I climbed up to record it. I didn't go all the way because I didn't want to distract him, but I was able to hold the recorder about level with the landing at the top of the stairs. It was incredibly loud! Even though the recording levels were low enough to avoid peaking the meters, there is some audible distortion on the recording from all that noise over-driving the microphones themselves. He kept this up for about three full minutes.

I knew I would want to use this recording in the piece, but it presented a challenge: Three minutes is a long time to expect anyone to listen to a really loud bell recorded up close and being struck continuously, with or without traces of distortion. And yet the duration is part of what makes it so cool. I had a hard time making it work. What I like best about it is the intense, visceral feeling of being inside that huge sound, and decided to try enhancing it with electronic signal processing, to turn it into a hyper- version of itself that could sustain interest for the full duration. I came up with something that was not bad, but not entirely satisfying. Then I thought of my pal Josh Parmenter, a local composer who specializes in computer manipulation of acoustic sounds. He's an expert at this stuff, with the software and skills to do it much better than I ever could.

I sent Josh the original recording of the bell with some limited verbal instructions. Basically, that I wanted it to sound like the listener has become very tiny and is walking around inside not only the bell, but inside the actual soundwaves, as if they were huge beams of light. I talked about kaleidoscopes, particles and waves, microscopes and psychedelic experiences. I also sent him this clip from Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker.

There is no direct connection to the film's soundtrack (which is very beautiful), or even the imagery itself. This clip is just an example of something I love in Tarkovsky's work — the way a scene that at first seems relatively "normal" suddenly becomes quite surreal, without ever making a big deal out of it. A girl sits alone, drinking tea and reading. We hear a distant train. Then the air fills with little flying particles, she lays her head on the table, and the glasses begin to slide across the table and fall to the floor. Only then does the train come by and rattle the room.

Josh sent me back multiple renderings of the bell sound, all of which were great in their own ways. I was so pleased with them that I ended up using bits of most of them, mixed with some of my original processing. The result is exactly what I was hoping for: the bell slowly and subtly transforms from something familiar into something strange, a world of tones that become quite vivid and almost three-dimensional, a sonic space for your mind to walk around in. And then just as gradually it comes back to "reality," to the normal sound of the bell and the festivities on the street…as if nothing unusual had ever happened.