“From computer coding to establishment structures like newspapers and government, radio signals to knitting patterns; our lives are influenced by systems and structures, some visible, others hidden or so familiar to us that we don’t even notice them.”

This is the theme underpinning the Wysing Arts Centre spring exhibition Relatively Absolute. My piece and the accompanying discussion form part of that.

Bells are loud. Big bells are very loud. In a historical context they are probably as loud as it gets. Big bells are also expensive to make. In other words, historically at least, it seems to me that they are about power, both spiritual and temporal. This across a wide range of cultures too.

However, audio amplification, like audio reproduction has changed the way we hear bells. Culturally, big bells have lost a great deal of their power. But could we say that the mechanical or electronic reproduction of bells in popular culture resonates so because it acts as a signifier or pointer to that former power? I find “Jimmy Brown” fascinating. This obviously worked in 1959, it sold in shed loads! We can, of course, see through it now. Or can we? Maybe there is something there beyond the obvious “cheesiness”. I I have to say I like it, and I’m spending quite a bit of time trying to figure out quite what it is that “works”. It was also somehow re-assuring to discover that a lot of quite cool people have covered this over a lot of years. Its charm is connected to “bellness”, but not restricted to, and I suspect that therein lies the rub!

Here’s something altogether darker. In David Holmes score for the Resurrection Man I don’t think we are left in any doubt that the bell is about to toll for somebody and possibly more than once. The juxtaposition here of the large bell with the marching drums works really well. I love the snare it has an anality very appropriate for the context.

Finally Lana Del Rey. How important is the 4 beat bell intro?  I think, to me, it is saying “Hollywood”, as in bells means atmospheric “moments’ in a film. Does it set the context for the whole song? Maybe? Although I have to say that I find it very difficult to seperate the song from the video.

Working title for my piece: “Bellness Clinic”.

Tweaking the Risset Bell

My last post presented a chart of some 44 numbers. These were parameters defining the characteristics of eleven sine waves which when added together gave us a reasonable approximation to a bell.

Any periodic waveform (which the ringing of a bell is) can be decomposed into a series of constituent sine waves This principle is most commonly associated with the French Mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier. These sine waves have frequencies which are integer multiples of the fundamental mode of vibration (our base frequency).

Here what we are doing is the reverse process. I.e we are are creating a complex waveform by adding together a series of simpler sine waves. Our table of 44 numbers is simply the recipe for this process in the case of a bell (or an approximation of a bell).

Each sine wave has a factor by which the fundamental frequency will be multiplied to give a frequency, an amplitude, a detune, and a duration.

By tweaking these numbers we should be able to significantly alter the tonal properties of our bell.

I used SuperCollider in the last post to create a bell with the exact parameters supplied by Risset. Now I am going to use the software to write a small program which will allow me to tweak and play around with these parameters, and hence alter the sonic structure of our bell.

Although SuperCollider itself is not a GUI based application it provides a number of objects which allow us to create GUI like widgets.

Research 1: The Risset Bell

Initial research inevietably leads to Jean-Claude Risset and the Risset bell. A Risset Bell is synthesized by the process of adding a number of simple sinusoidal waveforms together. The magic recipe being the proportions in which these are added. The following table represents the numbers as specified by Risset. From these numbers a bell could be synthesized across a wide variety of devices.

partial number intensity (dB) dur multiplier freq multiplier freq offset
1 0 1 0.56 0
2 -3.48 0.9 0.56 1
3 0 0.65 0.92 0
4 5.11 0.55 0.92 1.7
5 8.53 0.325 1.19 0
6 4.45 0.35 1.7 0
7 3.29 0.25 2 0
8 2.48 0.2 2.74 0
9 2.48 0.15 3 0
10 0 0.1 3.76 0
11 2.48 0.075 4.07 0

A quick and dirty piece of code to create such a bell in SuperCollider would look like this:


While I don’t want to go into the detail of what all that means, hopefully it is clear that there is some connection between the words in the code and the numbers in the table above. The important point is that sound is created in SuperCollider by writing programs in a text editor, not by waggling  knobs and sliders in a gui interface or indeed on a real world physical synthesiser. This may seem very cumbersome at first but it ultimately leads to a level of power and control not really available in any other way!

Here’s what our Risset Bell sounds like.

And here’s what it sounds like playing the first line of the traditional Holmfirth Anthem

Terrible, I know! But there are 10 weeks to go yet…


Wysing Arts Centre, 6.30pm, April 24 2013.

I have been invited to give a performance at Wysing Arts Centre, Bourn, Cambridgeshire in an evening together with the physicist Dr. Mete Atature.

I’m not sure what Mete will be doing yet, but the intention is that I will create a piece in SuperCollider based around the starting notion of synthesised handbells. The piece will be played/controlled from a Wiimote and associated Nunchuk.

I currently know nothing about bell synthesis of any sort nor do I know anything about the stylistics which contribute towards making handbell music what it is, although I do know something of SuperCollider.

So there are at least two initial areas of research here:

Firstly I live in Haslingfield about 200 yards from All Saints church, and (I quote from the village web site):

The tower contains a fine peal of six bells.   Four of them are recorded in an inventory  taken at the time of Edward VI, about 1550, and a fifth was in position in 1726.   The treble was added in 1969.   The five original bells were recast by Robert Taylor of St. Neots in 1816, reproducing the old inscriptions.   The tenor however was re-cast in 1960 by John Taylor & Co.   See the page of the memorial inscriptions on the bells.

The current bell ringing team practise on a Thursday evening as I have reason to know. I always thought that the use of randomly generated notes was an identifying characteristic of what is usually called “experimental music”. Maybe this particular practise has a longer history than we realise. Either that or the current bell master is of an avant garde bent.

Whatever, I suspect that the Haslingfield church bells will form part of the context of this piece. If only in the form of an examination of the implications of large versus small, loud versus quiet, and the expression of power within the history of sound. (In 1550 these bells would have been the loudest sounds anyone had heard, whereas these days I imagine any of the end-of-harvest discos would give them a run for their money, if not the annual “Rock on the Rec” festival held as you would expect on the recreation ground and featuring local talent!)

Secondly, of course, there is Google…