Rehearsals are starting for the next big Sonos Handbell Ensemble tour, so I have been watching old videos of Sonos to get back into the groove. I’ll share details of where we are performing later, but for now, here’s a clip from the Sonos DVD “Ringing Up“. This piece is called “Echos of Japan”, arranged by our conductor Jim Meredith.
I love this piece because it is a great example of sonic ingenuity. Through the use of inventive techniques the ensemble is able to create unique sounds with the bells. There are two in particular that I find fascinating (and, as a disclaimer, can break bells; please be very careful if you try these techniques). The first sound I love is the harsh, xylophone melody at the beginning, created by playing the melodic line on malletted bells and malleting on the handles of the corresponding chimes simultaneously. Striking a chime handle with a hard mallet doesn’t create a pitch per say, but each handle sounds slightly different which allows the melody to be played. By doubling the melody on bells the group is able to give each note a distinctive pitch which is familiar to our ears.
The second technique I love is one that I have actually used several times. During the last section of the piece, notice how Jason Tiller is playing the bass bells with 2 mallets in each hand. He is striking the bells with both mallets simultaneously; one mallet is a hard rubber, and the other is a softer marimba mallet. The hard mallet produces the sharp initial tone you hear, while the softer marimba mallet gets the bell to resonate. Before seeing Jason do this I did not realize that you could mix and match mallets to produce the sound you wanted, but since then I have had fun playing around with different combinations. Remember, though, that you have to be gentle when playing bass bells with hard mallets. You have to strike the bell in the same area that the clapper strikes, and it doesn’t take much energy at all to get the bell to sound. I have seen people put mallets through bells, so YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
These unique techniques come from an attempt to mimic another culture’s musical style and instruments. As the art of bell ringing grows, we should continue to push into new styles of music from around the globe. My group is working on “Celtic Prayer” by Julie Turner and Jefferey A. Hall at the moment, a beautiful piece that mimic’s the droning and artistry of bagpipes. Imagine what interesting things we could learn from trying to play mariachi or Bollywood on bells. I’ll grab my sombrero and meet you at rehearsal.
What’s your favorite type of world music to hear on bells?