Russian Bell Chiming

Semantron, holy wooden boards, have long been used by Eastern Christian churches to signal to their faithful, a tradition that grew out of the early Christian practice of knocking on monks’ doors to call them to worship.* Like bells for Western Christians, the beating of the semantron then and now calls its members to the church.

The signalers take advantage of the percussive possibilities. What stands out when you hear this ringing is the fast rhythm produced with two mallets.

Now imagine that it’s fourteenth-century Russia, and the Russian church has taken a renewed interest in bells. The clergy and laity alike are accustomed to fast percussive rhythms, so those same patterns are then transferred to the bells, large and small. Russian ringers use the oldest method of ringing large bells by pulling ropes to strike clappers against stationary bells, rather than adopting the more recent western European tradition of swinging bells in a peal. Through this way, the ringers can achieve similar rhythms with their new signalers. This method of chiming on zvons, sets of bells, endures today, despite its near extinction during Communist Russia.

Hear more Russian chiming with a visual background of beautiful Russian churches.

*Information for this post taken from Edward V. Williams, The Bells of Russia: History and Technology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985) and Percival Price, Bells and Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

The Drama of Bell Founding in Andrei Rublev

The seminal film Andrei Rublev directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and co-written with Andrei Konchalovsky is regarded as one of the best films of all time. That’s nice and all, but what I’m interested in is the extended, dramatized section on bell founding. The final section shows in over 30 minutes the entire casting process of a bell, from digging a pit, to building the mold, to pouring the bronze, to lifting out the giant bell, to its first wailing cry. Not only that, it is a gigantic, heavily inscribed bell cast during the middle ages, further highlighting the massive effort and deep importance of casting bells like no other film scene.

One of my favorite moments is when the young, untested bell caster, Boriska, finds the right clay to make the molds. What enthusiasm!

The scene that is the climax of the casting, and of the entire film, is the inaugural tolling of the bell. Up to this point, the bell (and by extension the caster) has not proven itself. There is no truer test of its quality than its sound. If the bell does not sound sufficiently good, the Grand Prince will behead Boriska, so there is a lot riding on this first ring. A worker swings the massive clapper back and forth, mesmerizing the viewer with its pendulum action and heightening the tension with its glacial-pace approach towards the bell wall. Finally, the bell rings out, and it produces a full, glorious sound. The crowd erupts into cheers, and Durochka, a prominent character in the movie, smiles. Russian chiming interplays with the new bell in jubilation. Exhausted, relieved, Boriska breaks down into tears, while the titular character comforts him. In this moment, the protagonist and icon painter realizes the potential impact of his own art form.

Watch this YouTube video from 2 hours, 14 minutes until 2 hours, 52 minutes for the entire bell casting sequence.

Bell Ringing Methods in the Leaning Tower of Niles

Watching this video, you probably guessed that a computer communicates the programmed melodies to the external bell clappers, and that it keeps the bell performances on a schedule. And you are correct! And you are also correct that the Clock-O-Matic’s Apollo III bell controller can be accessed and manipulated via an onsite controller, remote, or online. But what mechanism, exactly, moves the clappers against the bells at the Leaning Tower of Niles? That is the power of electromagnets. When a bell is to be rung, an electromagnet in the arm is activated, pulling it back, which in turn pushes the clapper against the bell. The clapper is then pulled back by quick deactivation and spring action, preventing dampening of the bell.

But what are those ropes hanging down from the inside clappers? Those are for the much older, traditional method of manual bell ringing: “clocking.” This is simply pulling the rope to strike the clapper against the inside wall of the bell. The bells in this tower were originally rung in this manner, and what is surely not a coincidence, the bells in the Leaning Tower of Pisa are also rung this way. 

The Barga bell ringers perform a simple descending pattern on the historic Leaning Tower of Pisa bells. Clocking can be tricky–it’s important to not strike the bell too hard, so as to not damage it. The methodical, careful ringing of this group is a testament to their care for the precious objects. At 1:38, you can see some more exciting ringing action, producing a faster (but still careful and controlled) rhythm. 

You can imagine the possibilities with multiple bell clappers attached to ropes. Russian chimers have brought this method to stunning artistic heights, as these ones show at St. Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Howell, New Jersey. Notice the clergyman making the sign of the cross? Chiming the zvon is a sacred act in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Once safe gatherings are permissible again, we will be training local Niles residents on clocking. I’m looking forward to it!

Niles’ Bell Tunes

On Labor Day weekend 2020, the seven bells of the Leaning Tower of Niles began ringing again, after decades of silence. With seven notes of a major scale, absent the sixth scale degree, we had to do some digging to find suitable tunes that would be recognizable, pleasant, and multi-cultural. In the end, we programmed the bells to play American folk songs, jazz standards, American patriotic tunes, one tune from an American musical/film (Sound of Music), one Korean folk song, and a smattering of new compositions by me.

Here’s part of “Blue Skies,” video courtesy of Katie Schneider at the Village of Niles.

I was delighted that one of the most famous and beloved folk songs for Korea, “Arirang,” sounded beautiful on the Niles bells. The village saw the tower as a renewed multi-cultural site, so it was important to have selections that spoke to their different ethnic groups, and Niles has a significant Korean population. Alas, I do not have a recording of that to share with you!

I relished the opportunity to compose new tunes for Niles that would serve as their own unique melodies. I sought to compose melodies in different tempi and styles to be used for different occasions, such as solemn commemorations or wedding celebrations. I even composed their own clock-chime melodies, which they use to mark 15-minute intervals, rather than the ubiquitous Westminster Chimes. Here’s the first composition I wrote for their bells, almost a moderate-tempo dance.

Hell’s Bells

In honor of the invasion of spooks and ghouls tomorrow on Halloween, I thought we’d focus on bells representing the profane. I give you . . . “Hell’s Bells” by AC/DC.

That is a real, honest-to-goodness one-ton bronze bell hanging above the stage. Michael Milsom, former bellmaster at Taylor foundry in Loughborough, England, gives us the details of creating the bell.* The firm got an inquiry about casting a very large bell for AC/DC in April 1980. Milsom talked them down from a two-ton bell to one-ton, ringing a note E instead of C. After all, a one-ton bell is easier to manage for stage shows than a two-ton bell, and the pitch could be changed to C with studio recording equipment. The band wanted the bell pronto for the recording, so the Taylor foundry got to work quickly.

There was a danger that the bell would not be done in time in order to record it. Taylor considered recording a C bell from one of their nearby carillons, the Loughborough World War I Memorial Carillon. This idea was scuttled when Milsom pointed out the difficulty of deleting the sounds of traffic and pigeons from the recording. Taylor did in fact complete the AC/DC bell in time to record it in their foundry, despite media reports that the nearby carillon bell was used. 

Milsom was tasked with ringing the bell on the recording, but this is not as simple as just grabbing the clapper and banging it against the bell. For any tuned bell, the clapper needs to strike at the thickest part of the soundbow (the “lip”) of the bell for the best tone to develop. But with this bell, they had to be even more careful. The large AC/DC logo in raised relief on the outside actually made it slightly lopsided. This small weight discrepancy affects the vibration patterns of the various partials in the bell, resulting in two hum tones at slightly different frequencies. When heard at the same time, two pitches just slightly apart create a wobbling sound.

To remedy this defect, Taylor identified the four locations on the soundbow where the desired pitch has an antinode (point of maximum vibration) and the undesired pitch has a node (point of maximum stasis). These are not eight different spots, but four; the antinodes of the desired pitch and the nodes of the undesired pitch are located at the same spots. Striking the bell at one of these specific spots results in a clear, wobble-free tone. Milsom recounts that they marked the four spots on the bell with red paint and he struck the bell (not too hard!) precisely there. He also explains that he reduced the tin proportion to make the bell somewhat less fragile and supplied the managing company with many hammers, of which the stagehands broke a couple and lost several more. It seems they learned their lesson . . . I don’t see a clapper or hammer in the 2016 video above, so that the bell sound is being played from a recording.

*Information for this post taken from Michael J. Milsom, Bells & Bell Founding: A History, Church Bells, Carillons, John Taylor & Co., Bellfounders, Loughborough, England (2017).