The Sensation of Earth

NPR’s All Tech Considered on Monday tuned me into a recent bell performance at UC-Berkeley. “Natural Frequencies” features carillon bells played via a computer program that uses seismological data to generate the music. Two live carillon performers play the bells at the same time.That kind of project takes a lot of manpower, and a whole litany of people were involved: composer Edmund Campion, artist and roboticist Ken Goldberg, artist Greg Niemeyer, computer programmer Jeff Lubow, operations manager of the Seismo Lab Peggy Hellweg, Meyer Sound Laboratories, University Carillonist Jeff Davis, and graduate student and carillonist Tiffany Ng. (BTW, why were Jeff Davis and Tiffany Ng not credited in the NPR article? Not cool.)

The musical result is stunning! I’ve never heard anything like it on the carillon, and I love it. I’ve always appreciated the musical effect of very fast progressions of notes in the upper range of the carillon, and having a computer program play the bells in this way gets around the problem of human limitations. I mean, we can play some lightning-fast runs, but only for so long and only so fast.

I’m guessing that the computer program is generating the high-pitched, fast notes, while Davis and Ng are probably playing the slower-paced middle to low notes. But perhaps one of them can leave a comment and elaborate or correct.

Is this the future of bell music? The collaboration between the worlds of science and art produced a creative artwork, and I would like to listen to more pieces like it. Collaboration seems to be key in building new audiences for bell instruments, especially if those alliances can feed the visual sense, since we usually cannot see the performer or bells when they are playing. Few places have the human and technological resources to pull off performances like this, though. These elaborate performances can serve as a beacon to other bell instruments to dream up their own collaborative artworks.

Also check out Polartide, a similar performance at UC-Berkeley from December 2014.

4 thoughts on “The Sensation of Earth

  1. Thanks so much Kim for highlighting our project! Just a quick note that the carillon part that Ed Campion composed is the moto-perpetuo eighth-note arpeggio that spans the full length of the 5-octave keyboard and that cycles through three harmonies for the entire duration of the piece. We varied the tempo and dynamics somewhat, and it was quite fun to communicate that to each other in turns through our playing (he took the low range and I took the mid/high range), since carillon playing isn’t normally conducted as a musical conversation. Apologies for the brief post, but I am getting on a plane tomorrow. More next week!

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