Tag Archives: bells

Bigger, badder, bassier…

Where do you find the most bells in classical music? In opera. Where do you find the lowest ones? In Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. The percussion score includes an E1, an F2 and a Bb2. That E1 – the lowest E note on a standard piano – was inspired by the tolling of the Campanone (the big bell) of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A 10 tonne bell – actually quite light as some tower bells go and, actually, an E3. We can only assume that Puccini wanted an E1 as an exaggeration. How do you replicate this in an orchestra? So far, the answer is, you don’t.

il campanone at San Pietro
il campanone at San Pietro

At least, you don’t with a tubular bell. You might with a bell plate. But that’s for another blog. I believe there have been E2 tubular bells – i.e. one octave up – made (by EQ Percussion and by Century Mallet) for use in Tosca, but I have neither seen nor heard them. They’ll be around 15 foot long 2″ chimes by my estimate. The overtone structure of tubular bells and the way your ears and brain assign pitch to such things really starts to fall apart below about Eb3 or D3, so there must be some tricks involved in making these work.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London got in touch with me about replacing some old tubular bells they have which were – reportedly – the F2 and Bb2 for Tosca. The F is starting to crack up and can’t be played loudly any more. I went to have a look and take some recordings for analysis. It turns out these Bronze beauties are Harringtons’ Patented Tubular Bells from up to 120 years ago (metal tubular bells themselves being only around 155 years old as a concept). They were probably originally installed in a church tower. Roughly 3 inches in outer diameter, 1/2 inch thick in wall, and getting on for 3 metres in length; the F is around 65kg and, as it turns out, not an F2, but an F3. Sorry about the terrible mobile phone picture:

harringtons tubular bell
harringtons patent tubular bell

So, I’m both relieved and disappointed in almost equal measure that I don’t have to figure out the tubular bells below D3 conundrum – yet.

Evidently, the sheer size of the bells allow much more volume from the bass partials to get out into the air and thus to suggest the lower octave. Or, perhaps more likely, they are less prone to sounding an octave higher than they should, as deep tubular bells of lesser girth can sometimes do. Tubular bells fool you into hearing a virtual fundamental “1” by having three partials in their overtone spectrum which are approximately in the ratio 2:3:4 – so they seem like part of a harmonic series. Sometimes this auditory illusion can break down and you can hear the 2 and 4 as 1 and 2, or yet higher overtones point to a different pitch altogether.

To make replacement tubular chime bells in Bronze, or even Brass would be extravagantly expensive today – not to mention back-breakingly heavy. I have had success in making bass chimes using thick-wall Aluminium tubing. For this kind of thing, it ends up being quite a bit lighter, despite being up to 20% longer for the same note. The natural tendency for the Aluminium to dampen the higher overtones also helps bolster the virtual pitch illusion. Let the adventures in 3 inch diameter Aluminium tubular bells begin!

I wanted to use 3 inch outer diameter by 1/2 inch wall thickness Aluminium, the same cross section as the existing Bronze bells, but was not able to find any which could be supplied in time. So I went for 3/8 inch wall. Really, I would have liked to have been able to compare the two and decide which sounded better, rather than extrapolating from my experiments in 2 inch tubing. I ordered two 5 metre lengths. I couldn’t get them delivered directly to my workshop so had to transfer them from my home to there in my car.

uncut tubes in car
late night motor jousting

When I made my cymbal lathe, I made sure it was also capable of taking a standard metal-turning chuck. However, there isn’t a solid lathe bed or tool post, so some operations using this can be a little Heath-Robinson.

 
Still, I can make nicely shaped caps and do the overall finishing of these (very) long tubes using this lathe.

bell caps
cut and turned caps

I like to fit cord guide tubes on my tubular bells. It makes life so much easier when threading the suspension cords through and it also helps the cords last a lot longer before they fray. For bells this big, that meant drilling some pretty big holes. A 1 inch hole saw was slightly too large (larger than advertised, in fact) and a 15/16 inch hole saw was slightly under what I needed. So, that lathe chuck came in handy again by allowing some power-reaming.

don't try this at home
reamer in lathe chuck
holes drilled
cord guide holes
cord guide tube in tubular bell
cord guide tube installed

While proper tubular bell tuning is more than simply cutting the tube to the right length, tuning the Bb was a breeze. After a little experimentation, everything fell into place nicely. The “4” overtone being only 4 cents out with the “2” being dead on. The “3” was a little flat, but not enough to upset anybody. The (approximate) minor 3rd and hum tones were quite loud giving plenty of body to the sound of the bell. The F, however, was more of a challenge and took the bulk of the time.

It is easy enough with recording gear and computers to see exactly what is going on with the tuning of all the partials in a tubular bell. It is less easy to infer from this what the perceived pitch of the bell will be and, at notes significantly down on middle C (C4) like this, it can be hard to be objective about what you are actually hearing. Would the bell sound better 20 cents sharper? 20 cents flatter? 7 cents flatter? They all seemed reasonable and yet all a bit different, and different again in different contexts. After going dangerously far down a blind alley (finding a Bb partial in the F bell and matching it to a partial in the same octave in the Bb bell) I realised it was far easier to hear the apparent fundamental pitch of the bell when alternating between it and a reference, rather than listening to the two sounds at the same time. At last I have two bells which sound in tune and also good next to each other.

giant tubular bells
tall bells

They really are monsters at 2.8 and 3.2m long, but a fair bit more manageable weighing “only” 16 and 18kg. The Opera House has a specially constructed frame with built-in stairs and a platform for the elevated percussionist. Of course, it doesn’t fit in the pit, but that is fine as the bells are suppose to be “off stage” anyhow. I hear that Maestro Pappone is happy with the sound of the new bells – such feedback is always nice to receive! They just about fit in my workshop in the tallest part so I could test them properly. I thought I might have to move the lathe around 90 degrees to accommodate the F, but I got away with just pushing it back by 6 inches or so. If we need to replace the E bell at some point in the future, things may get a little more tight.

 

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The Quest for the Holy Grail?

I can’t resist a good challenge. This one, seemingly, has remained unsolved for over a century. I am talking about the deep tolling “crystalline” bells of the Holy Grail temple in Richard Wagner’s opera, Parsifal.

Wagner himself, was never quite satisfied with solutions to this sound he heard in his head. The lowest bell being 20 semitones below the deepest in St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. A real church bell like this would be larger and deeper than any ever made, as far as I know. The closest would be the great Kremlin Tsar Bell, which was never really finished and was damaged by fire in 1737. The low E would have to be 8 metres in diameter and over 260 tonnes! For the opera leitmotif you’d need 4, of similar proportions, to produce the C3, G2, A2, E2 peal. Real bells like this are, of course, out of the question. Too big, too heavy, too expensive and too loud.

Wagner's grailmotif
Wagner’s original manuscript

One of the earlier sonic solutions, which was rejected upon testing circa 1882, was a set of Chinese tam-tam gongs, sourced from London. To help the perception of a clear resounding pitch, a piano / hammered dulcimer hybrid was concocted. This had 6 parallel strings for each of the four notes and was struck with a wide mallet. You can hear a later version of it on the 1926 recording conducted by Karl Muck. Steingraeber made various iterations of this Gralsklavier including a brand new one earlier this year.

Here is the combination of instruments used by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1914. Giant oversize tubular bells / chimes, a single gong (hiding there in the background, middle), and another of these piano dulcimer hybrids. Quite a wonderful newspaper drawing. I love the idea of playing percussion in hats and trench coats! Perhaps it was cold backstage.

Covent Garden Parsifal bells 1914
Covent Garden backstage bells 1914

By far the most grand solution to add the metallic and somewhat discordant bell like tone plus some low end woof to the harmonious piano dulcimer was the set of brewing vat resonated bell plates constructed at Bayreuth. Absolutely huge and requiring one player each! You can also just about make these out in the Karl Muck recording. I can’t help but think that this solution was arrived at by trial and error rather than applying the techniques of Helmholtz from his 1863 paper “On the sensations of tone”.

Giant barrel bells
Giant Barrels at Bayreuth 1927

It wasn’t long before electronics were getting in on the act. Smaller, grandfather clock like, metal tines with pick-ups and amplification have been used. Manipulated recordings (or “samples”) of actual bells have been used. Synthesisers have been used – including for quite some time as a favourite, the Mixtur Trautonium, one of the very first synthesisers. The latter was also a favourite of Alfred Hitchcock. He used it on the soundtrack to his film The Birds.

Hitchcock Trautonium
Alfred Hitchcock with the Mixtur-Trautonium

And yet, anything electronic or amplified and played through loudspeakers always meets with disapproval from at least one corner or other.  Even the (only slightly manipulated) recordings of the actual bells from St Sulpice in Paris as used this year for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival got a drubbing in the review press. I can see why. When the rest of the orchestra is real, live, organic and full of human interpretation, expression and inflection, accompanying sounds which are not do rather stick out as alien interlopers.

As my own experiments and minor successes in the realms of bass bell plates in various different metals and bass tubular chimes have been proceeding not unnoticed by the symphonic and operatic worlds, I have now been asked by 3 separate people to consider producing a good, acoustic percussion solution to the problem of these Holy Grail bells of Montsalvat. There are numerous technical issues to overcome to do with the physics of such instruments and the psycho-acoustic vagaries of the human ear and brain, not to mention logistical and practical considerations. Nonetheless, I have a handful of different ideas to go and test out. Some are a single instrument per note, some are combinations. Whether I can produce a solution which satisfies all discerning ears, who knows? Watch this space…

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