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The Souls of Ancient Bells

1.2.2.1.3.2.1/4.3.2.1/6 harp, celesta, piano, strings / 14 minutes

Originally conceived as a “concerto for carillon and orchestra,” The Souls of Ancient Bells features tubular bells (or “orchestral chimes”) in a soloistic capacity. The impracticality of creating an orchestral accompaniment for real tower bells prompted the use of tubular bells—if a suitable setup near an actual carillon could be devised, it would be preferable.

In the case of a practical performance, tubular bells satisfactorily imitate the sound of large bronze bells, but these (much smaller) chimes should be placed in front of the orchestra or at a separate location in the hall in order to highlight and distinguish them from the rest of the percussion section. Placing them antiphonally might prove especially effective. The players will note that there are no pedal markings for the tubular bells: they should be allowed to sustain freely throughout (the pedal should be disengaged or permanently depressed), as real tower bells typically do not have any damping mechanism.

The title of the work is derived from a poem by Kenneth Patchen called Be Music, Night, which contains references to bells and bell-like imagery, and sets a mood of intimate, cosmic reverence. The poem is a prayer, asking a supreme God to protect some nameless person, and is replete with vivid and peculiar scenery. The piece is in two sections, each which draw on different elements from the text—ascending motives to evoke the sensation of looking up at towers, and chorale textures that create a liturgical atmosphere. The apex of the piece is a moment near the end where the orchestra strikes sustained, organ-like chords, while bells peal on 8-note C-major patterns of “change ringing,” a technique used by tower bell-ringers which uses mathematical and mnemonic devices to create non-repeating diatonic patterns, resulting in a cacophonic design. The pattern used here is a method of changes called ‘plain bob’ and uses 8-notes, which each cycle through one complete permutation before repeating again.

This piece was awarded third place in the 2015 American Prize, and first place in the annual honors composition award at Michigan State University in 2013. It was premiered by the MSU Symphony Orhcestra in November, 2013.

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Recording: MSU Orchestra; Gretchen Renshaw, conductor

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