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Stateside: Centipede Shoes On The Road

Stateside with Rosalea

Centipede Shoes On The Road

When the church bells ring out over England to celebrate royal birthdays, weddings, funerals do you ever wonder how bellringers get to practise without alienating their neighbours? We're not talking here about a garage band practice, after all!

They use handbells that correspond to the same notes their churchbells ring, and over the centuries those handbells have become an instrument in themselves. At the beginning of July I went to see a performance by the handbell ensemble that was recorded last year by the Bose Corporation for use in in-store and mobile video theatre presentations demonstrating five-channel digital surround sound technology. Clear as a bell, right?

It's a mistake to think that handbell choirs or ensembles play church music. The Sonos Handbell Ensemble plays commissioned works as well as arrangements of music from all eras and from all places in the world. My first taste of them was at a concert where they performed a work commissioned for the White House Millennium Project back in 2000. Using grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Composers Forum, Sonos commissioned Jaron Lanier, best-known as a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, to create a work for them. 'Navigator Tree' involved a gamelan orchestra and taiko drum troupe as well as Sonos. The inspiration for Lanier's work was a huge redwood that stood on the Oakland Hills and was used as a point to steer toward for vessels entering the Golden Gate.

The inspiration for the commissioned work I saw this July was "historic and contemporary American women who dared." The composer is Libby Larsen, whose works encompass orchestra, dance, choral theatre, chamber and solo repertoire. She wrote 'Hell's Belles' for Sonos and Frederica von Stade, a mezzo-soprano with whom the ensemble has often worked. von Stade also sang several songs that were part of the first half of the concert programme, a tribute to the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz.

To see a handbell ensemble in full swing is a marvelous thing. Imagine a centipede lying on its back with its legs in the air. It's wearing black boots on which are gold buckles of various sizes and waving its feet in time to the music. The visual effect is a cross between a Busby Berkeley dance sequence and a black-tie dinner, because the thirteen members of the ensemble wear black suits or dresses and black gloves, and are lined up behind a table on which their bells are laid. The bells are of various sizes according to the note they correspond to.

The handbell is a lovely instrument. There is a plastic brake around the base of the hammer so that when the bell is at rest the hammer is in the centre of the bell, and the art to playing a handbell is the art of taking advantage of one of the most basic features of the physical world - momentum. By moving the arm forward in an arc and then suddenly stopping it, the player gets the hammer to override the brake and hit the far side of the bell. To stop the bell vibrating, the player needs only hold it back against their body. All of which is very graceful and lovely to watch.

But there is a frenetic aspect to all this as well. Each player has more than two bells to play so they must constantly be ready to put down one and pick up another, sometimes reaching across their next-door neighbour. Sometimes they're collaborating with their neighbour by using a soft-ended hammer to play the outside of the bell. Sonos also uses handchimes, which are like a tuning fork with the same sort of hammer attached to the outside, again relying on momentum to chime in at the appropriate time. Some of the bells are very large and heavy. At the end of a two-hour concert in a suit or full-length long-sleeved dress the members of a handbell ensemble have gotten one heck of a workout!

And the music? For the first few minutes it takes some adjusting to. Any concert featuring percussion is going to feel a little strange for people, like me, who are used to its being used only as a background rhythm or accent. And most of us don't think of bells as having much range - they're either tinkly like a dinnerbell or sombre like Big Ben. But you ain't heard nothing yet until you've heard Cuban and Spanish music played by Sonos! To add a touch of spice they were joined on some of the pieces by Roger Wiesmeyer, an oboist who is a founding member of a chamber group dedicated to music of the Americas, and by the Peruvian musician Nayo Ulloa, playing quena and sikus (Peruvian flute and Andean panpipes).

'Hell's Belles', the commissioned piece, was not particularly to my taste, but then the only recording I have of operatically trained singers is an LP from the '60s of "our Kiri" singing a mix of pop and pop classics, so I'm hardly in a position to pass comment on it! It sounded to me like the kind of modern music that is greatly appreciated by the audience drawn to it, and "Flicka" von Stade sure has the voice and presence to carry what was, to the casual concert-goer like me, a difficult work.

The lyrics of the four songs in 'Hell's Belles' consist mainly of verbatim quotes from, or poems by, women as diverse as Tallulah Bankhead, Billy Jean King, Gertrude Stein, and Armor Keller - actors, poets, sporstwomen, writers, and artists. Keller is most well-known as creator of 'The Magic City Golden Transit', a 1980 Toyota station wagon she covered in thousands of Barbie doll shoes, gold, mirrors, beads and Christmas lights. "The car works magic! It's mobile magic. It's mirrors and beads and Barbie Doll shoes on the road."

Check the ensemble out at Sonos will be on the road to Europe and Asia some time soon. Gareth Farr or Lilith, are you reading me? - Lea Barker
Sunday 5th August 2001

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