Nathan Davis: Bells (2011)
Bells have historically been a means of communication over distance - to mark time, signal alarm, announce celebration, call to prayer, etc. Now bells are used primarily as musical instruments, but still carry with them these associations. Despite the changes in long-distance communication, we still respond to the sound of a bell to answer the door, or a telephone, or to see that a message has arrived to our inbox.
Distance, acoustic space, and amplification profoundly effect our emotional response to sounds, be that music or the sound of a lone voice speaking. Depending on the proximity and the space, one might experience the ringing of a bell to be painful or spiritual. A voice from across the world can sound more intimate distorted through a phone than it would in the same room.
"Bells" builds on some of my previous work both in its use of live processing of acoustic instruments and with using cell phones as a means to creating a participatory PA system. The piece is concerned with communication, with space, and with distance (between notes, sounds, ideas, and physical distances between performers, audience, walls, speakers, and so on).
ICE musicians in the space play the primary musical material, written for wind instruments, percussion, gongs, and small bells.
The electronic component uses one of the earliest techniques in electronic music: a ring modulator that creates phantom duos, dependent on real-time input from pairs of live instruments, that plays the sum and difference of any sounds made together by the performers.
Together the audience and performers form another codependent pair, with the audience providing the means of amplification and spatialization for the electronics through speakers in their phones. Signals from the ring modulator and other electronics are routed from computer as phone calls. Audience members can dial and connect to one of several conference numbers, set their phones on speaker, and become part of a decentralized PA. The live processing reaches all the phones, having first traveled along thousands of miles of wires and then beamed from cell towers. The speakers of these phones will all play similar material but each one crackles and distorts at different frequencies, creating a secondary textural level within the audience.
The phones also receive other transmissions: the 4 phone lines carry distant sounds of electrical interference from space, of messages in morse code, and of "number stations" (shortwave radio stations widely believed to communicate with spies in the field).
"Bells" is a look into these sounds and meanings - equal parts concert piece, installation, and happening. It was written for the International Contemporary Ensemble as part of their ICElab program, presented by the Tully Scope Festival at Lincoln Center.