Send not to know for whom the bell tolls / It tolls for thee. John Donne’s words echo through the years, bearing new associations for each generation. The bells toll to tell the hour; they toll to gather people in; they toll to remember loved ones lost. Cities and Memory has gathered a dozen samples from its field recording archive and shared them with musicians who offer their own interpretations, a total of 24 tracks in all, like the hours of a day.
The raw recordings are only the top layer of the treasure trove. No matter what other event may be happening: traffic passing, passers-by laughing, the chimes become the main characters as soon as they appear. New Year’s Day is celebrated with joy from the Abbasia Pisani. The bells of Punta Arenas, Chile announce the day in resonant peals. As a rope is pulled in Venice, a single bell echoes across the water. A seven minute recording of birds and barnyard animals cradles an all-too brief tolling in Dent. An Oxford church plays a hymn before announcing the time. On other tracks, the times are announced in the titles, but obscured by the number of rings. In India, bells perform a duet with drums, while the more traditional “ding-dong, ding-dong” rings out from the Cortina D’Ampezzo. Christopher Walken will be pleased to know that one track leaves the churches to concentrate on Dolomite cow bells. But the Cartmel priory bells of England’s Lake District are the most gorgeous of them all, layer upon layer of metal and clap.
What might musicians do with such idyllic raw material ~ music in its own right? The approaches vary, including two spoken word selections that momentarily distract from the central subject. (An earlier track on the label incorporated Edgar Allan Poe’s more topical “The Bells.”) The best tracks enhance or incorporate the sounds of the chimes, building on their pre-existing strength.
Leading the charge, “The bells that sound at the bottom of the world” unfolds in ambient glory, highlighting the promise of the bells as they ring in Patagonia. The uncredited author writes not only of the bells, but of the experience of hearing. As the track expands, so does the imagination. Toward the end, the guitar performs a kind echo of the original scales. Plunging right in, Alex Hehir feeds the chimes through Ableton to create an electronic whirlpool in which organic and artificial coalesce. Marc van de Griendt offers the set’s sweetest surprise by slowing the bells to match a new piano melody. Matt Chapman Jones saves the chimes for the end of a drone piece that captures the feeling of a new year.
As wonderful as these repurposings may be, they cannot compete with the power of the original sounds. Some of these chimes have pealed over their populaces for centuries. Fortunately, with field recordings raw and processed, there’s no need to choose. Surrender the watches and cell phones and allow these chimes to sing the story of the day. (Richard Allen)