View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
19 June 2016updated 01 Apr 2023 4:54pm

The Raleigh Ringers and the joy of handbells

The Raleigh Ringers, an ensemble from North Carolina that formed in 1990, exist to convince the world it needs to hear handbell music.

By Caroline Crampton

As a musical instrument, handbells defin­itely go in the box marked “niche”. Usually, the kind of person who rings a bell is a portly man decked out as a town crier at the village fete. “Hear ye! Hear ye!” he yells, clanking around the stalls, narrowly missing a child’s ear with his gleaming bronze instrument. “The morris dancing display will be starting on the green in 15 minutes!”

In the common conception a bell is just for making a noise – it isn’t for making music. The Raleigh Ringers, an ensemble from North Carolina that formed in 1990, exist to convince the world otherwise. In the US, most bells are played in churches but the Ringers are largely secular in their repertoire, playing arrangements of well-known tunes, and they commission composers to write new works for them.

Before the players came on to begin their first (and so far only) concert in London, the audience got the chance to ogle the baffling array of kit that this musical discipline requires. A long table running the length of the stage held octave after octave of shiny bronze bells, from vast bass tones that looked impossible to lift with one hand to tiny, egg-cup-sized soprano notes. ­Everything was arranged in an intricate ­pattern, with all the handles pointing in the same direction and foam supports under the larger specimens. In the pre-concert hush, I couldn’t help wondering if the table would make it through the entire evening without collapsing.

The Ringers were as precisely turned out as their bells. There are 18 in the ensemble and for most pieces 15 people play at any one time. The men wear stiff white shirts with black studs; the women long black tunics a little like cassocks, with sparkling collars. With their black-gloved hands behind their backs, they stand silently to attention behind the laden table, waiting for the conductor David Harris’s signal to grab their bells.

What follows is something like a hugely complicated run of dominoes or a surreal ballet. Each bell can only sound a single note, so in order to play tunes that range across octaves and build up the harmonies beneath, the Ringers must constantly pick up and put down different instruments. The logistical precision required for this music is immense, as individual musicians continuously swap bells with their neighbours, or skip up and down the table, weaving between the other Ringers to get the notes they need.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

To play a theme that spans several octaves, the musicians must know exactly where in that run their two notes fall and play them at the right moment. You might assume that there is little subtlety to be had from a bell, but the Raleigh Ringers deploy a number of techniques to vary tone colour and dynamic levels, dampening the bells against their chests, their hands and the table, or using percussive mallets to strike the outside, rather than using the internal clapper.

The Ringers’ repertoire varies from arrangements of popular classical pieces, such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird, to folk tunes and jazz numbers. For this British tour, they added a few pieces of local interest – “Yakety Sax”, best known as the theme from The Benny Hill Show, and a medley of British rock tunes by the likes of Queen, Pink Floyd and the Who.

This last section was where the Raleigh Ringers showed the eccentric personality that they had held in check while playing some of their other music. (Apart from a few mariachi hats that were worn for a Spanish-inflected piece and a bumblebee costume for the Rimsky-Korsakov, it was a largely sober affair.) As Harris stalled for time by inviting audience members to ask him questions about handbells, the players disappeared offstage, and then reappeared wearing psychedelic tie-dye T-shirts, brightly coloured wigs and sunglasses over their concert wear. They even returned to the stage through a fog of dry ice. There was no dip in the quality of their music as the complicated strains of “Bohemian Rhapsody” emerged from their bells. Costumes notwithstanding, it was an extraordinary, if esoteric, display of musicianship. 

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU