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