Various Artists

Church Bells of Kent

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Change ringing, an almost exclusively British practice, involves local associations of enthusiasts who ring church tower bells according to rigorous rules that determine the constantly changing order in which the bells are rung. For anyone not previously conversant with the history of Change ringing, the information in the program booklet offers scant illumination. The reader learns, for instance, that "The Association [of Change Ringers] owes its origin to the movement of belfry reform, to which abuse of bells as a part of the church had lent itself in the preceding two centuries." More intriguing is the information that a "peal" is a technical term for 5,000 or more unrepeated changes, and that a complete peal of 40,320 unrepeated changes was executed on eight bells in Leeds in 1761, over a period of 27 hours. It boggles the brain to imagine eight ringers being able to keep track of a mathematical pattern for determining the 40,320 changes and execute them as a coordinated group, especially with all that clanging going on just over their heads.

Change ringing would be seem to be the obvious precursor to both serialism and process-based minimalism, if there were any evidence that Arnold Schoenberg or Steve Reich had ever made pilgrimages to the churches of rural England. A single sequence, or "change" can consist of 6 to 12 bells, and the requirement that each change be subjected to every possible permutation before returning to its original sequence amounts to a kind of meta-serialism; for a set of 10 bells, it takes 3,628,800 changes to complete the series. Using a predetermined, transparent process to create a piece would have had immense appeal for Steve Reich, and had he been an Anglophile, we might have had ringing music instead of clapping music.

But onto the bells themselves. Any listener who loves church bells (or, for that matter, anyone who loves very, very loud minimalism) will want to own this CD. The evolving patterns are fascinating, and the overlapping resonance of the bells is sonically spectacular. The CD contains brief (three or four minute) examples of the bells of 14 of the 164 bell towers in Kent, and is primarily intended as documentation of their variety. A more satisfying musical experience would have been a single set of bells, ringing as many changes as possible for the entire length of a CD. The sets of bells here have diverse harmonic and melodic characteristics, and it's even possible to detect the skill level of the ringers based on the evenness of the strikes, so it's not hard to pick out favorites. The bells of Rochester Cathedral Church of Christ in West Kent are especially attractive, and it's possible to occasionally pick up the whiff of an inadvertent reggae beat. The recording is remarkably clear, balanced, and free of ambient noise -- a marvel, considering the practical difficulties of capturing these wild sounds.

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