Suspended Bell Gives Concert

Originally published on December 9, 1974

The procedure had been suggested silently by a poster hanging on one wall of the Experimental Intermedia loft. ‘Letting the metal swing back and forth,’ it said, ‘making it sound when it comes to you (just by touching).’

Now six or eight of us were sitting on the floor around a brass bell, which was suspended from the ceiling. With the help of an occasional push, the bell revolved continually in circular and elliptical patterns. The bell rang against mallets which we each held, and its music varied considerably, depending on which mallets it would hit, and how it would happen to hit them.

At first it was tempting to actually hit the bell when it came around to my side. But I soon realized that that would be missing the point. ‘Don’t be a klutz, Tom. Forget your own intentions. Follow the instructions. Let the bell determine whether it’s going to hit your mallet or not.’

Intellectually I understood, but physically it wasn’t working. When the bell did hit my mallet, it just klunked. When it didn’t, I grew impatient and moved closer into range. But then it would just klunk again. This seemingly simple problem was becoming a real challenge to my muscles, my patience, and my musical sensitivity. I could see that I had much to learn about bells and mallets and unintentional sounds. Perhaps I could learn from others.

Still holding my mallet out, I began to watch Philip Corner, who happened to be sitting near me. He had made the sign that hung on the wall, and he has been experimenting with unintentional sounds for a long time. I figured he must know a lot about this kind of music – how to play it, how to listen to it, and how to enjoy it.

One thing stood out immediately. Instead of holding his mallet rigidly, as I was, Corner kept a loose grip. That way the mallet bounced a bit when it hit, and he’d get a nice ring instead of a klunk. I loosened my grip and watched him more carefully. I began to notice something more subtle. Not only was he holding his mallet loosely, but sometimes, when the bell came to him, he would actually move his thumb in a tiny striking motion.

That seemed wrong at first. Corner wasn’t following his own instructions. He was hitting the bell instead of allowing the bell to hit the mallet. But no. He was really following the instructions. Those little flicks in his thumb were not controlling the bell at all. The bell was still calling the shots. The way he did it, the little thumb-flicks were simply sensitive responses to the bell.

I tried again, but I overdid it. I could tell by the way the bell sounded when I hit it – just a little too loud, a little too distinct. It sounded as if I was hitting the bell on purpose instead of simply responding to the movements of the bell itself.

Gradually I began to be able to really go with the bell. I stopped getting both the dull klunks and the intentional rings. When the bell came around to my mallet, it responded more easily, more naturally, and I felt better attuned to Corner and some of the others. But the bell was losing momentum and I could no longer reach it. I started to move in a little closer, anxious to continue. ‘No, wait a minute.’ I caught myself. ‘You’re being a klutz again. If you move in you’re forcing your own will on the bell. If the bell is ready to die down, let it die down. Let there be silence.’

But now a newcomer joined the group. In all there must have been 20 to 25 people present that evening. Every once in a while someone would join or leave our particular group, and I hadn’t been paying much attention to these personnel shifts, but this time the change was obvious. The newcomer, a young woman, had been occupied somewhere else, and was not sensitive to the kind of music we had been making around the suspended bell. She plowed right in, knocking out some stupid rhythm, and it irritated me. ‘What a klutz. We had this nice thing going, and now she comes over and ruins it all. No. Wait a minute. Relax, Tom. It’s not just you and the bell. Other people have a right to their experiences too. You haven’t been exactly the most sensitive one around yourself, you know.’ I had begun to be patient and tolerant with the bell, but I had to try to be patient and tolerant with other people too. I held my mallet patiently, trying to continue as before, trying to keep my emotions in check. Soon the newcomer went away, and everything was as before. She hadn’t hurt a thing. Why had I been upset?

The bell was dying down again, and this time no one ventured to give it a push. We continued holding our mallets up. Perhaps someone would give it a push. No one did. I put my mallet down, figuring that this would be the end of the bell music. Others, however, still held their mallets up, unwilling to break the mood so suddenly. They were more sensitive than I had been. I felt like a klutz again. But I perceived another level. ‘That’s your problem. You keep comparing yourself to others. More sensitive than this person, less so than that person. That’s why you’re such a klutz. You’re all caught up in competing.’

I could see that I had a lot to learn if I ever wanted to be able to play this kind of music well. It’s a whole philosophy really. ‘Sounds out of Silent Spaces,’ the flier had said. ‘Meditations with Music.’ The phrases are apt, but they don’t explain how hard it is to do.