Jul 4, 2013

Changes for Ten Bells, Part 2

This is a followup to my previous post, Percival Price: Changes for Ten Bells.

After reading more about "change-ringing," I think I have a clearer idea what was on that list of bell patterns that Price wrote out in 1931. For reference, here's the document again:

First, here is a beautifully concise definition of "change ringing" from the North American Guild of Change Ringers:
Change Ringing is a team sport, a highly coordinated musical performance, an antique art, and a demanding exercise that involves a group of people ringing rhythmically a set of tuned bells through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns.
The Guild's website has a very nice presentation of the mathematical aspect of this art. As generally practiced, it has to do with ringing extensive permutations of a set of bells (the set is called a "ring of bells"). The resulting extended sequence in the "peal" (performance) is not random, but intricately patterned, according to an exact method. 

The rhythm of the bells will be unvarying. The interval sequences will not be at all chosen for musicality, but will occur however is dictated by the permutation method. Thus, the musical content is quite randomized.

This sounds like a composition method that might have appealed (pun not intended) to John Cage, doesn't it? Cage did, in fact, compose a randomized piece called Music of Changes (1951). The title is in reference to the I Ching ("Book of Changes"), but I have to wonder...

Anyway, back to Percival Price. The sheet he wrote out is titled "Musically Interesting Changes for Ten Bells." This is a reference to the fact that most "changes" in change-ringing are perhaps not so musically interesting. Price lists eight patterns, each of which has a distinct "musical" interval sequence, with performance instructions in the margins.

These patterns come under the heading of "Named Changes" (aka "Called Changes," or "Call changes"), and are generally well-known in the world of bell-ringing. See this Wikipedia explanation. Call changes tend to have amusing and very British names - see this list.

I don't think that Price's document implies the traditional playing of permutations, at all.

Rather, this seems to be a sort of composition by Price, built out of "Named Changes" selected for their musicality, and put into a meaningful order. He includes specific instructions for the performers (obviously, the performers would be a "ring" of ten bells): In the margin, "Play each change twice." Below the changes, "Conclude with Queens and Rounds." At the bottom of the sheet, "N.B. Let strokes average 200 to 100 per minute, according to size of bells."

As the piece would begin with Rounds and Queens, it would finish symmetrically with Queens and Rounds. Altogether there would be 10 "changes," each played twice, or 20 sequences of 10 notes each. There would be a 1-stroke rest between each sequence, I believe, making 220 strokes total including the rests. At 200 to 100 per minute, that's a playing time of just over 1 minute at minimum, to just over 2 minutes maximum. That seems like some pretty furious bell-ringing!

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