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Ringing at the Speed of Prayer

Split Staircase [9:30]

Rock of Ages* [5:19]

Ringing at the Speed of Prayer [30:35]

Ages and Ages* [3:56]

Brian Dewan with Jamie Barnes*and the Liverpool Cathedral Bell Ringers

rec. Keswick Museum, 2007 and Liverpool Cathedral, 2006

INNOVA 725 [49:20]


Experience Classicsonline

Brian Dewan is something of a creative maverick: according to Wikipedia, “an artist who works in many media, including art, music, audio-visual performances, decorative painting, furniture design, poetry and musical instrument design.” I’m not sure how this album compares with his previous releases, but it would appear he is something of a singer, his songs “contemplate the nature of submission to authority, and often take the form of a tale, [being] by turns humoristic and contemplative.”


So far so good. My initial interest in this album springs from my general interest in bells and bell ringing, but taking a brief closer look at the present album shows this release to have little in common with any traditional performance practice with regard to British change ringing. In fact, only the title track involves the bells of Liverpool Cathedral, and I’ll come to that last.


Both Rock of Ages and Ages and Ages are played on the fascinating Musical Stones of Skiddaw in Keswick Museum. There is no information on these or anything else in the single-sheet foldout liner, but a look on the internet and you’ll find this is an instrument first created in the 18th century, looking a bit like a gigantic xylophone. Brian Dewan worked on a number of pieces for these stones and toured with them, including a performance at the Liverpool Biennial in 2006. The two versions of Thomas Hastings’ hymn Rock of Ages here have an appealingly eccentric sound, the first a clunky duet with Dewan and Jamie Barnes, the second using a gently abrasive effect which is almost Aeolian. Nice as these are, I’m not greatly inspired. The best part of the first is the semitone mis-tuning of the principal bass note, so the cadence never resolves and the tonality is distorted in splendid style. Someone like Stephan Micus however, in his ECM album ‘Music of Stones’, albeit in an entirely different idiom and on an entirely different set of instruments, came up with far more original and durable stuff. While this pair of hymns will probably appeal to a wider audience I can’t help wishing we’d been allowed a good deal deeper into some of the wider potential of this unique instrument. All I could help thinking with both these arrangements is how similar, in this context, the theme of ‘Rock of Ages’ is to ‘Meet the Flintstones.’


The opening track Split Staircase also uses an instrument from the Keswick Museum, the Rock Harmonicon. This in fact has a bell-like sound, and the piece has a fine, Japanese Zen meditative quality. The effect is created with a slow rising scale and variations thereof, alternated with a little cluster of chimes played almost together, and allowed to resonate. Like a slow clockwork music-box, this has the charm of allowing the different colours and individual textures in tuning; the various beats and overtones of the chimes to come through.


The main piece is of course the title track, Ringing at the Speed of Prayer. The text from the Innova label site explains the process in the piece very well: Each of eight ringers was to arrive at the bell tower with a number of prayers of their own choosing; after saying each prayer (which can be any length) the ringer pulls the rope and sounds the bell, then returns the bell to its original position. After saying another prayer, the bell is rung again. This yields a sparse and jagged melody created not by an author but by Providence. Though the ringers and their prayers can be neither seen nor heard outside the tower, it is because of them that the bells can be heard below intermingling with the sounds of automobiles, airplanes, emergency vehicles and the chimes of ice-cream trucks, an intermingling of the public and private, the seen and unseen, the secular and the sacred.”


This is an intriguing experiment, but while I am sympathetic with ‘game formula’ composition and the kind of I Ching and other chance composition ideas which people like John Cage were using a while ago I remain to be convinced by this piece. If you are not sure 30 minutes of more or less random ringing will be your idea of a fun listen then I can’t really give you much in the way of inspiring review text to try and persuade you otherwise. The most interesting aspect of this kind of performance is the coincidental melodic patterns which arise. A kind of consistency is built-in due to the limited number of notes available, but there is of course no thematic development, nor really any sense of beginning, any musical journey in between, or ending; aside from the final great chime as a rather predictable conclusion. In fact, this reminds me more than anything of the times I’ve been around when bells and their mechanisms are being tested: “bang, bang, bang...... bang, bang......”, and just when you thing you are going to get some peace and quiet, “bang, bang, bang, b-bang.....” ad nauseam.


Although I’ve lived half my life amidst the European carillon culture, I’m still very much drawn to the organic musical splendour of British and specifically English bells. Those in Liverpool Cathedral are richly sonorous, and although this comes over in the recording I also found myself asking why the piece had been recorded or mixed in what sounds like glorious mono. Maybe this was in order to minimise the incidental noises of jets flying over, passing ambulances and barking dogs, but for me this is all part of the fun of this kind of recording. It is notoriously difficult to make a truly accurate account of this or any other kind of bell-based event, and experiencing the thing live makes all the difference – where you can move around and hear the bells from different perspectives, or just enjoy the general acoustic landscape as it floods the space around you. Ringing at the Speed of Prayer is a nice idea, but for me any spiritual association intended is lost as the brain seeks to establish patterns but is eternally frustrated. To my mind something with a bit more musical structure would have made for a more interesting listen.


Dominy Clements




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