An Orchestra that rings like a bell: James Hoyle article

Ahead of the Panufnik Composers Workshop this Sunday, composer James Hoyle tells us about the scheme and how his piece makes the whole Orchestra peal like the bells of St Paul's ... 

It’s an unique opportunity to be able to write a piece for an Orchestra like the LSO. More unique still is the opportunity to workshop your piece, to fine tune and develop it, with these phenomenal musicians. Few early-career composers ever get such an opportunity.

But this weekend, the other Panufnik scheme composers and I will get the chance to do exactly that. We’ll hear our work being performed by the LSO under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth, a fact I still can’t quite believe.

LSO Panufnik 2017 050 webEverything’s in place. Our pieces are ready, scores prepared, orchestral parts sent off and now all that’s left is to do the workshop. It has been an interesting journey, one euphoric and terrific (or should that be terrifying?) in equal measure. The scheme offers far more that single opportunity for budding composers like us to write for a world-class Orchestra. We’ve had sessions with players, access to LSO’s rehearsals and concerts, and guidance from composers Colin Matthews and Christian Mason.

I found attending the LSO’s rehearsals particularly enlightening. It’s one thing to hear an Orchestra in concert, but it’s entirely another to hear them at work in an empty hall. You get to see how the orchestra achieves the remarkable results we all enjoy on concert day. Passages of music are repeated and repeated, taken apart and examined in a way which allows you to listen closely to how the music is constructed. You get to hear inside the overall sound. It was also fascinating to hear from the vital but usually silent proponents of orchestral music, the conductors.

We enjoyed a raft of world class maestri in rehearsal, including the LSO’s Music Director Sir Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Sir Mark Elder, and of course Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth who conducts our workshop this weekend. And it wasn’t just an interesting peek behind the classical music curtain, these conductors have had a real and tangible impact on our music. The way the conductors organised the Orchestra’s balance of sound in rehearsals gave me ideas for how I might orchestrate my own piece. Their minor comments and throwaway remarks sometimes provided the inspiration for whole passages of music. Suffice to say, I came away with far more ideas than I could possibly fit into the three-minute piece I got to write. 

I learned an incredible amount about orchestration generally, and even more about particular qualities of this Orchestra in particular. All great orchestras have unique characteristics which set them apart, a sort of ‘signature sound’. Through listening to the LSO extensively and watching how they work, I have felt more able to compose in a way which complements the qualities I admire most of all about the LSO. Mine is not just a piece for orchestra, it has the LSO in its bones.

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My piece is about bell-ringing. Its title, Marangona, refers to the name of a bell in the famous Campanile di San Marco in Venice. I once heard it tolling for midnight, overlaid with the sounds of the piazza below, where miniature salon orchestras were competing for tourist euros. This peculiar soundscape has stayed with me and now forms base of my piece. As part of my research into the intricacies of bell-ringing, I visited St Paul’s Cathedral (itself an occasional LSO concert venue) to observe the bell ringers there. To my delight, I was allowed to go into the bell chamber itself to hear the bells up close. Even with ear defenders the sound was so dizzyingly loud that it was a truly visceral sensation. So loud is it, that the sound penetrates you as if your whole body were ringing in sympathy. In that sense it’s not unlike the experience of hearing the LSO as they attack the loud parts of the Rite of Spring

Afterwards I was able to discuss the art of ‘change ringing’ with the bell ringers, a type of bell ringing where the bells are rung in a particular order which constantly undergoes a series of permutations according to strict rules. This is highly skilled work and there are entire books written on the subject. These ringers were goldmines of information, much of which found its way directly into my piece; I grouped the instruments of the orchestra together to treat each as an imaginary bell. With these groups, it’s possible to make the orchestra ‘change ring’, with the permutations in the ringing order also informing other aspects of the music’s development. As the piece goes on, the change ringing gives way to other types of bell ringing from around the world: German tower bells, Russian Orthodox ringing, Japanese ringing, Carillons, and finally the complex soundscape of Venice’s Campanile di San Marco, the place which inspired the whole thing.

Great paul the cathedrals bourbon bell weighting nearly 17 tonsLater, I visited John Taylor & Co Bell Foundry in Loughborough, where the bells of St Paul’s were cast in 1878. The bell pictured is 'Great Paul' the Cathedral's bourbon bell which weights over 17 tons. There I was able to learn about how bells are made and tuned. It turns out that a bell’s sound consists of a number of different tones which fuse to create the overall sound. The five most important of these tones are called the hum, strike, tierce, quint, and nominal. In order to tune the bell, each of the tones must be tuned in perfect harmony with the others. Nowadays, that’s done using a computer and is extremely precise, but historically ear and guesswork were the only tools available. Inevitably, some ‘imperfections’ are left. Many older bells’ tones are out of sync and don't quite ring true with themselves. But in my opinion, that’s rather the beauty of it. The imperfections give very old bells their unique sound. With my own computer, I was able to take recordings of various bells from the Campanile in Venice and from St Paul’s, and analyse the sound in a scientific way, using what I learned at Taylor’s to work out exactly how and why the timbre is different from one bell to another. I deconstructed the bells with the goal of understanding their sound from the inside. I was then able to use different combinations of notes and instruments to directly imitate the sound of those particular bells with the orchestra.

I have been attending the Panufnik scheme’s orchestral workshops as an observer for a number of years and always found the ways in which composers invent new ways of writing for the orchestra tremendously inspiring. I can’t wait to hear what my colleagues on the scheme have come up with this year. It is always exciting to witness these new pieces coming to life for the very first time. You hear the feedback of these giants Colin Matthews, François-Xavier Roth, and the LSO players in real time. It’s taught me a lot about orchestration and creativity over the years; I cannot recommend these workshops highly enough to young composers interested in writing orchestral music.


You can hear the world premiere James Hoyle's piece Marangona in the morning session of the Panufnik Composers' Workshops at LSO St Luke's this Sunday 18 March. Entry is free, click here to find out more.


Photography of Piazza San Marco by Brownpau. Unmodified and licensed under creative commons