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Ringing Bells

by Marcus Vergette

The Robert Hooke Biodiversity Bell, 2012 was inspired by the calls of E.O. Wilson and others for a wide ranging cultural renaissance in man’s relationship with the rest of the natural world.

It was designed by Marcus Vergette and cast at Taylor’s Bellfounders in Loughborough in 2012, the third bell cast as part of the MEMO Project on the Isle of Portland. Since then it has been rung each year on International Biodiversity Day on 22nd May. It was rung on the cliffs overlooking the sailing events of the Olympics in 2012 and, 2013-14, it was sited in the City of London, outside St. Paul’s Cathedral and rung by the Lord Mayor. In November 2014 it was rung on the west cliffs of Portland by E.O. Wilson.

In the 1660s Robert Hooke discovered the fundamental building block of all life and gave it the name we still know it by today – the cell. From giant ammonite fossils in Portland stone, he was the first to posit the idea that species could go extinct. He was also the first to document the existence of micro-organisms. On inspecting ‘a speck of stone dust’ under his microscope he saw a foraminifer:

‘...the Earth itself, which lyes so neer us under our feet, shews quite a new thing to us, and in every little particle of its matter, we now behold alomost as great a variety of creatures as we were able before to reckon up in the whole Universe itself.’

The bell was cast from a mould of Portland ‘Roach’ stone comprised of bodily remains of many such ancient creatures. Where there were voids in the stone these have come out as positive shapes on the surface of the bell, thereby giving them a voice after 150 million years.

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Portland Bell

Portland Bell

Harmonic Cannon, 2015

Imagine throwing two pebbles into a calm pool, the expanding concentric ripples collide with each other creating a complex pattern. Now imagine that in three dimensions and in sound, that is what you experience when you hear the Harmonic Cannon. One of the pair of bells sounds the major harmonic series , the other the minor harmonic series a semitone higher. These two series share a couple of frequencies, so when both bells are ringing these frequencies collide and interfere with each other creating complex acoustic patterns.

These bells are catalysts for compositions by musicians, but they are also free to be rung by the public, and moved around. The two bronze bells are mounted on an oak structure with wheels. At the moment the Harmonic Cannon is on public display at Trinity College of Music, Greenwich.

Harmonic Cannon 1        Harmonic Cannon 2        Harmonic Cannon 3       

Harmonic Cannon 4        Harmonic Cannon 5       

Beat Silent Beat, 2014

Historically foundries cast bells in peacetime and cannons in wartime, the casting technique is the same for both, and ringing the bell an expression of power. “Silent, Beat, Silent” was cast in a new role, to convey a radical freedom. This bell on wheels to be moved about by the public and is free to be rung by anyone. It has been placed in a variety of public spaces . Having been at at UEA, then Norwich Market Square, it is presently at the Hanse House in Kings Lynn.

Click to listen to beatSilentBeat.m4a

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Beat Silent Beat, 2014 Beat Silent Beat, 2014

My Feet in Earth Bell, 2003

Bells are historically associated with temporal and spiritual power and authority. In 2003 Marcus made a bell for Highampton, Devon, the village at heart of the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease. “My Feet In Earth” is thought to be the first public access bell in the UK. In order to create a democratic bell that could be rung by anyone, there were many legal and social obstacles that were successfully overcome. The bell now celebrates the communities' survival and strength, and is rung by many people, for many reasons.

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Bell Table, 2005

While observing “My Feet in Earth” being cast and tuned at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the idea was sown to try remould this ancient communication device using finite element analysis. These 28 bells were explorations of different bell forms to create an alphabet of sounds.

Click to listen to bellTable.m4a

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