Passing Bells

…is a composite work, in a sense, linking the Middle Ages with our times. It compresses twenty-four hours in the cyclic rhythm of mediaeval life, from midnight through to midnight, into about 45 minutes. The opening section, Vigils, is intended to recall the quiet intensity of the Great Silence of overnight monastic Prayer Watches: the Religious earnestly attempting communion with their god. That supernature is entirely fictitious makes this yearning all the more pitiable—nothing was ever going to come of their prayer. Vigils leads directly into Day, structured following the seven Prayer Hours, or Offices, of the mediaeval day, from Lauds at Dawn, to Compline in the evening. Bells obsessively toll throughout Day, expressive of the permanent melancholy of coexistence with the Black Death. Whereas Day intersperses the bells with the frantic pursuit of the everyday, the following Night section presents them in a landscape of silence, the empty darkness of the overnight hours. As Barbara Tuchman reminds us, “the passing bells rang all day and all night…” The work ends with a postscript, named, after the famous poem Catullus 5: …nox est perpetua una dormienda, which Raleigh rendered as ‘The sun may set and rise,/ But we, contrariwise,/ Sleep, after our short light,/ One everlasting night’. After the dark Night of the soul, this is the long sleep of oblivion. Like life, the work is structured as a myriad of tiny capsules of experience (well, 122), some fleeting and lightweight and others of more moment. If they cohere, it is because each belongs to just one of a set of affective threads—seven in day and seven in night.

Not irrelevantly, there are several homages to Orwell in the score: “…the clocks were striking thirteen”.

For all that imagery, the work is also an abstract mosaic of stitched-together material, and even the bell-sound provenance and Gregorian chant borrowings are subsumed into a carefully-controlled architecture. How you listen to it will depend on your preference: for narrative or for structural logic. …Or both, of course.

I started passing bells in 2004, when the events of 9/11 still hung heavily on us all. Since then an almost daily litany of atrocities has tended to blunt our sense of outrage; I find myself constantly saddened by our brutal, indifferent, and nihilistic times. As a composer I often feel that I flail impotently in the face of our unkind world; clearly passing bells is a manifestation of that flailing. But a tightly-composed manifestation… The completion of the piece coincided with the appearance in Australia of the COVID-19 ‘plague’—an eerily apposite bookending.

The work is a single 45 minute arch, but is composed of two sections that may be performed independently:

passing bells: day (27’), consisting of Vigils and day (pages 1-37)

and

passing bells: night (18’) consisting of night and …nox est perpetua una dormienda (pages 38-91).

The passing bells: night section of this work was written in 2004 for Marilyn Nonken, at the request of Daryl Buckley, artistic director of ELISION, and her studio recording of this earlier version of night appears on my Tzadik CD, beyond status geometry. In 2018 I decided to complete the entire arch of the passing bells structure, in part in response to the encouragement of my webmeister and engraver Andrew Bernard, and Alex Raineri asked that I finish it for his December 2019 Brisbane Music Festival closing concert—a request I was pleased to satisfy.

As I worked on the closing pages of the piece I heard the sad news that my mother, Audrey Dench, had died aged 96, and the work is now dedicated to her memory.

The score of the full work, and the sections day and night can be downloaded from this website here.


Here is the performance of passing bells: day by Alex Raineri at the Brisbane Music Festival 2019.

Pre-concert interview:

Concert video:

Sound engineer and videographer: Jai Farrell. Footage courtesy of the Brisbane Music Festival.