Bells in Cripplegate
Your first taste of 0ranges and Lemons.
By Benjamin Till, composer.
It's four years since I first worked with BBC London and now I'm back, working on a musical extraveganza based on an old City nursery rhyme. I aim to ring some bells with Londoners and perhaps you can help?
Benjamin Till, composer
It seems like an age since I got a phone call from BBC London telling me I'd been selected to make a film for their Untold London project. Apparently, a musical featuring people who hang out on Hampstead Heath was not too bonkers for TV, and Hampstead Heath: The Musical was born.
That very special 2 minute film set me off on a new career in television. Since then I've written and filmed a symphony, performed entirely by buskers, and worked with communities across the country to create musicals about the A1 road and Coventry’s iconic indoor Market.
It’s really exciting, therefore, to find myself back in the BBC London fold, working with a grant from the Arts Council on a project called Oranges and Lemons.
The plan is to record every bell in every church and institution mentioned in that famous childhood rhyme. I reckon this will involve some 300 bells, every one of which will be separately recorded and brought together in an exciting new composition.
…and here’s the science
Each bell will be carefully analysed for pitch, which is more complicated than it sounds because one bell doesn't ring just one note. Each bell generates a series of harmonics, which ring at different pitches and volumes depending on the location of the bell, how it’s been cast and where you strike it! If you like, it rings a chord. If the bell’s been well made, it’s a perfect minor chord, but sevenths and fourths can also find their way into the equation!
St Katherine Cree
…and here’s where you come in
This composition isn't just about the bells. I want to form a choir, whose voices will weave magically around the sounds of the bells. In order to be in this choir, you need to live or work within earshot of one of the churches in the rhyme. That’s pretty much anyone in the square mile, with an extension west to Trafalgar Square and East as far as Stepney.
Who's involved in the project?
Benjamin Till, composer.
Ivor Talbot, sound recordist.
Julian Simmons, musical producer.
Nathan Taylor, choir master.
Penny Wrout, exec film producer.
I also want to feature little snippets of spoken memories in the piece. These churches are in areas that have changed dramatically within living memory and I'd love to hear stories and memories that reflect this. Does anyone remember these churches being bombed during the Blitz? Was anyone present when St Helens, Bishopgate was destroyed by the IRA? Should these churches be turned into homes or businesses now that no one lives in the square mile? Should we be ringing church bells more regularly? Should we be trying to save the bells that are falling apart?
So if you fancy singing as part of the project, or you just want to share your memories about the City's churches and the area around them, drop me an e-mail. Here's the address: email@example.com
And if you prefer to witness projects like this from the sidelines, don't worry, you can chart my progress through BBC London. We'll be recording a series of features for TV and radio and providing regular updates here on the website.
Ringing the bells in Cripplegate
…a very British folk art
Featured as part of the composition will be the ancient art of “change ringing”. When we walk past a church ringing its bells, how many of us stop to think that inside the tower, 12 mathematician-musicians are counting furiously to ensure that each run of bells is entirely unique? Change ringing is the ultimate form of minimalism. Changes are incredibly subtle yet this is extraordinarily complicated stuff, which moves at a frightening speed. This practice has been done for hundreds of years, and it is pretty much only done in this country.
…and the challenges we’ve faced
Some of the bells we're recording for the project haven't been struck for years. It was VE Day, we think, when the bells of St Helen’s Bishopsgate and St Peter Upon Cornhill were last rung. In the case of these two churches we had to crawl into the belfry and manually strike the bells with a rubber mallet! It did seem like they were very grateful to be ringing again, although we got covered from head to toe in dust!
Many of the bells in churches across London are in desperate need of renovation. Many 17th Century bells are still hanging in the towers, but too dangerous to ring, but renovation is an expensive business. The bells of Katherine Cree were saved by the luminous Michael Royalton Kisch, who’s campaigned tirelessly for years to have them restored. We were lucky enough to be able to record this set of bells as they were being lowered from the bell tower on their way to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
The churches involved.
St Margaret Lothbury St Clement Dane
...and here's the rhyme in full.
"Oranges and lemons" say the bells of St Clement's.
last updated: 27/03/2009 at 12:23
Articles and features about London people