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Revisiting the Tsar Bell


When is a Bell a Bell?

Does a bell have to ring before it is truly a bell? The Russian Tsar Bell is the largest confirmed bell ever cast at over 200 tons. But in 1732, before it was ever struck, this Goliath of bells broke. Its parts have been on display in the Kremlin ever since. A team of UC Berkeley, Stanford, and U Michigan researchers made the Tsar Bell ring for the very first time. With Finite Element Analysis (FEA) and other simulations, the collaborators on the project created a computational model of what it would have sounded like.

On April 15 and 16, the Tsar Bell team presented the project at UC Berkeley’s 2016 Cal Day weekend. A concert performance consisting of June’s Ring by Chris Chafe; The Big Bong by Jeff Davis, and New Forms by DJ Spooky was performed at noon and sunset on Friday, April 15th, and hourly from noon to 4pm on Saturday, April 16th with an additional sunset concert. The collaborators of the project gave a panel discussion at 310 Jacobs Hall on Saturday morning, discussing the project and their individual backgrounds and contributions. Slides depicting an exaggerated simulation of the bell’s distortion pattern at various frequencies was shown.

thumbnailBCNM’s Greg Niemeyer gave a short introduction of the Tsar Bell’s history, including the previous 18,000 kg bell that was destroyed by a fire in the 17th century. The second Tsar Bell, object of the eponymous project, weighed over 200,000 kg and was broken before it ever rang. He also discussed Napoleon’s unsuccessful attempt to remove the Bell and the apocryphal story of Harry Houndini and his wife Bess “ringing” the bell by shooting it from afar. University Carillonist Jeff Davis discussed the uniqueness of the Sather Tower carillon and the minimal metal used in its construction, and Tiffany Ng questioned, “which ‘tsar’ does the Tsar Bell ring for today?”

John Granzow talked about the instrument design and idiophone instruments that vibrate themselves, Chris Chafe presented previous pieces that he wrote for clavichord based upon “ship songs”, while DJ Spooky spoke about Johannes Kepler creating acoustic portraits “of water and ice” and linked bells to drum beats of hiphop with an app he developed. Jeff Lubow linked his previous work with the Natural Frequencies project to the analysis and resynthesis of audio he developed for the Tsar Bell, Perrin Meyer, Chair of the BCNM Advisory Board, talked about Meyer Sound talked and constructing the subwoofers for the carillon concert.

Richard Straus, who built the keyboard for the University Carillon in 1984, discussed the thousands of “partials” that are created when the bell is struck differently, posing the question that if the small bell contains the big bell, then “what does the big bell contain?” As an alternate creation myth to one of explosions and big bang, he proposed a “harmonic unfolding” of the universe. Olya Dubatova discussed her personal experience of returning to Russia to research the history of Russian bells, interviewing ex-bellringers who were unable to continue their vocation after 90% of the bells were destroyed in the Soviet Union. In relation to a short film of ex-bellringers ringing and hearing the bells for first time in decades, she posed a question: “What does it mean to have a voice?”

The panel presentation was followed by a short Q&A session.

thumbnailTsar Bell is a project by Ed Campion, Chris Chafe, Jeff Davis, Olya Dubatova, John Granzow, Jeff Lubow, Perrin Meyer , Greg Niemeyer, and James O’Brien featuring carillon compositions by Chris Chafe, Jeff Davis and DJ Spooky, with graphics and videos by Olya Dubatova. Special thanks to Richard P. Strauss, Kat Rawks, Ed Campion, Romain Michon, Tiffany Ng, Lara Wolfe, Alex Niemeyer, Meyer Sound, the Berkeley Arts + Design Initiative, made@Berkeley, the Berkeley Center for New Media, the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, UC Berkeley CNMAT, Stanford CCRMA, and the University of Michigan.

Find out more about the Tsar Bell project at the Tsar Bell website.

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