The bells, the bells…
A peal of church bells is a familiar sound to most, yet full of strangeness. Listening to the baffling patterns created when a simple descending figure breaks up and reforms into a kind of Escher-like musical geometry, you might find yourself wondering if herein lies the true origin of the systems music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
The 30-year-old Sheffield-born pianist and composer Andrew Woodhead takes that sound not just as the inspiration but as the practical basis for Pendulums, a new album-length work subtitled “Music for bell-ringers, improvisers and electronics”. The result is a quite stunning achievement in which jazz yet again proves its unique ability to create a constructive interaction with all sorts of outside forms of music.
The bells of St Paul’s, Birmingham — installed 15 years ago in the 18th century church, not far from where Woodhead studied at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire — are the first things we hear in Pendulums, and the last. Eight bellringers are joined by two trumpets, two alto saxophones, two baritone saxophones and Woodhead’s electronic manipulation of the church bells and of various field recordings, including bicycle bells and the chimes of an ice-cream van. This film of a 10-minute section called “Changes” gives a view of the way in which the composer integrates his three basic building blocks, creating something more than just a sound-bed for the improvising soloists. Sometimes he transfers the characteristics of bell-ringing to the wind instruments, as at the beginning of “Tolls/Waves”, where the horns sound unison notes that evolve into a phasing pattern.
I particularly love the way Woodhead uses the four reed instruments to soften the metallic timbre of the church bells and the trumpets, and how he brings out the bells’ overtones to create a universe of sound. There’s quite a lot of free jazz practice here (a reminder that one of Albert Ayler’s most famous works was called “Bells”), notably in the sparring over a simple ostinato transferred from bells to saxophones on “Partials II”, but there’s also an saxophone-chorale introduction to a piece called “Plain Hunt IV” that recalls the Anglican hymnal (and the enigma of Thelonious Monk’s “Abide with Me”).
“Plain Hunt II” begins by processing the ice-cream van chimes into the sound of a spectral church organ before the horns take over with a passage of overlapping long tones, another example of how imaginatively Woodhead is transferring techniques from one set of musical tools to another. Towards the end of this piece the gentle hissing and sizzling of electronics is underscored by the tolling of a single bell: placed at the very heart of this compelling 68-minute suite, it’s a moment of beautiful simplicity.
* Andrew Woodhead’s Pendulums is released on June 11 on the composer’s own Leker label (www.andrewwoodheadmusic.com). Concert performances of the work are scheduled for 14 October 2021 at St Paul’s, Birmingham and 16 October 2021 at St Clement Danes Church, London WC2. The photograph of Woodhead conducting the recording is by Guri Bosh.