Record your church bells for new Scottish composition

Sound idea...to commemorate Armistice Day centenary in November 2018, composer Martin Suckling is looking for readers help to sample church bells across Scotland.
Sound idea...to commemorate Armistice Day centenary in November 2018, composer Martin Suckling is looking for readers help to sample church bells across Scotland.

Readers are being asked to help create a new classical music composition to commemorate the centenary of armistice in November 2018.

On November 11, 1918, church bells across the country pealed to signify the end of four long, arduous and deadly years of war.

Unique concept...Martin Suckling, associate composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, was delighted to discover no-one else had struck upon the idea of recording church bells across Scotland, in relation to Armistice Day, allowing him to plan a truly national collaboration with people across the country. (Pic: Maurice Foxall)

Unique concept...Martin Suckling, associate composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, was delighted to discover no-one else had struck upon the idea of recording church bells across Scotland, in relation to Armistice Day, allowing him to plan a truly national collaboration with people across the country. (Pic: Maurice Foxall)

Now, 100 years later, that musical outpouring of relief is set to be replicated.

For a special composition is being created to mark the centenary by Martin Suckling, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s associate composer.

And readers are being invited to collaborate with him on Meditation (after Donne), which will sample bells from churches across the country.

A unique idea, it was the brainchild of the orchestra’s former chief executive Roy McEwan, who tasked Martin with coming up with a new piece of music to mark the centenary of Armistice Day in November 2018.

Time to reflect...100 years after church bells pealed across Scotland to signify the end of World War One, Meditation (after Donne) will give people a chance to think about all those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom we enjoy today.

Time to reflect...100 years after church bells pealed across Scotland to signify the end of World War One, Meditation (after Donne) will give people a chance to think about all those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom we enjoy today.

Martin explained: “Roy approached me to see if I would be interested in writing something.

“He wondered if doing something with bells would be a good idea as all the church bells around the country rang out when armistice was declared.”

With that concept in mind, Martin (36) started playing around with ideas for what he knew would be a difficult piece to compose.

“How do you write a piece to commemorate armistice?” he said. “It’s not a cause for celebration – in a sense it’s joyful and in another sense it’s anything but.

“To put those mixed feelings across in music can be quite a challenge but music can convey so much.

“Thinking about all of that, I thought it would be really nice to provide a space for everyone to reflect in their own way.

“I wanted to create music that didn’t tell people how they should be feeling – I wanted it to be meditative and to really give people space to think.”

Martin decided to use a simple melody – like a folk song – with bells sounding in the distance.

“I thought we could use speakers throughout the auditorium, with a tapestry of bells chiming,” he said.

“The idea was to provide a God’s eye view of the country as the bells rang out to signify the war ending.”

Martin’s next challenge was how best to sample as many bells as possible for the composition.

He considered recording one bell and using computer technology to change its speed to provide a wide variety of bell sounds.

The simplest option, perhaps, but also a road Martin decided not to travel.

He said: “I didn’t just want to create a piece of music on my own which people would either like or not.

“I thought that would be such a lost opportunity.

“Instrumentally, bells are really unusual as they don’t follow the harmonic spectrum.

“When you hear church bells, you hear a number of different pitches – it’s difficult to hear it as a single note. All instruments and sounds have a spectrum of pitches but you usually only hear one note.

“With bells, you can hear those different sounds and all church bells are different.

“Because people have recording equipment at their fingertips – on their phones or at schools, colleges, universities and some work places – I thought we could get people across Scotland and beyond involved in making the piece.

“We’re now looking for people from right across the mainland, Highlands and Islands to submit recordings of their local church bells for this truly national project.

“We’ll use all of the recordings in the piece to surround the orchestra and create a tapestry of bells for the composition.

“I was a bit worried someone had done it before but was delighted to discover that the concept was, in fact, unique.”

The new piece of classical music will be premiered by the orchestra at three performances in November – in St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

And everyone who submits their church bells will be credited in the score and in the programme.

“Theoretically, the electronic programme can take an infinite number of bells,” Martin said. “It’s just a matter of storing them all.

“Samples are starting to come in and we’ll be accepting them until the end of the summer.

“That gives people ample time to do it but I’d ask them not to hold back. The sooner I get the recordings, the sooner I can get to work.

“Scotland is, of course, the focus but every village, town and city in the UK was affected by the First World War and has a war memorial, telling the stories of those who went to war but, sadly, never came home.

“So we’re also happy to hear from Scots who now live further afield – be that in the UK or abroad.

“The main challenge we’ve set ourselves, though, is ensuring that people from all the different council areas in Scotland are represented.”

To achieve that goal, letters have already been sent to every church in Scotland asking people to consider participating.

Many local groups – from scouts and guides to rotary clubs and school pupils – are also keen to get involved.

To make sure they can, Martin and the orchestra’s education arm, SCO Connect, are planning a series of workshops across the country, enabling musicians of all ages and abilities to work with the bell samples to create their own musical response to the feelings of love and loss armistice brings.

The story will not end, either, when the composition is premiered – the aim is for it to have a life far beyond the centenary year.

Martin said: “We’re hoping to make a version of the composition available to other orchestras and musicians which will allow the piece to have its own life, beyond our three performances.”

As for the collaboration with people across Scotland, Martin can’t wait to get started.

He added: “As a composer, you are always collaborating – handing your music over to musicians who interpret that piece in their own way.

“But there’s not often an opportunity to work on an interactive collaboration where you are throwing something out there, people respond to it and I then have to respond to that. That’s what is at the heart of this.

“I need to bring the piece together but it is a genuine collaboration with the nation – the project has national reach, just like the Scottish Chamber Orchestra itself.

“And people don’t have to be musical specialists – they just need the phone in their pocket to take part.”

Full details of how to get involved are available on the website http://www.armisticebells.com. The project is kindly supported by the University of York and the Leverhulme Trust.

Meditation XVII inspired Martin

John Donne’s famous Meditation XVII helped inspire the new composition.

“No man is an island, entire of itself...any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The poet’s reflections are triggered by the tolling of a distant bell; it is hoped similar feelings will be stirred on hearing Meditation (after Donne).

Martin said: “Donne’s 1624 exhortation to recognise our shared humanity is utterly contemporary.

“As society fragments into smaller groups, the idea we’re all connected by something serves to remind us we are all part of one humanity which is so important today.”

Born in Glasgow in 1981, as a teenager Martin performed with the National Youth Orchestra and in ceilidh bands around Scotland. He studied music at Cambridge and London and was the Paul Merton Fellow at Yale University, before studying at the Royal Academy of Music. For the last five years, he has been senior lecturer in the music department at the University of York, associate composer for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and a Faber Music House Composer.