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Program note: James Ledger's "Bell weather"

  • program note by the composer

In late 2007, I was taken on a tour of the vaults at the Art Gallery of Western Australia by its Director, Alan Dodge. I was looking for an artwork that I could respond to with a piece of music. We looked at dozens of paintings, and several offered many intriguing and exciting possibilities.

After much deliberation, I decided upon Rosalie Gascoigne’s stunning work “Monaro”. Made from strips of wooden Schweppes soft drink crates, it is constructed in such a way as to suggest the Monaro plains southeast of Canberra. Around the time of my visit to the gallery vaults, Australia was in the midst of a federal election and Eden-Monaro was in the news a lot as a bellwether seat for the nation. My title is a play on words to this and it alludes to the fact that bells and bell noises feature quite prominently in the work.

Bell Weather is scored for a mixed ensemble of seven wind players, two horns, five string players and a percussionist who plays tubular bells and glockenspiel. Additionally, there is a keyboard player who plays and manipulates pre-recorded samples. One of the interesting aspects of modern sampling techniques is the ability to manipulate sounds into something quite unrecognisable from the original. There is also the ability to take acoustic instruments and play them in a superhuman fashion. For example, by taking a sampled set of tubular bells, I was able to ‘play’ them on the keyboard as though they were, say, a violin. I could apply vibrato and glissandi to the notes, or I could apply subtle timbral variation to a held note. This, quite clearly, is impossible to do on the acoustic bells.

There is a parallel between the way I constructed Bell Weather and Gascoigne’s Monaro. Where she takes small fragments of similar pieces of yellow and black wood and lays them side by side, I too take small fragments of music and juxtapose them in a comparable way. Similarly, where Gascoigne has chopped up Schweppes packing cases, I have have ‘chopped up’ recordings of bells and layered the fragments into the work.

This work was commissioned by Symphony Australia for the Blake Dawson WASO Chamber Players. It was made possible through the financial assistance of the Australia Council, the Commonwealth Government’s funding and advisory body.


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