Ringing in the New Year

The moment of truth arrives as composer Peter Yarde Martin tests out his new composition with the Bellfolk Handbell Ringers for the Adopt a Composer project.

One of the most exciting – and nerve-wracking – parts of writing a piece is hearing the ensemble play sections of it for the first time. After all those hours spent kicking ideas around, shaping and re-shaping sketches and doodles into something recognisable, readable and playable, comes the moment of truth: how is it actually going to sound?

When writing for ensembles with which I am familiar, I have a reasonable idea of how a piece is going to work, and which parts of a piece will prove particularly challenging (or not). With handbell teams, however, the dynamic of the ensemble is so different to a choir or instrumental ensemble. Each player is responsible not for their part, but for two or three notes, and they have to function together much more closely and integrally.

Potentially there’s quite a big gap between how it feels to play my piece at home on an electric keyboard, and how it will feel for each member of the group to be playing their portion of the piece.

However, when it came to the first tryout of some sketches I’d written for the Bellfolk Handbell Ringers, I needn’t have worried. Twenty minutes before the start of our first workshop, the team had already all arrived and set up, and were diligently and enthusiastically studying the music I had brought along with me! You couldn’t ask for a more devoted or hard-working group of musicians to be playing through your piece.

After they’d played a couple of pieces to get warmed up, we got into the nitty gritty of looking through the four sketches of varying size that I’d written. We tried out some extended techniques to bring interest and variation into long notes – tower swings and gyros, that involve swinging the bells back and forth, around and around. We got to grips with some unusual musical notation that I’m using in my piece, asking players to play completely independent rhythms – something that’s very difficult in an ensemble that is usually all about playing exactly together.

The team responded really well to all the various strange musical requests I made of them, and by the end we were practising processing in and out of the hall, playing multiple rhythmic layers, having memorized the music! Not bad for an evening’s work…