The Federation Bells: a Garden of Bronze

The Federation Bells are an installation of 39 bells in Birrarung Marr, a parkland bordering the Yarra River on the edges of the Melbourne CBD. There are many resources available allowing anyone to compose for the bells, which are controlled by MIDI: an Online Composer that runs in your browser, freely downloadable sound libraries for composers to load into their preferred MIDI sequencer, and an app for phones and tablets.  There is also a comprehensive manual detailing the specifications of the set of bells.

I only heard about the bells a few months back, from my former composition teacher Anne Boyd, who was one of seven Australian composers commissioned to write works for the opening of the bells in 2002. Then, as often happens when you hear about something for the first time, the bells were suddenly “everywhere,” including a call for works for a composer competition, closing October 2015. I decided to write a work.

The competition

The Federation Bells Composition Competition seems to have run every year or two since 2012. In 2015 entries could be sent through the browser composing program, the app, or via email.  For Melbournites there were on-site information sessions in the weeks prior.  There was a respectable first prize of $2000 (AUD), a second prize of 2 hours education at the Digital Learning Hub, Arts Centre Melbourne, and a special prize of $500 for the best composition in the app, this last one which wasn’t awarded this year.  Something to consider for next time, composers?

Congratulation to the winner, John Coutts, for his work Call to Prayer, and second prizewinner Trevor Adelson for his Parkville Suite. Listen to both works here:

Garden of Bronze

I wrote and entered a work called Garden of Bronze, inspired by the outdoor location of the bells, and the idea of being able to stroll among them, with sound wafting around like a scent.

It was lovely to see that many of the compositions have continued to be programmed throughout December and January and beyond;  check out the schedule if you happen to be in Melbourne.  I’m happy to note my own composition among these works, and what’s better is that some of the playings coincided with a short trip I took to Melbourne, mid-January, to work and plan intensively with Lisa Cheney, my co-conspirator on the Making Waves listening project.  This meant I was able to visit the bells, and make a live recording of the work. The day I visited was overcast and very windy, so there is a degree of “ambience” in this recording:

The Federation Bells App

I also took the opportunity to play around with the Federation Bells App, which you can get on iTunes or download from Google Play for free, to your smartphone or tablet. The app is like a software set of the bells, and includes the ability to play the virtual bell set freely, a record function, a playlist from which you can hear selected compositions for the bells, and a Simon memory game.

A really awesome thing about the app is that, if you’re visiting the bells and join the Federation Bells wi-fi network, you can play the bells live during the interactive sessions, scheduled daily.  I had a try at this, choosing a composition from the playlist, as well as improvising freely with the bells, over the entire set, as well as in different scale configurations.  It was a little tricky to get set up, and I noticed some other visitors to the bells who seemed to be trying to connect, but perhaps having difficulties.  Once set up, it worked really well, and I like the idea that several people connected to the bells could play together, and even play the Simon game in multiplayer mode, live.

I really like the open community feel that the Federation Bells bring through all these design features, projects and applications.  I feel like this is an important aspect of the Bells’ existence, and encourage anyone to visit and have a ‘play,’ in all senses of the word.

2 thoughts on “The Federation Bells: a Garden of Bronze

  1. Ariel Valent says:

    Thanks Peggy for your excellent blog and your composition. The City of Melbourne welcomes new compositions for the Federation Bells at any time. I’m always happy to hear from composers and welcome creative ideas about how to make the bells more and more engaging.



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