By Kari Miller
I recently played Richard Purvis’ “Contemplation” as a prelude, and was reminded how lovely chimes can sound on the organ. “Contemplation” is one of several pieces by Purvis featuring a prominent part for chimes; you may know some “chime” favorites by other composers. Depending on the composition and the context, organ chimes can sound mournful, celebratory or exotic. Whatever the mood, the bell-sound stands out strikingly from the surrounding texture and commands our attention – harking back, perhaps, to pre-Twitter days, when the loud ringing of bells would herald an important event such as a birth, death or wedding, or announce a national victory or calamity.
Organ chimes are a gentler affair, of course. Listeners seem to be perpetually intrigued by the sound of chimes, whether they hear the chimes as the voice of angels or as the tolling of John Donne’s bell, and we have probably all been asked why we don’t “use chimes more often.” (We probably answer that if we use the chimes too often they will lose their “specialness.”) As you begin to incorporate chimes into your improvisations or interludes you may quickly discover, to your surprise, that some of our standard “tricks” don’t work well at all. It rarely sounds good, for instance, to simply solo out a hymn-tune melody in the chimes; we aim for a glorious golden moment and instead we get an ugly clanging mess. If you really must chime out a tune, it is usually better to present it in an out-of-rhythm or fragmentary form, with static, slow-moving accompanying parts, if any. But often all that is needed is a well-placed note or two; the chimed notes will be the ornament, the garnish, not the main course. Chimes are at their dramatic best when used sparingly.
Another interesting way to use the chimes is to play a sequence of several notes in succession, letting the natural resonance of the chimes gather to create a tone cluster. Check out “The Little Bells of Our Lady of Lourdes” and “Vesper Processional” by Harvey Gaul for an extensive display of this technique. Gaul uses seventh-chords and pentatonic sequences for his rolling clusters; you can use whatever you like – it is fun to experiment and discover pleasing combinations.
There will always be a bit of mystery to the ringing of a chime. Purvis’ evocative piece, “Communion”, exploits this masterfully, achieving maximum results with a minimum of material. The chime part consists of a repeated eighth-note motive, played a total of six times, all on the same pitch. Twelve notes in all, simple yet so richly suggestive – is it just a distant bell? a call to prayer or remembrance? the quiet knock of destiny? the acceptance of grace? a final benediction? dinnertime? It’s up to the listener to decide; such is the charm of the chimes.