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Bell Ringing and the Obsessive Compulsive Drummer

After going down to London Music Hackspace to take part in Dom Aversano’s Algorhythm Workshop: Hacking Church Bell Patterns, I decided to follow his footsteps and apply what I’d learnt about bells and change ringing to generative music: specifically, drum patterns.

Change ringing and how it relates to algorithms are well-covered over on Dom’s blog in the post, “Open source computer music in the ancient world”:

“Here is an example of a pattern generated by an algorithm for a three bell tower:


Each number above represents one of the bells, which are rung in the order that the numbers appear. In the above code every possible combination of three bells is rung, until the bells return to the order in which they started (i.e., the top and bottom rows, which are bold). The algorithm for computing this is relatively simple:

First switch the order of the last two bells (e.g., 123 → 132), then switch the order of the first two bells (e.g., 132 → 312), then repeat these instructions until you return to 123.”

(If you want to see how complex these ringing patterns can get check out the ‘Double Helix Differential Major’, which sounds like this).

And if you learn better by watching videos, this video spells it out quite clearly:

Dom highlighted how these patterns can be used to generate rhythms: for example, playing on the number 1, but not 2 or 3. He then went on to talk about how, as a percussionist, he had replaced each bell with a drum, using these change ringing patterns to explore (in a self-admittedly slightly obsessive manner) every possible permutation of a drum beat, given the kit in front of him. As a person with mild OCD and more than a few years behind the kit myself, this idea struck a chord with me.

Dom also told us that bell ringers used to have a pretty wild, rockstar reputation. I’d like to believe it true.

So I set out to create something. I can’t yet say what the final form will be — a sequencer, a plug-in, a drum-playing robot installation — or whether this idea will follow so many  of its half-baked brethren before it and dissolve into the ether. But for now I’ve started, and that’s great.

Its working title is “Obsessive Compulsive Drummer” (or OCD for short). I’ve been coding a program using Maximilian and openFrameworks which generates rhythms based on these change ringing patterns. At the moment I’m using drum samples because I like drums. Also, I like the link between the drum kit, as a divider of time and cue-er of musical events, and the bell tower, used to split the day into different segments (work, prayer, etc), paving the way for the mechanical clock.

Currently, I’ve got a 3-bell and 4-bell pattern (mostly) working. How it develops from here, we’ll just have to see.


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