Resound: Ancient Bells of China

October 14, 2017–2020
Gallery 25

Bells were among the first metal objects created in China. Beginning over 3,500 years ago, small, primitive noisemakers grew into gongs and further evolved into sets of hand bells for playing melodies. Further, centuries of technological experimentation resulted in more sophisticated bells that produced two pitches when struck in different spots.

Variations in size, shape, decoration, and sound also reveal regional differences across north and south China. By the late Bronze Age large sets of tuned bells were played in ensemble performances in both areas. Cast from bronze, these durable bells preserve valuable information about the character of early Chinese music.

Today we can use technology to explore these ancient instruments and to explain their acoustical properties, but we know little about the sound of this early music. To bring the bells to life, we commissioned three composers to create soundscapes using the recorded tones of a 2,500-year-old bell set on display. Each of them also produced a video projection to interpret his composition with moving images that allow us to “see sound.”