Five Bells was written during the summer of 2010 in response to a commission from the Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors Association for the 2011 Arizona All-State Orchestra. Like most of my works in the last twenty years, the work originated from a keyboard improvisation which was transcribed and reworked into a composition for orchestra.
The reworking involved restructuring the material, balancing sections, and enhancing the dramatic timing. I also solidified the motivic continuity, and clarified the tonal and structural implications. The technique is similar to a sculptor who uses, enhances, and gives meaning to an object without changing the basic composition or form of the original medium. The original improvisation was recorded in October of 2009.
The title, Five Bells, refers to a haunting poem by the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor. The poet, who was also a journalist, wrote the poem in memory of a colleague, an editorial cartoonist, who drowned after he jumped off a ferry and tried to race it to the dock. His colleague’s robust life and tragic death still haunted Slessor after nearly a decade. The poem, with its vivid and dramatic imagery asks “why do I keep thinking about you?” He has no answer. The five bells refer to marine time, the moment when his friend jumped off the ferry. It becomes a symbol of both the moment of death, and the incessant and indifferent passage of time, as opposed to how we perceive time emotionally.
I was drawn to the poem when I took note of the prominent use of five chime strokes during both of the climaxes of the piece. Also, the mood of the poem seemed to be sympathetic to the mood of the music. There is, in the music, an oblique but noticeable reference to Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration near the end. In the context of the poem, the reference would infer that those who are truly transformed by death are the living. As I was considering whether or not to actually name the piece after the poem, I received word that a good friend of mine had been killed suddenly in a car accident. That event convinced me that the title was both appropriate and fitting, as it will, correspondingly, haunt me for quite a long time, as well.