September 20, 2019
by Jillian DeGroot
“The Bell Ringers allowed audience members to comfortably interact and talk,…provided room for participation without pressure, and…made space for curiosity and discovery in a welcoming, community-building environment.”
On September 9, 2019, composer and arts educator Danny Clay teamed up with Third Coast Percussion for the premiere of The Bell Ringers, an evening-length participatory work on the great lawn of Chicago’s Millennium Park–transforming the soundscape of the city through Clay’s use of “play” alongside performers from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds.
Green flags and snare drums encircled the lawn. A giant golden bell sat in the center. Early arrivals were already camped out in lawn chairs. Park security bustled across the grass with chattering radios. A toddler voraciously ran up to a snare and gave it a good bum-bum-bum-bum before a security guard shooed him away. Those nimble enough couldn’t help letting a cartwheel or two loose on a rare pleasant, humidity-free evening in Chicago. In the distance, Third Coast Percussion organized a crowd of performers with a bullhorn.
It wasn’t long before Robert Dillon welcomed spectators to a “unique musical universe.” Then, a slew of instrumentalists entered the lawn in one giant follow-the-leader line. One-by-one they followed David Skidmore, in step and pace, at the sound of a beating woodblock and long swelling sustains. When they finally reached the giant, golden bell, the leader gave the bell three majestic tolls with a large rubber mallet.
The lawn was then filled with a quiet peppering of single notes and tinkerings of small call bells. Some audience members smiled, others laughed. Toddlers chased, leaped, and squealed. A melodica player, Sean Connors, crouched down to play a few notes to an enthralled tot who was enjoying a snack on a picnic blanket.
Clay’s playfulness was contagious, and audience members began to catch on to games happening across the lawn. Follow the leader! An elderly participant took a turn leading a violinist, taking giant leaping strides. Another person skipped through the grass, melodica player in sue. Another person did bunny hops leading a clarinetist. All sorts of participants, with behinds unwittingly wet from the grass, decided to join in.
The crowd dispersed as members broke off into mini groups–playing games with single notes, tremolos, sustains, claps, little call bell dings, and body gestures. People met, talked, shared, and played. Some brave participants even sang in harmony. A rising melodic line from the instrumentalists grew louder. Participants with colorful call bells gathered around the giant bell. The little bells rang rapidly, crescendoing in a thunder before three loud tolls called out. Finally, in a surprise twist, the participants revealed hand bells, twinkling them together in a gesture of unity amongst members in this miniature musical community.
The willingness of strangers, young and old, to get up and participate with uninhibited enthusiasm and creativity was captivating. The Bell Ringers celebrated music for music’s sake, play for play’s sake. What Clay demonstrated is the ability of total strangers to collaborate without words or expertise, but with eyes, ears, bodies, and intention. The Bell Ringers allowed audience members to comfortably interact and talk without the restrictive confines of concert etiquette, provided room for participation without pressure, and most importantly, made space for curiosity and discovery in a welcoming, community-building environment.
After an entire evening spent making music together, the moon shone above Chicago. The Bell Ringers closed with a bed of shifting, harmonizing “ahs,” long and slow; the summer cicadas sang along, too.