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Partials and Hum Notes: Boyle’s Great Bell Said It All.

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There’s a scene, perhaps one of the greatest in cinema history, in Tarkovsky’s André
Rublev in which molten metal pours down the hillside in rivulets towards the mould
of a giant bell buried beneath the ground. The blood and sweat of the foundry
workers is rewarded when the residue is chipped away to reveal an emormous,
gleaming bell which, when rung, sounds out its perfect note to the delight of the
assembled peasants and dignitaries. In those pre-industrial times, Rublev is set in
the 15th Century, a bell was the crowning achievement of the craftsman. Bringing
communities together from far and wide, it represented a rallying cry, a vibration
that struck awe into the hearts of men and women. The temperature of the metal,
the make-up of its alloy, the precision of the mould’s symmetry all affect the tone
any bell sounds. The bell that sounded the beginning of London 2012 Olympic
games was a commission from the historic Whitechapel bell foundry in East London
and though it’s well tempered tone represents the refinement of millennia of bell
making technology, its single note is augmented by many, variable partials and hum
tones, above and below its single, tuned note. Determined by the shape and density
of the bell and the position of its clapper, these subtle variations produce a complex
of sound that cannot be predetermined.

In sounding that giant, beautiful bell to open this celebratory pageant, I believe
Danny Boyle was saying something profound which resonated throughout the
whole ceremony. Here is a single nation, Great Britain, comprised of a complex of
national tones: those of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Here is a
single event, the Olympic Games, comprised of a multiplicity of national voices. In
his wonderfully poetic review of the event Ai Weiwei observed that ‘A nation that
has no music and no fairytales is a tragedy’. Boyle’s emphasis on the music and
literature of Great Britain positioned us as a success. Caliban’s waking dream
depicts a land so full of voices, noise, ‘sounds and sweet airs’ humming about the
ears, that he hopes the dream will never end. It was this Britain that Boyle wanted
us to celebrate. As Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ gave way to the sweet, untrained voices of
children, we could hear the character of the individual nations that compose the
union. From Blake’s eccentric vision of a hallowed English soil to the lyrical
melancholy of Ireland’s ‘Danny Boy’, from the defiant ‘Oh Flower of Scotland’ to the
mellifluous Welsh hymn, ‘Bread of Heaven’, these songs revealed themselves to be
more than unofficial national anthems. As rugby songs, sang on the terraces of the
single sport played to a world class standard by all the nations of the union, they are
the people’s songs, chosen by some mysterious, collective consensus to express
each country’s national pride and idiosyncratic temperament.

The choice of the profoundly deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, and a thousand
drummers to soundtrack the vibratory shock of the Industrial Revolution seems,
with hindsight, to be a no brainer. The eerie rhythmic pulse and hey nonny flutes of
Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ album sat in faultless, musical declamation to images
of the literary ghoul’s that have fueled a million children’s nightmares and the
selfless nurture of NHS nurses or Mary Poppins respectively. With Queens and
clowns, heroes and villains, remembrance and loss, the whole shebang unfolded in a
narrative worthy of Shakespeare’s dramatic gifts and as the celebration of popular
culture and the technological revolution wound up, a love story emerged as its
beating heart. A romp through 50 years of film and popular music extolled our
cultural diversity (much to the chagrin of certain Tory MPs) and the thrilling
exuberance of British pop music needs no extra comment from me. Save to say that
Grime is a British invention: a frenetic, anglicized mutation of hip hop, that emerged,
in reverse order out of dubstep, drum n’ bass and jungle. Akin to the attempts of
poets like William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore to define an American
modernist poetry before the Second World War, British rappers and musicians
sought out, and found, a quintessentially British expression of the Afro-Caribbean
Diaspora and its cultural canon distinct from the hip hop from New York and Los
Angeles. It’s the basis of a cultural export industry which they manage, incidentally,
with a flare for business and civic responsibility this government could only dream
of. On a less earnest note, Dizzee Rascal, wearing his East London postcode (E3) on
his chest, summed up our nation’s confident engagement with the rest of the world
with his rhyme:

Some people think I’m bonkers,
but I just think I’m free,
Man, I’m just living my life
There’s nothing crazy ‘bout me.

‘This is for everyone’, the epithet given by Tim Berners-Lee for another British invention, the World Wide Web, extended the bell’s resonant metaphor yet again. Here Boyle reminded us, is a single invention that has assimilated all mankind’s creative brilliance, and deviance, to become a world bell/brain, ringing with a consensus forged from our manifold expressions of self. After several thousand excited athletes from several hundred world nations had paraded to a compilation LP – ‘Now That’s What I Call Rock and Pop’, Volume 300, maybe? – Boyle, and it must be said, his musical directors Underworld, gave us The Arctic Monkeys. The sentiment behind ‘I Bet That You Look Good On the Dancefloor’ could not have been more apposite as a tribute to an assembly of some of the most glorious physical specimens humanity has to offer. It also served as a nice reminder of Alex Turner’s brilliance as a performer and a poet. This is the man, after all, who once rhymed lines ending, ‘Ford Mondeo’, and ‘…even say ‘owt’. The Sheffield Bard’s rendition of ‘Come together’ turned a working class hero’s blues into an anthem for world peace as flouro, rave-doves on BMX bikes flocked in loose formation around the stadium’s perimeter.

Next the diverse efforts of good will ambassadors, peace and civil rights
activists from around the world were recognized and brought together to carry a
single flag which betokened human endeavour at its best. In this celebration of
human stories, no one was excluded, not farmers or factory workers, not suffragettes
or carers, not inventors, engineers, builders, athletes, activists or artists,
and most important of all, not children. As those anonymous young people lit that
beautiful, symbol of unification and Two Door Cinema Club’s Alex Trimble sang
‘Caliban’s Dream’ backed by choirs of children we were all, as Wordsworth once said, ‘invisibly repaired’. Momentarily, societal divisions of every kind: class, race, sex, age, dissolved. What Ai Weiwei might have to say about Weetabix would be worth reading but his timely, kindly memorandum told us, lest we forget, that it is our songs and our stories that unite us, that make us all great. Though it may not last, let’s chant a non
denominational incantation that all our unpredictable hum notes and partials can
continue chime in harmony with the great bell, our beautiful planet. Last Friday
Boyle’s bell rang out and we remembered who we are as single nations, joined
parochially as union of nations under the flag of Great Britain, and with all the countries of the world as an Olympic family. So, let’s try to keep the bell ringing, if only for the sake of the kids.

Ai Weiwei’s review