The Bell Ringers Encourages Participation and Discovery in Chicago

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 Bell Ringers--Photo by LingYu

The Bell Ringers–Photo by LingYu

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. Snare drums from across the perimeter of the lawn engaged in an improvisatory call and response. Long keyboard tremolo rolls ended in three more giant bell tolls as an ambulance wailed in the distance. A three beat drum rhythm, led by Peter Martin, stirred children across the lawn to join in, merrily clapping along. 

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.

A low hum of sustains filled the air, and three more tolls belted from the big golden bell. An enclave of players with handheld drums circled around it, playing musical “catch” with drum beats. Those who didn’t “catch” the beat tossed to them were “out.” Those who were “out” created a crowd of encouraging, drumming spectators. All across the grass, it seemed viewers were having as much fun as the players, and the pace sped up. The winner of this game was a young girl–now the leader. In her new role, she conducted the sea of drummers while chewing a gigantic wad of bubble gum. Monstrous swells emerged from the texture. Skidmore wiggled his fingers to bring everyone to pat their legs in a drum roll. Participants with finger clickers furiously clacked, with everyone drumming, snapping, and clapping. 

The Bell Ringers--Photo by LingYu

The Bell Ringers–Photo by LingYu

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.