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‘Resounding Earth’ - Forging Music From Metal

  • June Soh

Sometimes you can feel the clear sound of a bell from your head to your feet. Take that idea and think big and you may have an idea of what Augusta Read Thomas is trying to do with Resounding Earth.

The unique percussion piece is scored exclusively for metals, and features more than 125 bells from a wide variety of cultures and historic periods.

Thomas, an award-winning American composer, says she has always been attracted to bell-like sound.

“The title Resounding Earth, on the one hand, we are talking about resounding earth. The earth is full of metals that all of mankind has turned into instruments. We are going to play them from all around the world together on one stage,” said Thomas.

The professor at the University of Chicago says the composition is like a United Nations of resonances. She wrote the piece for the Third Coast Percussion, the Ensemble-in-Residence at the University of Notre Dame.

Recently, the Chicago-based quartet was invited to perform the piece at the American Music Festival at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Peter Martin, one of the musicians, says the origin of the instruments spans the globe.

“We have bells that come from India. We have gongs that come from Thailand. We have other bells that come from all over the European continent. Literally every continent, I believe, is represented in the instrumentation,” said Martin.

Some are locally found objects.

“It is a spring coil from heavy machinery; makes beautiful sound. It is not built to be a musical instrument, but makes beautiful sound,” said another Third Coast member, Robert Dillion.

All together, “Resounding Earth” incorporates more than 350 metal objects, ranging from tiny cluster bells to huge Chinese gongs.

“Each player has very large racks with bells, gongs and cymbals suspended from them, as well as tables with bells. We have a three-octave set of chromatically tuned rins, which are Japanese prayer balls. And the list goes on and on,” said Martin.

Balancing distinctive sounds

Thomas developed the piece in close collaboration with the Third Coast percussionists.

“It was very challenging just being able to figure out the distinctive sound qualities of each one of the instruments, and to be able to play them in a way to balance them across each other,” said Martin. “That was both difficult for ourselves as performers, but also for the composer herself, who was trying to craft the piece.”

Martin says the 35-minute opus was many years in the making, and every move of the players was carefully choreographed.

The work has four movements. One is scored exclusively for 26 Japanese rins or singing bowls, creating a meditative sound. Eighteen Burmese spinning bells, traditionally played by monks, are a central component of another section.

“It's also re-sounding earth to take what is in the earth and re-sound it,” said Thomas. “And in that sense, it is really giving it back to the earth, giving it back to the people. It has been a very beautiful journey.”

Since Resounding Earth premiered two and a-half years ago, it has been performed over 50 times and had more than 80 reviews.

“We have been so fortunate with outstanding, great reviews everywhere,” said Thomas.

The composer and the players say they would love to take the music to all the places where the bells were made and share their resonance with people around the world.