Bells in Her Music: An interview with Composer Helen Ottaway

Transcribed by Emily Watts

Comparing composing music with composing bell ringing methods

[00:00:00] HELEN: How you compose a method, and it’s very different from writing a piece of music, although it isn’t in all respects, because I’m from the school of systems music and systems music does go through processes, so you might have an additive process. So the idea of going through all the possible permutations of a set of bells and changing in a systematic process is not a million miles from what I do.

Introduction to Helen Ottaway

[00:00:31] HELEN: [Bells ringing]

[00:00:37] CATHY: Helen Ottaway is a composer and sound artist. Her music is inspired by particular places, buildings, and the natural world .It involves chance, found sound, walking, and frequently has a connection with water or bells.

Helen’s Connection with Bell Ringing

[00:00:51] CATHY: Helen, can you tell me a little bit about your connection with bell ringing, your early connections with it?

[00:00:57] HELEN: I grew up in a vicarage. My father was vicar of Wolvercote just north of Oxford. And we were two girls, two daughters, and my sister became a bell ringer, and I joined the choir. You can’t do both. So I never entered the world of bell ringing really. I was in the world of singing.

Influence of Bells in Helen’s Work

[00:01:18] CATHY: But, you’ve chosen to feature bells in your work. Why is that?

[00:01:23] HELEN: I think it’s just chance, I think things seep into your system. I heard bells weekly, more than weekly. Practice, Sundays. They’re part of my DNA and I love the sound and the culture as well.

Bells as inspiration for music

[00:01:38] HELEN: And when I was in London working with a group of composers and performers called three or four composers, we became inspired by the story of the sunken church bells off the coast of Dunwich in Suffolk. Apparently 55 or so bells under the sea and they’re actually starting to be visible again, or they think in about a hundred years, Dunwich may be there again, the North Sea will have receded. We found this story really fascinating and embarked on a trilogy of projects, installations, performances, promenades about these bells. And that set me off I think. It brought back the memory of the sound of bells and bells in my oral landscape. And then, bells have been a feature.

Helen’s Journey to Becoming a Composer

[00:02:36] CATHY: And I’d like to go back a little way as well and ask you, how did you become a composer and sound artist to begin with?

[00:02:43] HELEN: I’m the generation of music students where you didn’t automatically get composition lessons. These days, GCSE includes composition and A level, but in those days, a few handpicked students would be given composition lessons with the professor.

The rest of us were considered players, historians, publishers, and composing wasn’t really the avenue you were encouraged down, so I spent a lot of time playing other people’s music, sometimes my contemporaries. And I was in several contemporary performance groups playing for experimental theatre and for gigs in galleries. Lots of really interesting stuff. And then a group of us were sitting in the bar of the ICA,

[00:03:40] CATHY: The ICA?

[00:03:41] HELEN: The ICA in London, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

[00:03:45] CATHY: How did you get there? What was your route from school?

[00:03:48] HELEN: Oh, from school I did music A level. I applied for universities. I went to Goldsmith’s College, part of University of London to study music.

[00:03:58] CATHY: I see.

[00:03:59] HELEN: Academic degree, not like a conservatoire. Goldsmith’s was amazing for contemporary music. We had three lecturers in 20th century music plus electronic music, so we were really in the now and the ICA was where a lot of new music and new theatre happened.

So I spent a lot of time there. I went to see a lot of productions there, and then when I’d left college and was playing for various situations, I ended up playing there in theatre shows and concerts. So it was quite normal to be sitting around a table in the bar with other musicians.

Formation of ‘Three or Four Composers’

[00:04:42] HELEN: And at that point, the programmer of the theatre space, which programmed music and theatre came up to our table and said, “I’ve got a gap in my program would you like to do something?”

And this was quite an interesting and great invitation. She knew us all from different walks of life, theatre and music, and so she clearly had an idea that we might be able to produce something. So at that point, the group three or four composers was born and we did a production musical.

Slightly theatrical, not very. A concert called “Three or four Composers grapple with the Notion of English Song”. And so I felt like at that point I was the “or four” three or four composers, and that was the first time I wrote a piece of music and it was for piano and viola. So not really the traditional root of having composition lessons, much more accidental. And I’m quite a fan of the accidental in music and life really.

Sunken bells at Dunwich incorporated into music

[00:05:59] CATHY: So then the three or four composers was interested in the bells at Dunwich, and you were describing those, how did you incorporate the bells into that piece?

[00:06:11] HELEN: We did it two ways, and I’m still doing it two ways. One is the bells were our subject and the sinking of the bells were our subject, so they were a theme. But we also incorporated handbells quite theatrically. We were working with students from Nottingham Trent University for the first performance of the biggest part of the project, and we had hired Handbells from Whitechapel Bell Foundry, and we worked with the students on playing and on action.

So although they were handbells, they actually did a lot of swinging actions. The subject of the piece was church bells and church bells swing. So we were trying to incorporate the kind of feel of the swinging of a church bell. So there was a part of it that was very freeform the students just swung the bows and you got lovely sound.

Not a traditional way of playing handbells at all. And then the end of the work, we had them playing in a traditional way.

[00:07:19] CATHY: And did they play tunes then, or was it a tune that you’d composed then?

[00:07:24] HELEN: It was part of the final section was a piece of mind called storm bells, and they had a part in the orchestration.

So there were no solo bell tunes, they were part of the texture. But it was a tune.

Helen’s Interest in Bell Ringing Methods

[00:07:42] CATHY: Actually one, one thing I’m interested in is do you ever incorporate bell ringing methods in any of your work?

[00:07:51] HELEN: Haven’t done so far. It was interesting recently talking to Julian Back, who is a local Bell Ringer here, he wrote a new method for the project we’ve just done, which I’m sure we’re going to talk about and he was describing, how you compose a method, and it’s very different from writing a piece of music. Although it isn’t in all respects, because I’m from the school of systems music and systems music does go through processes, so you might have an additive process. So the idea of going through all the possible permutations of a set of bells and changing in a systematic process is not a million miles from what I do.

 But interestingly, he said, which I hadn’t heard before, there are various tests that, that a method has to go through. Some of them are technical about whether you’ve done all the combinations. To get back to the beginning or whether you’ve not duplicated an existing method.

Musicality in Bell Ringing

[00:09:04] HELEN: But then he said what he considers the final test is musicality.

And I found that quite an interesting idea. Which is obvious that they should be musical And bells are intrinsically musical. And in musical terms, if you are dealing with a scale, a major scale, which most sets of bells are, it’s quite difficult to do something unmusical.

Almost any combination will come out as sounding musical but I’d be interested in finding out more about what makes a method more or less musical.

[00:09:47] CATHY: That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?

[00:09:49] HELEN: It must be to do with, must be to do with the intervals used.

[00:09:54] CATHY: Yes. the intervals being the tonal gaps between the different notes that are being played.

Yes. we’ve talked about a couple of projects, but we’re gonna get onto the, current project last, let’s go back to the beginning again. We’ve talked about Dunwich.

Recollection of Meeting Matthew Higby’s Mother / Millennium Night Watch service piece

[00:10:11] CATHY: Can you tell me about the time that you met Matthew Higby’s mother?

[00:10:16] HELEN: Matthew Higby’s mother. Yes. Claire Higby, a formidable woman and great bell ringer. It goes back a little bit further than the bell story, but with art music, my organization, Alistair Golden Sound Designer, and I did a project for Salisbury Festival, which involved putting sounds in the roof space of the cathedral, and the Dean of the Cathedral and the Presenter came to experience this installation work, sound installation, and they really liked it and on the strength of that, they invited me to write the music for their Millennium Night Watch service, which it was the service that would go from just before midnight on the 31st of December, 1999 to after midnight early morning of the 1st of January, 2000 and, I can’t remember why, but again, bells just keep seeping into my work.

I decided to focus on bells, so we had, tubular bells ringing from the clear story, which was lovely. It floated down and the music on the ground floor in the Nave was for trumpets and bells. And I needed to find a really good bell ringing group and I came across the Mendip handbell Ringers.

Mendip is the area that Froome where I live, is in. So they were local and as a result met, Margaret Chapman, another formidable local bell ringer. Sadly no longer with us and Claire Higby also sadly no longer with us, and they were the mainstays of the Mendip handbell ringers. I think they were five or six of them, and they were brilliant.

Claire and Margaret demonstrated to me using four in hand, which was quite mind boggling. Two Handbells in each hand. So each player has got four Handbells. But for my piece, we had four players, I think it was four and eight Handbells, one in each hand. And it was a lovely combination, handbells and trumpets. We had trumpets from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

[00:12:48] CATHY: Sounds lovely.

Helen’s Project for the 2012 Olympics

[00:12:49] CATHY: So now the next project that, you’ve mentioned to me is the one that you did for the 2012 Olympics.

[00:12:58] HELEN: Yes. That was Tower Hamlets, the borough of Tower Hamlets made a project in 2012 alongside the Olympics, called High Street 2012. The idea was to refurbish the A11, which goes from Aldgate East straight, all the way to Stratford really, where the Olympic Park was. And they put out a call Tower Hamlets, for ideas for art projects. And I proposed a survey of the bells on the A11.

And this to involve collecting all kinds of bell sounds from the street. And I’d done a bit of research and found that there were several churches on the route. And of course the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was on Whitechapel High Street, which is the A11. So Tower Hamlet said, “yes, please come and do this.”

And we produced a soundscape, like a collage of lots of different sounds made into something that you could call a piece of music. I tend to call it a soundscape because it’s not a traditional piece of music, but it involves lots of different bells from bicycle bells to school bells to boxing ring bells to Buddhist bells and church bells.

So I met a lot of bell ringers. We made a tune as part of this soundscape using the bells of Christchurch Spitalfields. We asked the Tower Captain there to ring each bell individually and recorded it, and then I made a tune from that. So that tune features in the soundscape mixed in with a few other things, and it also became one of the two ringtones we made for that project. So that project was called ‘Ring Ring Bell’.

[00:15:08] CATHY: Here is a short extract from the Ring Ring Bell soundscape. [

Ringtones produced as part of the Project

[00:15:13] CATHY: Soundscape playing]

 You mentioned ringtones. The way I’m familiar with the phrase ringtones is on my phone, is that what it was? Something that people could use on their phone?

[00:17:20] HELEN: Yeah. We made two ringtones. One was a kind of jingly jangly, little, very high pitched tune with jingle bells and bicycle bells, and it was mostly made by school children and the second tune we made was based on this tune that we created from the Spitalfields bowels. So one of the tunes is little and tinkly, and one is very big and bongy, if that’s the word?

[00:17:48] CATHY: Yes definitely.

Involvement of Whitechapel Bell Foundry

[00:17:50] CATHY: Were the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, you mentioned them, how were they involved? Were they involved?

[00:17:56] HELEN: They were involved. Oh, I should say, we also made a film. And the film is made on a bus going down the A11 with a camera on each side. So you do a double journey, and that starts at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. They had been really helpful. They showed me around, they let me record all different kinds of bells and I got to know them quite well. In fact, Ben Kipling, who was the tuner, the Bell tuner. I met at Whitechapel bell Foundry, now works for Matthew Higby. So things come in a beautiful kind of full circle way.

So often things connect. I find that really lovely that things connect like that. But of course, Three or four composers had already hired bells from Whitechapel Bell Foundry, so there was a kind of ongoing relationship.

‘A Field in May’

[00:18:51] CATHY: And then the next project was A Field in May

[00:18:56] HELEN: A field in May. Yes that was a choral piece I wrote as part of a project called In The Field. It was a project that lasted about a year to commemorate the loss of 25 young men from Hurst in the First World War. They died at the Battle of Aubers Ridge, and so we were asked to make work, do community projects, a series of things in 2015.

That was the centenary and the culmination of these different little projects was a big performance in the local church. We combined a brass band and a string quartet and a locally formed choir with children and adults. And the middle section was a setting of part of Edward Thomas’s in Memorium, but it also included all the names of the soldiers who had died in that battle.

And in that church the ringing area is at ground floor level. So I wanted to incorporate a tolling bell in the piece. So we had one bell ringer, one bell, and the conductor at certain points would turn around and gesture to the bell ringer who rang the bell so it was completely integral to the piece of music.

[00:20:46] CATHY: That sounds very profound.

[00:20:47] HELEN: Yes, it was. It was a really lovely addition. It made this section with the reciting of the names. It made it so much more powerful, the sound of the bell. Because the sound of a bell means it means so much, doesn’t it?

It’s got such resonance and it either calls you or it warns you, or it commemorates quite apart from the sort of joyous change ringing that we do in this country.

The Frome Festival

[00:21:16] CATHY: Then moving on to your current project, my husband, took the Charmborough ring to the Froome Festival and was really impressed by the program and the breadth of different bell ringing projects that were incorporated there. And I know you were very involved in a lot of that, so I was wondering whether you could talk me through, what was in the program and what your involvement was.

[00:21:40] HELEN: Yeah, it goes back quite a long way as well. Some of these things have seeds from a long time ago. The festival director in 2006 and myself, in 2006, I was the composer in residence.

We had a conversation which went something like, wouldn’t it be nice to get all the bells in all the local villages ringing? somehow ringing together, and that festival 2006 was very busy and lots of things were already planned, and this just dropped off the agenda. But things kind of percolate.

And so last year, Martin, the director of the festival back then and now director of an organization called Rook Lane Arts Trust, and I started up this conversation again, and the result of that was this project. Which got bigger and bigger. It started off with just this idea, let’s do something with all the local bell towers, and it ended up this big project called Ring Out, which included walks and talks and the Charmborough ring as you said, visiting and open bell towers and visits to Matthew Higby’s, engineering works and a concert.

And the centrepiece of the project was what we called the Froome Carillon. So we did something similar to when we worked with Spitalfields on recording bells.

The Frome Carillon

[00:23:18] HELEN: We recorded bells from several of the local churches, individual bells, and then we sampled these sounds and made a tune, and this tune rang out from above the town centre throughout the festival every hour playing the tune. And then we chose one particular bell, a lower bell from Mel’s to do the dongs. So the whole thing was bells the clock striking. And we did some workshops with local people and had them compose their own tunes using these samples.

And gradually through the festival, all these other tunes were played. From this virtual carillon above the market square.

Meeting the Frome branch of the Bath and Wells Association

[00:24:05] HELEN: So that was really what started it off, this idea of gathering the bells together and the bell ringers that I’ve met, particularly Mary Hooper, who’s the tower captain of the Postlebury Ringers, which includes some local churches to the south of Froome.

She introduced me to the Frome branch of the Bath and Wells Association, and I met Matthew Higby and Julian back. I don’t think I knew quite at the time that I was in meeting these really quite influential bell ringers, and they had lots of ideas to add to mine and made the project even bigger.

[00:24:51] CATHY: It was several days, wasn’t it?

Contents of the Frome Festival

[00:24:53] HELEN: Yeah. The festival runs for 10 days and we had something on every day, but one of the festival days, so we started on Friday the 7th of July and finished on Sunday the 16th, and there was something every day you can see all the events. If you go to Rook Lane Arts Trust, Website, it’s, and then you follow the ring out links and you can see all the different events we did.

And I’m feeding the website with more information, background information. For instance, more details about Julian Back’s new method. So hopefully the website will become a little bit of a resource, not just about the project, but about how you can get involved in bell ringing because the impetus became bell ringing itself.

Bell ringing is suffering because we could do with more bell ringers and so part of the idea of doing Ring Out was to try to get festival goers interested in bell ringing and get bell ringers interested in music and join things up. But to draw attention to the lovely thing that bell ringing is, and the exercise element, the community, social side, the skill involved and the history. And the other thing that was part of this project was that Cockeys, bell founders from the 17th and 18th century are very well known in Frome, but for being the creators of gas lighting. People in Froom don’t really know that Cockeys made bells, and yet

There are still 23 Cocky bells in Somerset towers and 40 in Dorset and Wiltshire. So there are a lot of cocky bells out there. So we wanted to draw attention to the fact that. In addition to all the other amazing figures from industry that came from Froome, like GW Singer and Benjamin Baker who built the fourth bridge, we also had the Cockeys who were Bell founders.

[00:27:24] CATHY: So there was heritage in there as well.

[00:27:27] HELEN: In fact, we were successful in getting a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, which was really a great help in rolling out the project. As big as it became.

[00:27:40] CATHY: Yes, I know my husband came back, he’s not usually very effusive, but he came back very effusive about it all. Very impressed. Yeah.

Involvement of the Charmborough Ring in the festival

[00:27:47] HELEN: That was a hugely successful part of the project. The first Saturday, having the Charmborough ring in the local park, we got all kinds of people just walking past, coming and having a go because we had some great bell ringers there to teach people. So if you were already a bell ringer, you could come and have a go.

But complete novices were welcomed as well, and we had some literature. So I think that event and the project in general has sparked some interest and has attracted some new people to ringing which is great.

The Finale Concert of the Project

[00:28:25] CATHY: Can you tell me a little bit about the projects finale, the concert that you did at the end of that?

[00:28:31] HELEN: Yes. So I was continuing my idea of trying to incorporate bell sounds, bells and music and this is the furthest I’ve gone really. We started the piece that I wrote, it’s called Full Circle. Which Mary Hooper thought of a brilliant title. So the piece was kind of palindromic.

It started with pure bells and went out and back into pure music and back to Bells. We started with some ringing from Wanstrow, which is one of the local churches, and they have six bells in G Major and so we started with that and I explained to the audience beforehand that I had named the sections of the piece after different kinds of ways that you can ring.

So the first section was called rounds and the second section was called Queens. And the third section was called tolling. And the piece went rounds. Queens tolling back to queens, back to rounds. So very simple structure. And I had written it for the introduction, which was this recording of Wanstrow Bells.

Then we incorporated the set of samples on a keyboard. So I played the set of samples from all the different villages, and we also had marimba, flugelhorn, clarinet, and violin. So the first section, as soon as the Wanstrow bells came to an end, they were doing rounds. I joined in with the rounds on the keyboard and we had made that scale in G so took different notes from different towers. So it sounded like it was just continuing slightly different bells. And then the instruments joined in with the rounds. And then they were a little bit free. This is probably anathema to bell ringers, but they were a bit free to do slower or starting at different places or starting at different octaves.

So became unrealistic in terms of bell ringing. And then we just worked through, so Queens began with a pattern that was every other bell on the violin, in fact. And then when we got to tolling, I introduced one of the samples again. So that was a little bit like the effect of the Field in May piece where you had a real bell sound, but with instruments as well.

I was very pleased with the effect, that the incorporating the bells. And what I really loved was that there were a lot of bell ringers in the audience, which they normally wouldn’t have been. And it was really interesting hearing their responses to the piece and how it worked.

[00:31:35] CATHY: What were their responses?

Feedback and Responses of bell ringers to the concert piece

[00:31:37] HELEN: One, He was quite interested because I was finding, playing the keyboard, playing these samples on the keyboard. The attack of a bell doesn’t always start, even though the sound starts, it doesn’t start right at the beginning of the sample. So I was sometimes having trouble getting the bell to sound like it was in time and he absolutely loved that because he said, that’s real life in bell ringing. Trying to get your bell to come in at the right time and he was quite amused that even with samples on a keyboard, you have exactly the same problems of getting it to play when you want it to. So that was an interesting response.

And I think just for others, They really liked the different kind of context for the Sound of Bells.

[00:32:32] CATHY: Here’s an excerpt from the piece Full circle. [Music playing]

We’ll play the full circle mix at the end of this episode. Now back to the interview.

You’ve already mentioned that there’s a website, a resource that Bell Ringers could go to.

Tips for Bell Ringers Considering a Similar Project

[00:34:02] CATHY: but do you have any other tips for Bell Ringers who would be thinking of holding a festival like the one that you had in Frome?

[00:34:11] HELEN: It’s hard to know because the bell ringers that I worked with, they were very enthusiastic about bringing the focus onto bell ringing and showing people what bell ringing is all about. And so a large part of our project became about publicizing where people could hear bells being rung. So for instance, the festival website included every evening, it included information about where you could go and hear practices.

And the towers that were doing their practice were in on it. So they would welcome people if they wanted to come in and watch, for instance. And then on the second Saturday of the festival, we had a coordinated Bell Tower Open Day. So lots of towers opened at different times in the day.

One of them Beckington, did cream teas as well. But I gather from my bell ringing friends and colleagues that actually this kind of thing already happens. Open towers is a regular thing as is, tours of different towers. I know the Postlebury ringers for the coronation did a sequence of ringing in different towers.

So I think the bell ringing community already does some of these things. I think what I added to it was the context. So I think working with other people from different areas is the key to this kind of exchange of knowledge and enthusiasm across different art forms, different context, different places.

So I would say it could be something to approach an existing arts festival and say, can we do something in your festival? Can we open our towers for the festival goers or get involved in something with a composer or a music group? Because I think the thing that was really successful about it was the combining and the working together.

 And that’s what made it different from either. Composing a piece of music and having a concert or, opening your tower.

[00:36:41] CATHY: Yes. It was the fact that you had the two things together. Yes.

[00:36:45] HELEN: Yeah.

[00:36:45] CATHY: Yes and more.

[00:36:46] HELEN: And Frome Festival was brilliantly welcoming. They, as soon as we started talking to them about this idea, they decided to put bells all over the cover of the festival brochure cause of course, the festival has lots more stuff. They have comedy and theatre and other music and open gardens and arts trails. It’s quite a big festival, so it was really nice to sit in the middle of this festival and kind of be the central theme.

[00:37:17] CATHY: Okay. I think we’ve covered most of the things that we were going to cover, but was there anything else that, you wanted to mention Helen?


[00:37:28] HELEN: We were going to talk about ringtones again, I think.

[00:37:30] CATHY: Oh ringtones that’s right here is the big bells ringtone [ Ringtone playing]

[00:37:36] HELEN: So the two that we did for Ring, ring bell in 2012. I think they’ve faded. They’re on my Bandcamp page, which is Helen Ottaway. Look for Helen Ottaway on Bandcamp, and you’ll find me.

So you can download them free, but getting them onto your phone is a whole nother matter because phones are very protective. You have to use certain methods. So what we’re going to do is we are going to make this new tune the Carillon tune for Ring Out into a Ringtone, and then we are going to launch all three, relaunch two and launch the new one on a platform where anybody can just download the ringtone to their phone without having to do any jiggery pokery with anything.

[00:38:59] CATHY: I always ask this question until you say no, there isn’t anything else, was there anything else that you wanted to mention?

Conclusion and Further Resources

[00:39:05] HELEN: Maybe just to mention the website again. Which is And ring out is on the front. There’s a link to the ring out pages on the front of that website. and if you look for my name, Helen Ottaway on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, you’ll find all the bell music we’ve been talking about apart from the most recent.

And you’ll also find, my blog if you Google Helen Ottaway. Blog, I think it is.

[00:39:49] CATHY: We’ll find all those things and put them in the show notes as well so that people will be able to look at them on the website too

Thank you for being our guest Helen Ottaway and for letting us share your music with our listeners.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it. This podcast was put together by a team. Special thanks go to Anne Tansley-Thomas, Emily Roderick, John Gwynne, and Emily Watts.

And now, here is the full circle mix by Helen Ottaway. [ Music playing]