Have you ever heard of Super Critical Mass? I hadn’t, until yesterday afternoon. Super Critical Mass is a ‘sonic arts’ company which creates events in public spaces involving multiple players all playing the same type of musical instrument. It started in Australia about four years ago with the first event being held in Sydney and featuring 80 flutes in a giant railway storeroom, but since then events have been held all over the world in different spaces and on different instruments.
Yesterday’s performance, fitting nicely with the festive season, was for bells. I knew about it only because a friend is the director of a handbell choir called Brisbane Bells who collaborated with SCM for the event. So after work I wandered up to King George Square to see what it was all about, but not really knowing what to expect. The square was filled with the usual mix of shoppers, tourists and office workers on their way home. The stage, which is set up for a variety of performances this time of year, was empty. There were no rows of chairs out for an audience. No real indication that anything was about to happen – except a few people like myself who carried an air of expectation as they sat on benches and looked around for some sign of an impending performance. And then just after the City Hall clock chimed 5 o’clock on a beautiful A flat, a slow procession of bell ringers – probably about sixty or so people – began to drift into the square, each with their own bell playing only a single note. They walked slowly and scattered themselves several metres apart over the wide open space, and every few minutes someone would stop playing and walk to a new spot to resume their ringing. Gradually they moved further into the space, starting up near the north corner of Ann St and working their way down to Adelaide, but still spread out across the square the whole time.
At first it was hard to know what to make of it, whether this was a precursor to something more, whether any minute now someone would appear to conduct the large ensemble, or whether the group would suddenly launch into a song which would be recognisable to the people gathered. Some people looked intrigued and genuinely fascinated; others kept walking and talking on their mobile phones as if nothing unusual was happening. But once it became apparent that this was pretty much it, the music seemed to take on a new quality. What started as a random assortment of dings (I would describe it as a gentle cacophony, if such a thing exists) began to feel more like being inside an enormous, living, breathing wind chime. You started to hear the occasional accidental melody emerge, or notice the volume or tempo of individual bells being played, or the sound of one bell stop and then start again from further away as ringers moved around the space. If you can imagine something like a flash mob but with the emphasis on the sound rather than the spectacle, that was a little bit what it was like.
Samantha, the director of Brisbane Bells, handed me a card which said “listen to a different city”. And as the bells rang over a backdrop of bus engines and snippets of stranger’s conversations I thought, yes, this is what I’m doing. I’m listening to a different Brisbane. A really enjoyable and worthwhile experience.
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What and where would your ideal Super Critical Mass be? I think mine would be the earthy sound of a hundred cellos, somewhere cavernous with a marvellous echo, like underground limestone caves. Or otherwise an army of trumpets in Piazza San Marco, Venice. Oh, the possibilities…!
Please feel free to leave a comment with your dream SCM!