May 122012

This is Brian Eno’s suggestion, or studies, for the bell chimes that might be used with The Clock of The Long Now. So before I start the review of this disc, I ought to explain what the Clock is. Quoting from his book “The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility”, Stewart Brand makes a mission statement of the Long Now Foundation:

“Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed – some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries”.

Such sentiments are not unique to the Long Now Foundation and have become increasing prevalent with, for example, a move to one of ‘slow food’, whereby time is taken to enjoy and savour food, especially with convivial company and enjoyable discussion: the complete antithesis of the ‘fast food’ culture. However the Foundation wants to go further than this – it wants to construct The Clock of The Long Now, a large mechanical clock powered by seasonal temperature changes. “The clock would tick once a year, chime once a century and the cuckoo would come out once every millennium”. The clock would run for at least 10,000 years [1].

The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years, and it is chimes for which Brian Eno has composed some suggestions.

The Disc
There are 15 tracks on this disc, the longest being 23 minutes 22 seconds long (the first) to the shortest at only 1 minute 23 seconds. All are based on Eno’s interest in English campanology.

In the accompanying booklet, Eno explains that the various ‘changes’ pursued by the ringers are all of the order permutations allowed by the number of bells. Since these increase as the factorial of the number of bells available, they can be very long. For example with three bells there would be 3x2x1 = 6 combinations of the order in which they are sounded, or changes. With four bells the number of changes is 4x3x2x1 = 24. A peal of 8 bells leads to 40,240 changes! Eno noted that a 10-bell peal would yield 3,628,800 changes, a figure very close to the number of days in 10,000 years – the proposed minimum lifespan of the Clock.

But Eno’s studies go beyond merely considering the enormous number of changes possible with even a reasonable number of bells. Again in the very interesting booklet accompanying the disc, Eno explains that whilst bells are tuned to a particular note, like all musical sources they have overtones. However unlike most musical sources, the overtones may not necessarily be in a harmonic ratio with the fundamental. Many bells have overtones, which are not in any simple numerical or harmonic relationship to each other.

Many of the tracks are Eno’s speculations on imaginary bells; indeed bells that might be physically impossible to make. Some of the ‘hypobells’ (= hypothetical bells) as Eno calls them, explore reversal or suspension of the physical laws that dictate a bell’s sound:

“What happens if the highest partials lasted longest? What if the lowest notes were the first to sound, whilst the higher partials appeared later? What would a large bell made entirely of glass sound like? What if the first millisecond of a bell’s ring could be extended over minutes? What if a bell became a drone?”

Given the Clock will last at least 10,000 years, it not impossible that by then bells as imagined by Eno could be synthesised (as Eno does on this disc) and used in the chimes.

So will you like this disc? Well if you already know Eno’s work, especially as “the Father of Ambient Music”, then you will not be disappointed. Those who do not will almost certainly find it boring to the extreme. Clearly then it is not a disc for everyone.

Nor is it to be played without thought. I found it is best played late at night, and with subdued background lighting, when one can either just let the hypnotic Zen-like sounds wash over you, or you can use the tracks as a form of meditative aid. Lovers of Tangerine Dream’s Pheadra will know exactly what I am talking about! If you are looking for something a bit different, something beyond the mainstream, then check this out. You may not like it straightaway on first listening – but it will grow on you.


Sound: Clearly this is very much a matter of taste, but I will score it 8/10.

Recording: With such an experimental disc the normal considerations of sound staging, compression or even tonal fidelity don’t apply. There is very little, if any, dynamic range in campanology. It is just as impossible to judge correctness of the tonal fidelity of the ‘imagined’ bells (a problem of all music involving synthesisers). Nonetheless the recording is clean and clear and some of the low frequency tones make for an interesting test of the low-frequency response of one’s system. 10/10

Brian Eno – ‘Bell Studies for The Clock of The Long Now’. (JANUARY 07003)

Equipment used:

CD player: Sony CDP XB-930 (sometimes used with a Cambridge Audio ‘Black Box’ DAC)

Pre-amp: Mark Levinson ML26

Power amp: lightly modified Quad 405-2

Speakers: Original, unmodified Quad ESL (‘57s)


[1] The book about Long Now and the ideas behind the Clock, featuring Brian Eno and other founders of the project, entitled THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW, by Stewart Brand is available from the Long Now website as well as from internet outlets.

Other ‘long-term projects’ are
A website with the goal of collecting all of the languages in the world (some 6,000).
An organisation dedicated to the complete inventory of all species of life on Earth.

More about the actual mechanism of the Clock can be found here:

Barry Hunt

© Text Copyright 2011 Barry Hunt. Album sleeves Copyright belongs with their owners.

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.

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