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Decisions, decisions, ... 7 – Who’s listening to us?

Decisions (by Yvonne Hall)Among the ‘conditions required for all peals’ in the Central Council’s Decisions is one that requires tower bells to be audible outside the building containing them. For service ringing that scarcely needs stating but the Decisions aren’t about service ringing, they are about peals, most of which are not rung for services.

Many churches are surrounded by houses or offices, where three hours solid ringing would be a major nuisance or perhaps intolerable. To make peal ringing possible at such towers there may be shutters to reduce the sound, though it can still be heard near the tower.What would happen if you rang a peal at such a tower and then discovered that the traffic had been so loud that it drowned out the attenuated sound of the bells, rendering them inaudible? Would the peal be non-compliant?Installing shutters is a costly option not available to all towers and it is much cheaper to tie the clappers and generate the sound in the ringing room electronically. The ringers hear, see, do and feel the same as they would in normal ringing but there is no sound outside to disturb anyone. With no sound outside a peal rung at such a tower would definitely be non-compliant under current Decisions.Around 20% of peals are rung on handbells. They are invariably performed in private and aren’t audible outside the building, but they are deemed compliant because the Decisions only require external audibility for tower bells.Does this all make sense? Is it really important for peals to be audible outside and if so why doesn’t it apply to all peals?

Who are we performing for?

Requiring external audibility suggests a concern for the needs of the audience, but that raises the question: who are we ringing for when we ring a peal?

Ringing is a performing art but it differs from most other performing arts in several ways, notably the way that we relate (or rather don’t relate) to our audience. How often do we think about our audience when ringing? How often do we know who is listening – or whether anyone is listening at all? If you asked those questions of any other performers can you imagine that their answers would be the same as ringers would give?

In a concert the audience sits in front of the performers and (mostly) those present will have paid to be there. In informal settings like a bandstand or jazz club the audience comes and goes, but the performers can still see them and if everyone were to leave they would quite probably stop playing. Even musicians in a studio are aware of their audience, and they get feedback via audience ratings or record sales. If for any reason the recording or broadcast equipment stopped working then they would almost certainly stop playing until it was fixed.

But ringers are different. We can’t usually see our audience and the only time we might stop when they’ve gone away is after a wedding. In a performance like a peal or quarter we ring on regardless, whether anyone is listening or not. In fact many peals are rung at towers specifically chosen because few if any people are likely to hear or be disturbed by the ringing.

Of course some peals are rung specifically for public events and are publicised as such in the community around the tower (not because the Decisions say so but because it makes local sense) but the vast majority are not. They are rung primarily for the satisfaction of the performers. Whether or not anyone else hears them is largely incidental. That is a very different ethos from other performance arts.

So why impose the requirement?

There must have been a reason why the requirement for external audibility was added. Do we know what it was?

In 1950 when the Council consolidated various decisions that had been made from time to time the requirement for external audibility only applied to: ‘a peal rung to surpass a previous peal’, in other words a record length. In 1968, as part of a major revision, external audibility was added to the requirement for any tower bell peal to be recognised (roughly the equivalent to what is now termed being compliant).

The requirement for a record peal to be audible is easier to understand. Record performances in any activity are open to greater scrutiny, and external audibility coupled with the requirement to give prior notice, means that anyone interested can listen outside. However, that is only one way of achieving the underlying requirement, which for record length peals in hand is stated explicitly: ‘arrangements must be made so that the ringing can be heard by interested parties’.

It is less clear (and I can find no rationale in the reports and minutes) why the requirement was then imposed on all peals. A possible reason is that knowing the performance might be heard by someone outside would remove the temptation to ‘cheat’ by reporting a peal incorrectly or ringing one of too low a standard. That seems a little implausible though. If conductors can’t be trusted to report peals honestly then all peals should have an umpire and not rely on the off chance that someone competent to judge the accuracy and/or quality of the ringing might happen to be passing. In any case, the fact that reports of handbell peals rung in private are accepted implies that we do trust conductors to be honest.

Does it matter?

For the vast majority of tower bell peals this requirement makes no difference because the bells are audible outside anyway. The impact is felt in towers where the only practical way of meeting the requirements of good neighbourliness makes the ringing inaudible outside, either because traffic drowns what little sound leaks through shutters or because the internal sound is generated electronically.

In a noise conscious society the number of such towers will increase. Is it reasonable for peals rung in them to be treated as abnormal?

Would it be better to go back to the requirement for external audibility only to apply to record length peals? Or would it be simpler to go one step further and extend the requirement to make arrangements for interested parties to hear the ringing to all record peals – in the tower as well as in hand? There must be many towers where the ringing can be heard better (and in more comfort) from a suitable place inside rather than outside.

  John Harrison 2016 (Cartoon by Yvonne Hall)

See the current Decisions . Article first published in The Ringing World  in 2016  


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